There are few statements in the Christian ghetto which I despise as much as, “the moment you think you are humble, you are not.” How is this helpful? It is the same as saying, “the moment you think you are swimming is the moment you’ll drown and die a horrible death after which nobody will mourn your passing, tough luck.”
What I think this statement about humility signifies is just how little we have made use of the fact that we belong to each other. The benefit and the genius of living together is that it is never I that says whether I am humble or not but those to whom I belong; it is not even up to me to be wrong! It is to those who I am building relationship with that the job of seeing me as I am is given, not to myself, for my self-definition means nothing on its own.
I think this is illustrated nicely by a story I heard from Stanley Hauerwas about a street preacher who rolls into a Mennonite town and asks the first person he sees, “s’cuse me brother, are you saved?” In response, the Mennonite farmer scratches his head for awhile, obviously deep in thought, and then responds by writing 10 names on a piece of paper and then handing it to the street preacher. “Here,” he said, “this is a list of some people I know in town here, some who like me, some who don’t. Ask them; if they say I’m saved, I probably am.”
What this story shows is that our knowledge of ourselves as “Christian” is severely limited; to hope ourselves saved is to trust, not only in Christ, but in the community taught by Christ to tell the truth. We not only need those who would encourage us but also those who would challenge our conception of ourselves. Humility is not a private practice spent in the secret recesses of our prayer closets. It is a virtue we learn by imitating the kind of life Jesus led and living within the forming power of his community, the Church.
So when someone who knows you says, “you acted very humble just then.” Say to them, “Great!” Don’t worry, you’re not sinning, you are hoping.