Knowledge is power, or so I thought. The Latin phrase “Scientia potentia est” communicates the idea that having and sharing knowledge is the essential capstone upon which strength, significance, influence and control are built. It’s also a somewhat arrogant and fancy way of saying “If I’m smart, I’m better.”
Searching for significance
In my high school in Australia, way back in 1991, I was awarded the title of dux. D U X, not the quacking kind. It’s Latin for “leader” and the title was given to the student who had the highest grades in the graduating class. Thirty years later, I still give myself an internal high five when I remember that achievement. For just a moment, I was the absolute best! I was the top pupil. I was leading the pack. And that made me significant.
I’ve never been athletic. My tennis coach gave up on me. My track and athletics record held no ribbons at all. Somehow, I always had an excuse to skip PE; it was the only subject I allowed myself to fail. I was never the pretty one; never in the cool kids’ club; never sought out by suitors; never asked to the senior dance. But I had my brains, and that made me significant.
I could write. My poetry was published in my school magazine, and then in the Sydney Morning Herald, one of Australia’s top-selling newspapers. My short stories won prizes, and my essays garnered the best grades. I could argue. My debating team won competitions. My speeches earned me more titles. Rostrum Voice of Youth. Lions Youth of the Year. Rotary Exchange Student. I entered Toastmasters public speaking classes to win competitions. I spoke at Rotary meetings, school assemblies and public events.
The stage became my world. Straight out of high school, I joined a theater company. We traveled in teams (or “units”), performing in schools, nursing homes, prisons, churches, clubs, and meetings, hosted by the people for whom we performed. I was a professional actor for four years, traveling the world to perform in front of thousands of audiences. My voice, my performance, my words made me significant.
“Nina, we love you, but you talk too much.” Scott and Janet were my Unit Leaders. I was a brand-new unit member, new to the experience of being a full-time guest in host homes as we travelled. Tears filled my eyes. “What do you mean”? I asked, eager to learn how to change. “We love you!” they insisted, “But you talk too much. You have a great story, but not everyone needs to hear it.” I looked at my hands in my lap, feeling shame as they continued. “More often than not, you steer the conversation back to yourself, or find a way to add your opinion.”
I knew it was the truth. I thought over the brief time I had been on the road with them, and then back over years and years of habit. Janet reached to touch my hand, encouraging me to meet her eyes. Her face spoke kindness, not condemnation. “You’re not a bad person Nina. You just need to find a way to focus on others.” I frowned, silently labeling my heart is Selfish and Proud. I didn’t like how that felt. “I don’t want to be so self-centered.” My voice trembled through the tears. “I don’t want to be a know-it-all.”
In that moment I saw that my words, my voice, my knowledge, my performance, were all bringing me shame instead of significance. I had allowed my own pride to keep me focused only on myself, and I was hurting others in the process.
From that point forward, I made it a game to discover more about my hosts then they could discover about me. I asked questions to encourage people to open up and tell me their stories, how they met their spouse, how they started in their career, why they lived in that area, what they believed or how they felt about pertinent issues.
It was hard work for me, to change my focus. It had always been so easy for me to be the first to answer the questions, the loudest voice. An interjecting thought would come to mind, and it took all my energy to keep from butting in, interrupting their story with some revelation of awesomeness that my listener could not survive without.
Learning to change:
I still struggle with this. I have certificates of achievements on my wall that remind me daily of my knowledge and skill, my persistence in my craft and my pursuit of education. I am still quick to add my qualifications after my name when in certain circles. And I still want to be the first to give the right answer in any class I take. In recent years I find myself motivated and encouraged when I notice the number of likes or comments on my social media posts. I’m still seeking significance in the eyes of others, hoping that my words, my opinion, my voice matters to someone.
Two calligraphy posters hang in my bathroom to remind me daily to refocus my efforts. One is from The Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae. Paul new only too well the trap of trusting in his own achievements. He had every reason to have all the self-confidence. He was the most devout of Jews, a zealous student, and a righteous leader in the temple.
But Paul said that all of that knowledge meant nothing unless he knew Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior. He warned the people of Colossae against seeking accolades from others. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as though you were working for the Lord and not for men. For Christ is the one you’re really serving.” (Col 3:23-24).
Paul also warned the Philippians against pride. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition and vain conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourself. Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself.” (Phil 2:3)
So how do we find significance, value, merit, and worth? The dictionary says that significance is being worthy of attention, important, noteworthy; having meaning; having influence, impact, or effect. Merit is defined as being good, worthy, deserving praise or reward, or esteem.
Being confident in my gifts, skills and talents is not a bad thing. But if I am assigning my significance, worth or merit based on those qualities, then I’ve gone wrong.
God doesn’t want us to be defined by our achievements, talents, skills, or even the lack there of. He calls us to seek Him first, allowing His opinion of us to motivate us. He speaks love and acceptance to us, urging us to hear His voice louder than the accolades of man; to value His opinion as the highest authority in our lives. He empowers us with gifts, talents, opportunities, and skills not so that we can get a certificate on the wall, win a competition, or receive the applause. He gives us those things so that we can impact the world for good in His name.
Once we have that in perspective, then we are free to focus on others first, before ourselves. We can love and serve with humility and grace, not because of who we are or how “good” we are, but because God loves us and chooses to work through us to reach the world.
Five steps toward humility:
So how do I keep myself from measuring my worth based on my accomplishments? How do I keep myself from the “selfish ambition and vain conceit” that Paul wrote about? Here are some Steps to Humility:
- Acknowledge my true source of significance. When I remind myself of my Creator’s love for me, I can rest from my striving. He is pleased with His creation, and He accepts me just the way I am.
- Surrender. Recognize that I am worth no more or no less than anyone else. Beverly Lowry wrote the lyrics, “The ground is level at the foot of the Cross”. Paul wrote to the Romans “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23 ESV) The Apostle Peter said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism.” (Acts 10:34 NIV) Believing in and upholding the essential worth of every human being is key to maintaining a humble spirit.
- Seek out and listen to others. When I recognize that I do not have all the right answers, and that I can (and should) learn from others, I am better able to humbly accept instruction and even constructive criticism.
- Serve. Somehow, when I turn my focus onto meeting the needs of those around me, my selfish pride is taken off the pedestal of my heart and replaced with humility. It is a simple exchange, and it works. Every single time.
- Pray. As I confess my selfishness and ask for help, God answers my prayers and opens my heart and mind to His leading. Pray with me: O Lord, help me quit trying to impress others. Help me to walk humbly in service of the people around me. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, my Lord and my Redeemer. Amen.
For more ideas:
For more ideas, check out these blogs and resources that I have found helpful: