Who decides what is humble?
Posted on: 27th April 2020
CMS missionary Peter Blowes (serving with Terry in Argentina) encourages university students and graduates to build God’s kingdom. In 2015, Peter and Terry returned to Argentina for a second term of service after ten years away. Here Peter reflects on many new questions they faced on reentry to a rapidly changing culture, and reminds himself and us that God’s word is the key to answering well.
I didn’t offer to write this article, I was asked! How else could I start an article on humility? It’s an elusive topic, and the lines between honesty and arrogance, and humility and pride, are all the more unclear when it comes to cross-cultural situations. Let’s go through a few of the difficulties when it comes to trying to act in humility.
The ambiguity of ‘humility’
Firstly, is a little showing off always proud, or can it simply be a cultural difference? Perhaps it’s similar to what former CMS Missionary Chris Mulherin once suggested to me—egoism is sin, egocentrism is original sin. Some would associate boasting with pride, others see it as promoting what you have to offer—still others dismiss it as ‘original sin’. So culture plays a big part in it!
Generational change is also a factor. Some would describe oldies in leadership as arrogant, authoritarian, and proud. Others would say that older people have been there, done that before, and now want to avoid the pitfalls of reinventing the wheel.
Younger generations have a similar ambiguity. Are they more intolerant of the assertiveness of others, or just more willing to assert their own view? Maybe, here in Argentina, they’re more secure in their limited life experience in a country that has seen so many pendulum swings.
To top it all off, even the definition of humility is elusive. Who determines what is humility in mission? Does ‘living in humility’ mean that I am humble in my own opinion, or is that judged according to the opinions of others?
Of course, the Bible’s perspective is what must ultimately count. It starts and ends with the heart. We need to aim for pure motivations. But we also have to consider whether those motivations would be misread in a cross-cultural context. Should we ‘play act’ from right motivations so as to be interpreted correctly, or do we ‘stick to our guns’ so as not to be hypocritical, even though that might be misunderstood as arrogance or worse?
Humility in context
After 10 years out of Argentina, much had changed when we arrived back in 2015. To start with, moving into the megacity of Buenos Aires was a great change from the provincial capitals we had previously lived in.
Buenos Aires had also changed in the 30 years since we lived here. It was now full of Brazilian medical students, Venezuelan ‘refugees’, Bolivians, Colombians, and Peruanos. We arrived back to a generation of Argentine students and young professionals who did not know military rule and the stamp of authority. A generation that had been fed and taught Marxist leaning populism at all levels of their education. A world of progressivism, tolerance and inclusion. Even the vocabulary had changed to adapt to the changed times. (Does that sound like where you live too?)
So how do you manage it second time round? How do you react when you’re misunderstood, misinterpreted and even maligned by some, while others want you to champion their cause? How do you relate to those who see you as treading on their turf in this brave new world? Who do you work for? To whom do you respond? Who do you serve? And how?
Back in the 1980s we never spoke English in public. It was rude, and it was risky. It was illegal to advertise in English, it was snobbish and alienating to speak English. Our life and ministry have always been almost all conducted in Spanish. However, we have discovered to our surprise that in Buenos Aires quite a few people speak some English, and some of them speak it quite well.
Humility in practice
So how do we manage today? You can hear occasional English, German, and a variety of other languages as you wander the footpaths of our neighbourhood. Is it humble, or is it proud, or is it culturally dislocated, or is it completely irrelevant for us to speak English on the footpaths of this anonymous megacity? Some of our dearest friends would consider it totally inappropriate. Others would think it totally reasonable. Still others would see it as a matter of indifference.
How about when we’re with people we know? What does it say about our attitudes when we speak English in company—even a few phrases, and even if everyone (or nearly everyone) present has some grasp of the language? Is it an exercise in cultural superiority? What does our choice of language say to those around us?
Given that so many people nowadays have a reasonable grasp of written English, I have taken the leap of opening a WhatsApp group to share the many links there are to resources in English with our friends who choose to join the group. How does that fit with promoting Latin American authors and resources? Are the English materials culturally appropriate? Am I serving humbly, or promoting cultural imperialism? Would I be patronising and being selfish to withhold access to these materials by not sharing them? Every decision requires an answer to all of the questions above. Life can be challenging.
How do we keep our hearts in check? The bottom line challenge is, as always, God in his word—and our trust in the sufficiency and authority of scripture. It is God who will teach us when to rest, when to adapt, and which battles to fight and which to let through to the keeper. From scripture we read that one day, all will be humble (Philippians 2:10). James 4:10 tells us to humble ourselves. The alternative is to be humiliated (James 4:6, Philippians 2:10). Ultimately, it is God we should be humbling ourselves before, and we trust that he will guide us in the paths that will bring all glory to him.
Thanks for praying for missionaries around the world as we seek God’s leading in this.
Peter has written a prayer for humility. Let us pray it with him:
Lord be merciful to me a sinner. Help me to consider my brother and sister as more significant than myself. Strengthen me to look not only to my own interests, but also to the interests of others. Help me to care for your people especially. Give me the grace in your just righteousness to love my neighbour as myself, and to do good to all as I have opportunity. Amen.