A few weeks ago I prayed quietly to myself just minutes before stepping up to the altar to speak. This is not unusual. I always pray before I speak. Typically I pray that the Holy Spirit will speak through me and that God will use my words to minister to his people in exactly the way he desires. I also pray that I won’t make a big, fat fool of myself.
This time, though, I unexpectedly prayed a different prayer. Before I even knew what I was saying, I prayed this:
“God, please humble me.”
What in the world?
Who prays that death wish on a Sunday morning seconds before they step up to speak to a church full of strangers?
Sitting in that front pew, I knew one thing for sure: I absolutely did not want to be humbled. “Please, God, no, not that!” I beg-prayed, pressing my clammy hands into my skirt. “I didn’t mean it! I didn’t know what I was saying! Whatever you do, please don’t humble me!”
Twenty minutes later I discreetly breathed a sigh of relief as I stepped down from the pulpit and sank into the pew. The talk had gone just fine. For once I was glad God hadn’t answered my prayer.
A few minutes after the service, however, I was approached by an older gentleman in the foyer. Turns out, he had a few preaching tips for me.
For starters, he noted, I talked too fast (my grandmother used to say the same thing; she blamed the French side of the family). I also spoke too quietly. My voice reverberated in a disconcerting echo off the rafters. I needed to slow down and enunciate my words more clearly.
Furthermore, I needn’t give so much detail about the Bible story I was relating, he continued. We’ve all read the Bible, we know the story, so it’s best to get right to the point, he advised.
“Don’t worry,” he encouraged, concluding his critique on a positive note. The more I practiced, the more I would improve; I would “get there” eventually, he assured me.
God had heard my accidental prayer after all. I’d been humbled.
The timing was not great. I was slated to repeat the same talk twenty minutes later at the 11 a.m. service. Should I quickly revamp my presentation, I wondered, anxiety percolating in my stomach. Should I shorten the section about the Bible story? Should I try to slow down? Speak more loudly? Enunciate my words more clearly? Scrap the whole thing and wing it?
In the end, I did nothing. I didn’t change a thing — not because I didn’t think there wasn’t anything to improve, but simply because I didn’t even know where to begin.
Two weeks later, I’m still thinking about that talk and the critique offered in between the two services. Let me tell you, in the not-so-distant past I would have felt humiliated by the feedback I’d received immediately after my first talk. I would have obsessed over it, replaying the man’s words again and again in my head. I would have fretted incessantly about all the flaws he’d pointed out and then berated myself for my ineptitude.
This time, though, strangely, I’ve not done any of that. Instead, I’ve accepted the man’s feedback with humility.
This feels like progress.
The more I’ve thought about this incident and my reaction to it, the more I’ve realized that the difference between these two responses — humility versus humiliation — depends on how we understand and define our worth.
Our ability to embrace humility depends on knowing that our worth is based not on what we produce or how we perform, but on who we are as a beloved of Christ.
When we define our value on what we do or achieve (or fail to do or fail to achieve), we are more apt to feel humiliated when faced with criticism or failure. When we understand that our value is based wholly on who we are as daughters and sons created in the divine image of Christ, we have the freedom to choose humility.
Criticism is never easy to receive, even when it’s presented gently and with good intentions. But in those moments when we are on the receiving end of a challenging word, it helps to view criticism as an invitation to remember who we are at our core: beautiful, beloved, and valuable in the eyes of the one who created us.