The Lies We Speak
Humility is a cornerstone of Chinese culture. It’s taught in schools, central to the writings of Confucius, and engrained in the family unit. As my grandfather - a Chinese military hero and politician – always said, “Be like the bamboo: the higher you grow, the deeper you bow.”
But false humility is also rampant in Asian culture. Any time I achieved anything of significance, my mother would find a way to shout it from the rooftops, while also downplaying my role in it. “Oh, my daughter the valedictorian? She’s not that smart, she just studies hard,” or “I have no idea how she won the piano competition. The judges must be deaf!”
Growing up, I couldn’t understand why my mother constantly belittled me before others. She was obviously proud of me, and for good reason: I was a straight-A student, an accomplished pianist, first in
my Chinese school, and class president all four years of high school. Even so, she found ways to project false humility at my expense. It wasn’t personal – all good Chinese parents did it – but it still hurt my heart.
Over time, I tuned out the positive, and internalized my mother’s negative words about who I was and what I couldn’t do. It grew harder for me to receive praise from others, and easier for me to cling to criticism. Words of affirmation (ironically, my love language) made me squirm. My default response, after years of conditioning, was to reject them outright. Nah, I’m not good at that - I just got lucky. Or I’m not talented, I just work hard. Or You look amazing! I wish I could look that great, but I just can’t.
I recently uttered those exact words to a friend who’d lost a lot of weight in a short amount of time. His response was, “Wow, Denise. It sounds like a real victim mentality is at work inside of you. If that’s what you really believe – that you can’t do it - then you’re right. You’ll never look the way you want to with a defeated mindset.” Our conversation had started with me complimenting his weight loss. In true Chinese form, I “lowered” myself to elevate him further, by saying that I “couldn’t” even lose one pound, much less the fifteen he’d lost. I thought that the comparison would make him feel like a million bucks.
But my friend was not the kind of person who needed external validation, and he didn’t take kindly to me talking down about myself either. Instead of taking the bait, he reminded me that with God, all things are possible, and that the power of life and death are in the tongue (Proverbs 18:21).
A few weeks later, this lesson was reiterated in an Oswald Chambers devotional. The first few lines of it read, “The way we continually talk about our own inabilities is an insult to our Creator. To complain over our own incompetence is to accuse God falsely of having overlooked us. Get into the habit of examining from God’s perspective those things that sound so humble to men. You will be amazed at how unbelievably inappropriate and disrespectful they are to Him.”
The one-two punch of my friend’s words, coupled with this devotional, helped me realize that the lies I’d spoken over myself were slaps to the face of God. I had belittled His creation – me! – whom He had already declared to be perfect, complete, and lacking in nothing.
This realization has made me much more aware of what I speak over myself, but old habits die hard. I have to consciously pull myself out of cultural defaults, by marinating in the truth of who God says I am. Doing so helps center my focus on Him, rather than me, which C.S. Lewis calls the essence of true humility. And every day, I’m learning just how right He is: that apart from Him I can do nothing, but with Him, I can do anything.
I am the vine, you are the branches. Apart from Me you can do nothing. – John 15:1, 5.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13
True humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. – C.S. Lewis