The leader of a Texas sect once wrote a letter to me in which he said that he wished he could open a vein for me in order to save my soul. That sounded quite nice, though I already follow Jesus—a point I had (fruitlessly) made in several private Facebook messages back and forth with this man.
He then went on to call me a wicked wolf, a dog, a false prophet, a seared-conscience liar, and a “territorial bear robbed of her whelp while the flames of hell animate your heart.” I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds unflattering.
He wrote all of this because I had published a post questioning his group’s beliefs and practices after the leaders let a baby die instead of seeking medical intervention. They then tried to raise the child from the dead for fifteen hours before calling 9-1-1.
Let me say that again, in case you missed it: the leaders of this group let a baby die.
They let her die.
Details, details, said the leader, in effect. Oops, we made a mistake. Could have happened to anyone. Who are you to judge? And by the way, you’re a sinner, so we don’t have to listen to you anyway.
He then went on to speak about his group’s exceeding devotion to God and how much they had sacrificed for the kingdom. Indeed, he said, they were at risk of being martyred because of their great piety to reach out to dangerous people. And the whole 14-page letter was chock full of Bible verses and written in 17th century thee-and-thou English. I believe this is because the group perceives that they live in a corrupt age and so they have decided to revert to ancient English in order to remain pure. Because everyone was much holier in the 1600s.
I sat on the letter for a year, more amused than offended. But after mulling it over, I think there’s gold hidden in all that flint. And I no longer feel amused, because I think God feels angry when proud people hide behind religious words in order to appear humble. A lot of cult leaders and spiritually abusive people delight in false humility.
In Colossians 2, the Apostle Paul describes false teachers who delight in self-imposed worship, false humility, and the harsh treatment of the body. Their regulations appear wise, he says, but in fact they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. False humility is the worldly counterfeit of genuine modesty and grace. Such empty philosophy is just rules taught by men, no matter how many thee’s and thou’s you throw in.
So how can we tell the difference between false humility and true humility? Let me offer some suggestions.
Fifteen Signs of False Humility:
- Uses Religious Terms to Justify Cruel or Questionable Behavior. But a humble person refuses to use spiritual-sounding words as a smokescreen for sin.
- Preoccupied with Self. But a humble person is as actively interested in others as in himself.
- Listens to Others Only in Order to Speak into their Life. But a humble person listens to others with loving interest and with an expectation to learn and grow.
- Admits Small Sins but Ignores Major Sins (Image Control). But a humble person admits sin and also receives an honest rebuke no matter how lowly the source.
- Inability to Laugh at One’s Self When Others Do the Joking. But a humble person sees the humor in his own paradox of sin and sanctification. He can laugh at his own expense, because he knows that his worth is based not on impressing people but rather in the reality of being loved by God.
- Publicizes Her Own Sacrifices to Impress Others. But a humble person avoids broadcasting her sacrificial labor.
- Uses Himself as the Standard for Other’s Performance. But a humble person looks at the life of Jesus as the example, and points people to him.
- Affects a Humble Tone of Voice While Saying Proud Things. But a humble person doesn’t need to affect his tone of voice to sound mealy-mouthed in order to convince others that he is humble.
- Believes that Eschewing Money or Fame is the Same Thing as Being Humble. But a humble person understands that pride comes from the heart, not from possessions.
- Professes Love for God and Neighbor but Acts in a Cruel Manner. But a humble person is consistent between what she says and what she does.
- Delights in Debate rather than in Dialogue. But a humble person sees conversation as a two-way street with much to learn, not as a battle to win or lose.
- Is Easily Offended. But a humble person is quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
- Believes that Asceticism Leads to Holiness. But a humble person recognizes that sin comes from the heart, not from pleasure.
- Loves to Impose His Opinion on Others as Truth. But a humble person acts charitably to all, thinks the best of others, and avoids presenting his opinion on a disputable matter as ultimate Truth.
- Enjoys Judging Other People. But a humble person hands judgment over to God and instead busies herself with loving her neighbor and serving God.
And here’s a bonus sixteenth sign: people who exhibit false humility spend a lot of time telling you how humble they are.
Spiritually abusive people understand that God values humility. They also realize that few people follow an obviously proud person. So they cloak their cruel behavior with religious-sounding language and get offended when other people question their motives.
As Jesus said, leave them. They are false teachers.
Maketh them feel like territorial bears, robbed of their whelps.