I remember hearing one of my college teachers say concerning humility, “Humility is one of those things that if you think you have it, you don’t.” I was uncomfortable with that statement. While there was a ring of truth to it, there was also something about it that didn’t seem right, but I couldn’t quit put my finger on it. That was years ago. Just today, however, as I was reflecting on the issue, I think I finally pinpointed why I was uncomfortable with that statement.

We are commanded to be humble, and to resist pride (humility is the absence of pride). The way we know we have obeyed Scripture is by introspection and reflection. For example, Scripture tells us to be patient. We assess our obedience to this command by reflecting on our disposition when confronted by events that put our patience to the test. If, upon reflection, we think we exhibited patience under those circumstances, we conclude that we have obeyed the command to be patient.

The same is true of humility. The only way we could know if we were obeying the command to be humble is if, upon introspection and/or reflection, we recognize the absence of pride in our life. If, however, the moment we think we have obeyed the command to be humble we instantiate or reveal pride, we could never be humble.

The only way out of this vicious cycle is to forego assessing ourselves in this area—to consign everyone to perpetual ignorance concerning their state of obedience. For the moment we assess ourselves, we risk losing the progress we have made. This is counter-intuitive. How can it be that the only way to obey Scripture is to not think one is obeying Scripture?

My teacher’s aphorism would mean that for a truly humble person to remain humble, they must think they are prideful. The moment they recognize the presence of humility in their life they lose their humility. In other words, on this view, one must think they are being disobedient in order to be obedient! The moment they think they have obeyed they have disobeyed. I find no sense in that. What other virtue is there that one must have, but cannot think they have it in order to have it? What other virtue are we commanded to have, but can never think we have obtained it? I know of none, and I highly doubt this is the one exception.

This is not to say there was no truth in what my teacher said. Indeed, I think one could become proud about their humility, but of course, in this case, they were never humble to begin with. They are deceiving themselves. This is vastly different from someone who desires to rid themselves of pride, and upon assessment, believes they have made great progress in this area.