New York Times columnist David Brooks recently released a new book titled The Road to Character (Random House). In an interview for Christianity Today with Jeff Haanen of the Denver Institute for Faith & Work, Brooks talked about what he describes as today’s “Big Me” culture.
He cites a Gallup survey from 1950, in which high school seniors were asked, “Are you a very important person?” In 1950, 12 percent of those surveyed said yes. Gallup asked the same question of high school seniors a few years ago, and 80 percent of the respondents said yes.
Psychologists sometimes have people fill out a questionnaire known as “The Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” and social scientists use similar instruments to ascertain the rise of narcissism culturally. Brooks points out that the median score on such tests has risen 30 percent in just twenty years.
Along with this rise in narcissism is a concomitant fall in the awareness of personal sin and weakness. As the language of sin has fallen into disuse in educated society, the very concept of sin has fallen out of favor. The combination of narcissism on the one hand and a total lack of the self-awareness of sin on the other, has created a “Big Me” culture in which self-promotion is not just tolerated, but expected – and, in some cases, required for success.
Our church is getting ready to call a pastor for a newly created staff position: The Pastor of Family Ministries. I’m part of a team that is receiving applications and reviewing resumes. We’re looking for candidates who understand and live in the way of Jesus, and have the ability to help parents enter and lead their children in it.
To date we have received about 30 resumes. Many of the applicants are simply looking for a church ministry position and are sending out applications in a shotgun blast pattern, hoping they’ll hit something worthwhile. They seem to think of church ministry as a career to pursue rather than a calling to heed. That is disconcerting enough.
But worse is the appalling self-promotion of many of the resumes. I realize that these people are merely following advice they found online for composing a resume, but it is disheartening to read. We are looking for humility, which is for us the indispensable virtue, but what we get are brag sheets and shameless self-aggrandizement.
There is a reason humility is so important: It opens the door and allows a person to work together with others, including God. Pride closes the door, leaving the person nothing to give beyond his individual abilities and experience. The humble person can actually accomplish more than the proud one because he or she does not work alone.
St. James, in a reference to the Old Testament book of Proverbs, writes: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” How crazy would it be for a church that’s trying to do God’s work to call a person to whom God is opposed?
It is important, however, to understand what humility is and what it is not. Humility is not the same thing as low self-esteem. Humility does not belittle or disparage one’s own gifts, any more than it would someone else’s gifts. It does not draw attention to itself, whether to boast about one’s accomplishments or to despair over one’s sinfulness or incompetence. C. S. Lewis was right: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
The best way to escape the “Big Me” culture that Brooks laments is to become a “Big God” person. Without a big God, a person has no choice but to become (or try to appear) a big person. Without a God who will justify you, you’ll have to justify yourself. It’s the person with a big God who can risk being small. It’s the person who has been captivated by the greatness of God and by the value of his fellows, who is set free to be himself; that is, who can be humble.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, May 16, 2015