While in Japan, I got the biggest kick out of the times I complimented a Japanese on their English speaking abilities. They just loved hearing that they spoke English well. I was really surprised at their joy in the compliment.
At one point, my sister, niece, and baby Jack were in a bus depot waiting for our tourist bus to take us on a tour of Tokyo (this was before the earthquake). I was following 16-month-old Jack around the station and with his red hair he always received admiring glances and the Japanese, who love babies and children, loved coming up to him and talking to him.
One woman spoke to him in English and we struck up a little conversation. I said to her, “You speak very good English” and she did indeed!
You’d thought I just handed her a thousand yen bill. She began bowing and grinning from cheek to cheek. She thanked me profusely as she bowed and explained that she had lived in Northern California for two years while her husband worked there. She was very dismissive of her abilities saying, “Oh, but I don’t speak well; I have so much to learn.”
But I assured her she spoke very well and was very understandable. Again, she dismissed it and kept bowing and grinning. I think my offer turned into a million yen bill, from her reaction. I loved it. I had made her day. Her joy made me smile.
I found this same kind of dismissive humility wherever we went. I suppose I could delve into the cultural reasons for these reactions (if I knew enough), but it spoke to me regardless of the humility we are supposed to have. Romans 12:3: “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith” (NASB).
I’ve always appreciated that verse as having keys to true godly humility:
1. Everything we are good at, or have accomplished, or have exhibited in godly behavior, comes from God’s grace. It’s all about Him. It’s His gift and not of ourselves. When we are weak, He is strong. So many biblical principles point to us having nothing of value; it’s all due to His gracious empowerment within us.
2. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging those very works of God. Just don’t think there’s more than there really is. The Apostle Paul doesn’t say, “Don’t ever think highly of yourself.” He says, “Don’t think more highly than you should.”
3. Have sound judgment when thinking about yourself. The Message says it this way: ” The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.”
I don’t know the motives of the Japanese woman in her humility, but I can evaluate my own heart and whether I’m thinking rightly and soundly and truthfully about myself , especially when someone gives me a compliment. For a long time, I thought humility meant demeaning and refusing someone’s compliment. Invariably, the person felt like they had to say something more complimentary to convince me to accept their compliment. Inadvertently I was encouraging them to praise me even more and make it all about me!
Although it felt awkward and still does, I’ve learned to say, “thank you” instead. That way they don’t have to go on and on trying to get me to accept their compliment. I could accept what they sincerely said and thank God for whatever or however He had moved in my life that He would shine. And as appropriate, give Him the credit.
You and I can have a godly and healthy opinion about ourselves. It’s only through God’s view of us as we are “in Christ.” What a relief to make it all about Him! That way we don’t have to live up to our inflated reputations. He gets the praise and we stand by grinning, just like that precious little Japanese woman.