In Detroit in the 1930s, three young men boarded a bus and attempted to pick a fight with a passenger sitting alone in the back. They threw one insult after another, but the man said nothing in response. Eventually the bus came to the man’s stop. He stood, pulled a business card from his pocket, and handed it to one of the men before stepping off the bus and going on his way. It read: Joe Louis. Boxer.

The three young men had tried to pick a fight with the future heavyweight boxing champion of the world, a title Joe Louis held from 1937 to 1949. He could easily have given those men the fight they wanted, and no one would have blamed him. Yet he restrained himself, and the three lucky men were given a firsthand look at humility—power under control.

That day on the bus, Joe Louis demonstrated a virtue that’s commonly misunderstood and rarely pursued. In fact, humility is so misunderstood that it’s often confused with traits that are negative or with weaknesses that are crippling. So let’s take a moment to clear up the two most common mistakes about this remarkable virtue.

First, don’t confuse humility with a lack of confidence or self-worth; those are not humility but low self-esteem.

According to Pat Williams, senior vice president of the pro basketball team the Orlando Magic, “a humiliated person feels weak and enslaved; a humble person feels strong to serve others. A humiliated person feels helpless and hopeless; a humble person feels helpful and hopeful. A humiliated person feels powerless and dishonored; a humble person feels empowered and dignified. Humiliation tears down; humility builds up. Humiliation is a tragedy; humility is a choice.”

A second common mistake is to equate humility with excessive self-deprecation. You know this person—the one who always manages to remind you how humble he is, who painstakingly points out how he sacrifices for others, who purposefully puts himself down to manipulate you into complimenting him. That’s not humility; that’s a martyr complex.

No one is born humble. Becoming humble takes effort, effort that is rewarded beyond measure. That’s why the Bible tells us to seek humility:

  • “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:10).
  • “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6).

And if we are told to seek it, then we can find it and learn it. Take comfort in this because humility is truly a challenging virtue.

David Jeremiah, A Life beyond Amazing: 9 Decisions That Will Transform Your Life Today (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017).

I have just completed a series of lessons based on David Jeremiah’s book, A Life Beyond Amazing. They are available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription service. For a medium-sized church, lesson subscriptions are only $10 per teacher per year.