Why False Modesty Has a Deadly Allure

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This story is inspired by someone I know well, but all character names are fictitious.

Peter landed a coveted position as a summer session teacher at a high-end boarding school. Part of his duties involved supervision of extracurricular activities like rock climbing.

Peter had a conversation with the extracurricular head coach, Gene, ahead of time. Gene outlined Peter’s duties and asked for a little more background information.

During that discussion, Gene downplayed his own abilities, saying “I’m out of shape, I haven’t climbed in a while, and I’d better get in some practice before camp.” These modest statements initially put Peter at ease.

Peter and the other teachers showed up a couple days before the students for training. Gene took the extracurricular group out for a climb (on actual rocks in those days) so everyone could practice with each other. Like his well-picked fellow teachers, Peter proved himself a competent climber. The group was coalescing and building camaraderie.

Then Gene took a turn. In less than a third of the time of any of the teachers, Gene had completed the climb. Moreover, he had made it look easy. When he descended, he again made self-deprecating statements with his eyes on the ground. “That didn’t go as well as I thought, I better practice some more,” and the like, Gene said.

Peter was conflicted. While Gene’s skill impressed him, he questioned the man’s ability to lead. He seemed to have no genuine idea of his talent, a critical lack of self-knowledge. And if he did know himself, he was fishing for compliments—not the sign of an emotionally stable leader.

As the program got going, Peter had many chances to observe Gene interacting with both students and teachers. His personality remained the same: always modest, never satisfied with himself, soft-spoken, yet highly competent. This combination drew him many admirers, yet Peter’s doubts remained for a simple reason. Wasn’t Gene dissembling? Was he really blind to himself? Or was his modesty just an act?

Peter wouldn’t find out until several months later, long after the program was over. The director of the program called Peter to discuss his evaluations, which Peter thought was a good sign. He was hoping to continue in the program for many summers to come.

Mrs. Director began by praising Peter for his teaching. Peter was clearly an expert in his field, she said, and his students had learned more than they’d hoped to. All was well on that count.

However, Mrs. Director said Peter had encountered some problems in his extracurriculars. She then read him Gene’s evaluation of him, which sounded nothing like the humble, gentle man Peter had gotten to know. Gene’s report accused Peter of multiple failures of duty and painted him as lazy, distracted, and rebellious.

Peter was flabbergasted. He and Gene had spoken only once about a minor misunderstanding they’d had, and it had been the briefest of conversations. Though Peter admitted he wasn’t the best extracurricular coach, he could not in any way match what he’d done that summer with how Gene portrayed him.

The Director had phoned, of course, to fire him.

At the time, Peter felt humiliated and betrayed. As far as Peter could tell, Gene had taken their one moment of disagreement and had blown it way out of proportion. As Melville once wrote, the mind that expects praise is apt to “[retaliate]…in monstrous disproportion to the supposed offense.”

Indeed, Peter realized that Gene had not been acting maliciously or with ill will. Gene’s lack of self-knowledge, or his intentional compliment-fishing, had simply distorted his view of others. Gene’s inability to see his own gifts caused him to magnify the faults of others and robbed him of genuine communion and real joy.

This story does have a happy ending. Peter landed an even better job the following summer, and he continued in that position for a decade until life called him elsewhere.

False modesty has no place in a Christian’s life. Insincere humility may allure some, but it only compounds one’s sense of unholy self-righteousness. Sooner or later, it will manifest as the deadly sin of wrath.

True humility, on the other hand, shows a keen interest in others, as Lewis notes in Mere Christianity. Key to genuine modesty, too, is self-knowledge, from which flows healthy confidence. That kind of holy certainty in a leader is exponentially more inspiring than any feigned diffidence and is infinitely better for one’s soul.

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