Humility Is NOT a Virtue

Confronting painful self-discovery

Judith Fockner
Humility Is NOT a Virtue
Businessman in blue suit adjusting his tie

Vivian Pasquet, a native of Germany, showed an outstanding talent for language during her school years and won several writing competitions. However, each time she was supposed to receive the award and read a sample of her work in front of an audience, the girl faced a massive problem. Vivian stuttered. Beginning as a 5-year-old, Vivian belonged to the group of people who sometimes get stuck at the beginning of a word and need a few seconds until they can pronounce it.

Stuttering exists in all languages and cultures and is still associated by many who experience it with shame. For a long time people who stutter were either thought to be mentally impaired or to have suffered a trauma that triggered their speech problem. Vivian had to endure therapies as a child, with people digging deep into her psyche, looking for a possible cause.

Scholars have now recognized that stuttering is a neurological disorder of speech planning and develops because of a genetic predisposition. It’s thus not possible to prevent a child from stuttering by providing a supportive social environment. In everyday life we encounter people with this condition without knowing it. Even with celebrities, like the singer Madonna or U.S. president Joe Biden, one hardly notices their limitation. That’s because they have become highly adept at avoiding potential stumbling blocks. Usually, it’s the same letters that cause the stuttering, and people who stutter manage to spontaneously exchange words with difficult sounds. In Vivian’s case, she got always stuck on the letters “g” and “y” at the beginning of a word. In order to avoid these letters, she would say “bring” instead of “give” and “OK” instead of “yes.” In spite of developing many helpful strategies designed to avoid these potential stumbling blocks, Vivian knew that she could get into an embarrassing situation at any time.

Vivian’s Solution
At 16, Vivian attended a training program at a famous institute in Amsterdam that promised high chances of success. The method was based on the realization that even severe stutterers do not get stuck when singing because a different breathing technique is used. As a teenager Vivian learned to use this new rhythm over several weeks by striiiinging-theee-woooords together as if she were singing. She got her stuttering under control.

Vivian became a journalist and eventually landed a prestigious position at GEO Magazin (a German equivalent to National Geographic). In the course of her work she had the idea of documenting how she overcame her speech defect. So she called the director of the institute and told her: “I attended your course 17 years ago. Now I’d like to write a comprehensive article about former participants.”

An Unpleasant Truth
After a 30-minute conversation, the woman said kindly: “But, Mrs. Pasquet, you do realize you still have trouble speaking, don’t you?”

“Well, I speak a little inaccurately,” Vivian replied.

“No, no; I mean your frequently broken words, your irregular pauses. You don’t talk fluently. You’re still cheating.”

This observation struck the journalist to the core. She had completely repressed her defect. She was in her early 30s and had established herself in her profession. A disorder was no longer part of her self-image. She had developed enough strategies that she seriously thought the problem was long overcome. The woman on the phone offered that she take classes again. But could she still see herself as a patient? Start with the basics? Now that she was able to cover it up so well?

My Problem
I can empathize with Vivian’s situation very well. She didn’t want to accept the analysis of a specialist, but preferred to continue to bumble through life with her well-practiced tricks. I feel the same way—in a much more serious area of life.

Many years ago I came to where I had to acknowledge that I was a sinner. I was terribly predisposed to selfishness, and many weaknesses resulted from that. Especially in my attempts to love other people, I was regularly “stuttering” and stumbling.

My Solution
In my helplessness I surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. This was the best decision ever, for He not only gave me hope for a glorious eternity but changed my heart to be softer and more open. His Spirit began His work in me and started to renew my thinking and feeling. I gained more understanding of other people; I began to listen more carefully to them; I was slowly learning to love.

My life has been on a good trajectory since then. I have started a family, found a church that appreciates my gifts; I even work in a ministry focusing on spiritual dimensions. Socially, I pass as a good neighbor, a good friend, a good Christian. It seems I have overcome my fundamental problem.

It only seems so, however.

My Unpleasant Truth
From time to time I can hear the same irritating remark that Vivian heard from her former instructor.

“But you do realize that you still have problems with altruism, don’t you?”

“Well, I behave a little inaccurately.”

“No, no, I mean your inner thoughts and attitudes. How you ignore or judge people. Your language of selflessness is anything but fluent.”

Sometimes this recognition hits me to the core. Because I’ve learned to cover up certain character shortcomings, I begin to live with the impression that I’ve overcome my problematic nature. But looking honestly into my soul, I find a defect there that is genetic.

Paul’s Open Confession
The apostle Paul experienced a remarkable transformation in his life from hater to helper. He underwent an enormous healing process through his connection to Jesus. Nevertheless, he always remained aware of how unworthy and incapable he actually was without the Holy Spirit. He said: “For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts. . . . But we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure” (2 Cor. 4:6, 7, NLT).1 I believe this attitude describes the core of the Christian faith: I have a fundamental disorder and depend on help from above every minute.

In the 1970s John Piper, a Baptist theologian and pastor, spoke to a group of students about the gospel. At the conclusion of his presentation one of his listeners asked an often-heard question: “Isn’t Christianity a crutch for people who can’t make it on their own?” Piper said: “Yes.” Period. That’s all he answered.

Isn’t his honesty amazing? Piper felt no need to defend himself against this view. He saw his own moral shortcoming in life as a fact. This was not some virtuous game for him. The Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel came to the same conclusion: “Humility is not a virtue. Humility is truth. Everything else is illusion.”2

My Confession
I try to learn from Paul and Piper. Every morning (knowingly or not) I face this question: Do I want to accept the truth about myself? Do I still see myself as a patient? Am I willing to start with the basics—even though I can usually cover up my disorder quite well?

Yes, I am willing. Because starting with the basics means letting my fragile vessel be filled with God’s light, God’s love. There is nothing like it!

Today, before you go about your work, meet people, make decisions: Accept the truth that you have a fundamental disorder and cannot make it on your own. It will not only free you from illusion; it will also fill your soul with power—and then give all the glory to God.

“We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:7, NLT).

  1. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
  2. Abraham Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966), p. 256.

Judith Fockner works as writer and host for the show Shabbat Shalom at German Hope TV. She is married and has two sons.

Judith Fockner