To Be Truly Humble, Use the Gifts God Gave You

Do you know what annoys a writer? A professional writer, I mean, someone like me who takes writing as his calling and his craft? When a reader says something like “It’s so easy for you” or “It must be great to have so much talent. The rest of us have to work at writing.” I will thank you, and look at you with what my wife says is an obviously insincere smile, which apparently undermines the effect of the thank you.

I’ve worked hard at my craft. I’ve sacrificed to get better at it, and have put up with neglect and abuse and the occasional weirdly fixated critic so that I could keep at it. And I’d like some credit for that, thank you very much.

But not too much credit. Because it is easier for me than for most people. I have gifts for playing with words the way a long-legged man with big lungs has gifts for running marathons. But that’s not me, that’s God.

Fr. Philip Dion explains this very well in a Catholic Exchange article from last year, taken from his book The Handbook of Spiritual Perfection. “Humility does not at all mean denying the gifts, and the abilities, and the talent, and attributes that Almighty God has given us,” he writes. “It does mean that we attribute them not to ourselves but to God. … If, as a result of our doing this, others praise us, let us refer the praise to God instead of proudly soaking it up ourselves.”

The Second Lesson

Give thanks to God for your gifts. But Fr. Dion offers a second, less obvious, lesson to be learned about your gifts. That is: Do not deny or diminish your gifts and therefore not use them as much as you should. Don’t let humility be your excuse for not trying.

Humility requires that we use our gifts to help “ourselves and others and thereby give glory to God. If we are humble, we use our gifts of nature and grace to do good; we use them to spread God’s kingdom and His glory.” Jesus tells us to let our light shine before men, so they will see the good works and give glory to God, which may not seem very humble. Jesus tells us, Fr. Dion explains, “Do not conceal the talents and abilities that you have. Use them, but use them for the glory of God.”

I think this is a very important point, and one Catholics often don’t see. Humility can be an excuse and one pretty much no one is going to argue with. Let me explain from my now long experience of working with writers. I’ve dealt with many who had genuine gifts, some of whom were very, very good, who would not exercise their gifts.

Some had other things they had to or wanted to do, which I could understand. But others seemed, from things they let slip as we went back and forth, not to want to take the trouble and risk that writing requires. It’s hard to suss out what some people think about their own gifts, but a good many seemed to have a good idea how good they were, or trusted my judgment of how good they were, and some would eventually confess that they knew they had gifts but they just didn’t want to use them.

They felt they should write, that they had something to say and the ability to say it well, but they didn’t want to. They didn’t want to do the work or take the risk. A few wanted to take the trouble but not take the risk, and wanted to write only for very small and safe readerships. A few others, who must have had very thick skins, were happy to take the risk as long as they didn’t have to do the work.

But they wouldn’t admit they didn’t want to do the work or take the risk, because that seems faithless, when God’s given you gifts. They’d use humility, or pseudo-humility, as an excuse. They’d claim they really weren’t very good, or good enough, or not as good as X or Y. (A few chose a superstar for their X or Y, which made me laugh. So you shouldn’t write if you’ll never have a chance for the Pulitzer Prize?)

Gifts to use

We’re given our gifts to use. Using gifts takes work, because you have to develop them, and it requires risk, because you offer them to a world that includes jerks. That’s the deal God gives you when he gives you gifts. Writing, say, will be a) easier for you than for others, but b) not that easy.

It’s all about being a good steward, part of which is paying the costs and taking the risks of exercising your gift. Just because we’re given something to work with doesn’t mean we’ll find it easy to do the work. I’ve had writers tell me they felt called to write, but didn’t expect it to be so hard, and now that they know maybe they just aren’t going to try — even though they still feel the call.

That’s not humility. It’s really the opposite. Not using your gift deprives those who should receive its benefits. More the point, those whom God intends you to serve. The world is several dozen articles poorer because the writer used an appeal to humility as a reason for not writing. Many of those articles would have deeply moved hearts and minds who needed to be moved. The truly humble person would have written the article God gave him to write.

David has written about vocation and calling in The Essence of the Vocation is the Frame on Ethika Politika.

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David Mills writes a weekly column for Aleteia. He latest book is Discovering Mary. He’s edited Touchstone and First Things.

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