Humility is a sneered-at word. Who wants to be humble? It is equated with weakness, being a victim, and impotency. Pride, on the other hand, is envied, vaunted, and promoted. Why? Possibly because we’ve often misunderstood what humility is. This isn’t surprising, of course, in a world where it is little practiced, except by introverts, weaklings, and victims. And if we don’t know what it is, how can we authentically cultivate and practice it in our lives? And if we don’t have it in our lives, how will we be able to please our God who commands humility?
Humility is a virtue that is required of disciples of Jesus:
1 Peter 5:5 “You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.”
Philippians 2:3-5 “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,”
So, what is humility? Well, let’s begin with what it’s not. We often think of it as simply thinking of ourselves as unworthy, weak, incapable, and lowly. But humility is not having a poor self-image. Paul tells us, “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.” (Romans 12:3). Authentic humility, in other words, is actually being realistic about our strengths and weaknesses. Worldly humility exaggerates the weaknesses and denies its strengths, thereby producing “helplessness” and throwing itself helplessly into the hands of “fate”, God’s will, and the actions of others. Pride, on the other hand, exaggerates the strengths and denies the weaknesses, thereby prompting boasting, foolhardiness, and deafness to teaching. Pride, likewise, foolishly tries to control everyone and everything, because it believes it can. Authentic humility, however, knows it’s real strengths and weaknesses, keeps its ears open to counsel and teaching from God and men, and is appropriately dependent on God.
But there’s another angle to authentic humility, unconditional action and service. This is the facet of humility that is often overlooked. We tend to see humility solely as an attitude about ourselves, but it is much more substantial than just an opinion of our strengths and weaknesses. The rest of Paul’s teachings about humility in Philippians 2 (vv. 6ff) points out Jesus’ deeds of humility:
- emptying Himself (though He is God) to become a human being,
- becoming obedient through every hardship to every command,
- being obedient even to the point of death,
- and submitting to the Father’s will, even when it meant an excruciating, unjust, and humiliating death on a Roman cross at the hands of sinful men.
Jesus humbly touched and healed lepers and other sick and unclean people, humbly fed thousands, humbly welcomed and taught children, humbly ate with and taught the scorned and sinful, humbly taught those who rejected Him and sought to discredit Him, and humbly washed His own disciples’ feet as they argued about who was the greatest. Humble deeds that knew no boundaries of pride or of something being “beneath His station” or being “beyond the pale”. Humble deeds that served others needs before it claimed its own prestige or place in life. Humble actions that refused to say, “That’s just asking too much.” Deeds done in public and in private—but never for the purpose of public acclaim.
Indeed, the Bible is full of men and women who humbly served God and men, who were no mere wall-flowers. They were movers and shakers, often arising from anonymity, who realized their real strengths and limitations and relied on the Lord to humbly accomplish great things through His great power. And though they did great things, they uniformly showed no concern for getting personal credit—they gave God the glory.
Worldly hearts submit to neither the attitude nor the actions of authentic humility. Their worldly pride causes them to either boast or shrink back into a fragile ego; and their deeds (if there are any) are for recognition and applause. Even their humility is practiced so that others will see their virtue and think well of them. Authentic humility is really concerned about others’ needs, and only about the “applause” of God.
Authentic humility is difficult both to grasp and practice, but it is at the core of Christian discipleship. Where do you need to start?