In his Sermon on the Mount, our Lord Jesus taught us to pursue things that our society mocks. In the first place, He blesses the humble: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3). To be poor means to be destitute before God. Just as this word describes the poor widow whose worldly possessions were two coins, so being poor in spirit means that you are utterly destitute before God in your spirit. You have nothing to claim before God, but you stand before him with utter humility, completely dependent upon him for all things. Christ says that this is a defining feature of those who would share in the kingdom of heaven.
Today, humility is out of vogue. In a world where everyone is trying to collect as many friends and likes as possible, the norm is self-absorption and self-promotion. Even in the church, humility seems to have lost its place. Some churches pride themselves on their progressive stance; others on their doctrinal purity. The topics that generate books and conferences are mission, evangelism, church planting, pastoral burnout, or doctrines like creation or justification. When is the last time you attended a conference or read a book on humility? Or let me make it personal: How do you evaluate personal spiritual growth? You might include things like church attendance, prayer and Bible reading. But is that really the best measure of spiritual health? The Pharisees had these in abundance, but Jesus rejected them. What about humility?
What is humility?
The essence of humility is that you forget about yourself. Your focus is not on glorifying yourself for what you have done right or beating yourself up for what you have done wrong. Both are based on pride: pride of what you have accomplished or wounded pride in what you failed to accomplish. In humility you forget about yourself, and instead you love and serve God and the people around you in response to God’s grace towards you.
C. S. Lewis put it this way, “A really humble person is not some greasy, smarmy person who is always telling you that he is a nobody. Rather you will think that he is a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.”
What humility looks like
Most of the humble people are unknown in the world. Even as Christians, we tend to honour those who have visibly succeeded. The gospel, however, has produced a kingdom full of people who have been humbled by grace. The Bible shows us how that plays itself out in people’s lives. Abraham gave up his right to the first pick of the land to Lot (Gen 13:9). Jonathan renounced his inheritance to the throne (1 Sam 18:4). John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Peter repents of his Judaism when confronted by Paul (Gal 2) and Paul called himself the least of the saints (Eph 3:8). These people, mindful of God’s sovereignty and providence, accepted a low position in life.
Growth in humility
So how can you grow in humility? By nature we are proud people. We not only naturally protect and defend our own name and reputation, opinions, statements, decisions and work; pride can also lead us to say and do ugly things as we try to protect our sports teams, family, friends, country, church, or whatever else is dear to us. Growing in humility is not possible by our own strength. It is a gift of the Spirit of God given to those who look to Christ in faith.
When our Saviour came to earth, He humbled himself greatly. He came as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 who laid aside his glory and endured the humility of the cross (Phil 2:6-11). He demonstrated his humility repeatedly by glorifying his Father and making himself low. In John 5:19 he said, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what He sees the Father doing.” When we look to him in faith, He recreates us into his image and allows us to share in his humility.
So how does God bring us to humility?
God leads us to humility through:
- An awareness of God’s grace: When you understand God’s holiness and your own depravity, you are deeply humbled by God’s grace towards you.
- Suffering: As a pastor I have witnessed many rich, successful, capable people whom God humbled by bringing sickness, financial trouble, chronic pain, losing a loved one, having a child turn away from God, or having relatives beyond human help. They realized that they were destitute and cried out to God in humble dependence.
- Bringing to nothing those things we do in pride: When we proudly try to accomplish things in our own strength, God at times leaves us alone with the result that our efforts come to nothing. This leads to humility and dependence.
- Leading us to faithfully do our task in obscurity: Those who faithfully do their task for the LORD without seeking praise from others often grow in humility. A mother who faithfully gives of herself to serve her husband and raise her children often grows in humility.
- Surrounding us with lowly people: When we are with other humble people, it tends to wear off on us.
- A study of what the Bible says on humility: If you want help with this, you may wish to read Wayne Mack, Humility: the Forgotten Virtue or C. J. Mahaney, Humility: True Greatness.
Humility in action
- Are you willing to defer your own personal agenda?
- Are you willing to serve in menial tasks?
- Are you willing to admit your mistakes? Do you receive correction with contrition?
- Do you use your speech and social media to attract attention to yourself or to bless others?
- Are you open minded enough to realize your work may be flawed?
- Do you pursue humility when you purchase a new car, phone, house, bike or clothes?
- Does pride motivate you in your work? Do you try to excel to serve God or to show off?
- Does pride cause you to react badly in a sporting match?
- Do you invite the poor and needy in your life?
The blessing of humility
Let me ask you: When is the last time you prayed to God asking him to make you humble? Our Father delights to conform us to the image of his Son. It’s not an easy process: our pride will be hurt. But that’s the goal, isn’t it? To put the sinful nature to death. God can do that, for He is a wise and good Father.
Christopher Hutchinson tells us of the prayer of Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val who asked God for things I have never heard anyone today ask for. He asked Jesus to deliver him from the desire of being esteemed, loved, extoled, honoured, praised, preferred to others, consulted or approved. He also prayed that Jesus would deliver him from the fear of being humiliated, despised, rebuked, calumniated, forgotten, ridiculed, wronged, suspected. He prayed that God would grant him the grace to desire that others be more loved than him, more esteemed then him; that in the opinion of the world others may increase and he may decrease; that others be chosen and he set aside, others be praised and he be unnoticed, others be preferred and others be holier than him as long as he is as holy as God needs him to be. What a stunning prayer! Will you pray it?
Do you know what God promises for those who pursue humility? In Isaiah 66:2 God promises to be near those who are humble. You will also receive the greatest gift of all time: a share in the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
[Note: In writing this article, I’ve been blessed by Christopher Hutchinson’s wonderful book, Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way Up is Down.]
Rev Dirk Poppe – FRC Southern River