HUMILITY, THE FORGOTTEN DOCTRINE
In 1993, Mac Davis came out with the song, It’s Hard to Be Humble. The chorus said, “Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.” While it might be considered a novelty song, it became the theme for many.
I write about humility with a lot of fear because I know that it is not a natural trait for me. It is not a natural trait for anyone. In this matter we are descendants of the Romans, who were a proud and arrogant people. Humility would have been used to describe a slave or a beggar. A real Roman, no matter what social class, was proud and a climber. He or she would seek to climb the social ladder if possible. The slave would save up and buy his freedom. The free man or woman would join various associations or participate in the temples seeking to climb increased status. A government bureaucrat would sell out his friend to get a promotion. The high-level bureaucrat might build a section of road or pay for a statue of a god or of Caesar in order to be looked on favorably. And of course, the politicians would make deals and if necessary kill another to promote themselves. There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to human behavior.
So you can imagine how the Greco-Roman world reacted when they heard Jews and Christians talk about being humble before God and their fellow man. I doubt that the prophet Micah was received in Roman any better than he was in Jerusalem when he wrote, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8 ESV)
The virtue of humility comes to the fore with the coming of Jesus. Jesus is not the meek and pale Galilean as he is often portrayed. He is the one who called the Pharisees and Scribes blind guides and whitewashed tombs. He is this one who overturned the tables of the marketers inside the temple and whipped them with an improvised whip. Jesus stood up to the various powers of that day and yet we call him humble.
The idea of humility is often misunderstood. It does not mean becoming nothing, a helpless worm, a groveling person with no life or personality. It is not self-induced victimhood. This kind of thing is false humility, an act for man and for God. Unfortunately, this is how some people portray the Christian idea of humility.
The question of humility is an important one. If we look carefully, we will see that humility defines what it means to be a Christian, at least in terms of relationships and behavior. There are many verses about humility. Look at what Paul wrote to the Philippians:
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:3-8 ESV)
The definition of humility is found in these verses. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or deceit” indicates that humility is about how we view ourselves and how we view others. We are to look out for the interests of others, even before our own interest. I think this attitude is especially applicable to the church. I cannot understand why anyone would want power and control in a church. But most church problems come when an individual or a group of people, think they should run things, especially at the expense of others. When we have the interests of others before our own, how could there be power plays and deceit is any church?
Jesus is our example. The humility of Jesus included giving himself totally to the cause of our salvation. The second person of the Godhead, who is coequal with the Father and the Spirit, emptied himself of that right and became as a servant. He became a servant to us. His humility brought him to the cross, death, and the grave for our salvation. He became our substitute and paid the penalty of our sins.
We are called to imitate Christ. Certainly, this is analogical. We can never be humble to the degree found in Jesus. Jesus had no need to be humble, but we do. We cannot die for the sins of others, but he did. Nevertheless, we too are called to walk in humility.
It has been said that humility is having the right attitude about ourselves. In the presence of God, we come to realize what we are. We are sinners, who fall incredibly short of God’s holiness. Every corner of our souls is contaminated by our sin. When we find ourselves in the presence of God, we are undone. We are like Isaiah when I was in the temple saw God, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5 ESV)
Once we know what we are before God, we should have no problem knowing what we are before each other. We are fallen, sinners who cannot redeem ourselves. Yet we have been redeemed by Christ. Without humility, Christians can be cruel and evil in their relationship with others. We look down on others. We falsely judge. We easily categorize others as being beneath us.
Years ago, a pastor was caught and confronted about the sin of adultery. Let’s call him pastor Y. Pastor Z felt the need to defend him. When the woman in the affair was brought up, Pastor Z said that the woman was nothing, she was a nobody, a nothing. It was the lack of humility that allowed Pastor Z to judge and blame the woman while allowing the man to escape the same judgment. Arrogance and pride allow us to selectively mistreat others and feel justified in doing it.
Pride and arrogance allows us to mistreat others. It leads to treating others as less than human. Every offense against humanity can be ascribed to the absolute absence of humility in the oppressors. Through the centuries Christians without humility have become the oppressors. Religious persecution, slavery, exploitation of the poor, the destruction of others for a profit, the waging of war, and many other offenses arise because of the arrogance and pride of humanity. If there was ever a need for humility in our world, it is now!
There are times when we must resist evil just as Jesus did. He spoke truth to power. He resisted the abuse against the holiness of the temple. But his greatest battle against sin and evil was on the cross where he slew sin, death, and the grave.
I do not think that the Christian life can be lived if it does not start with humility. All of our failures start when we become arrogant and proud and cease to humble ourselves before God and our fellow man. The old proverb “Pride goes before destruction” ( Proverbs 16:18) is all too true. That proverb goes on to say, “It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.” (Prov. 16:19 ESV)
Honesty requires us to look at the massive failure of today’s church. If the numbers are correct, the church is declining rapidly. So unwisely we blame the decline on secularization of society. But why has society become so secular? Is it possible that our arrogance and pride, our lack of spiritual depth, the absence of humility, is to blame?
In typical fashion, when we lack humility, we think we can cater to the world and win the lost and “grow our churches.” We think the answer is method and program. We do this by looking like the proud and arrogant world, by imitating the attitudes and often the practices of those who have not come to terms with their status before God. God’s church desperately needs to recover the long-lost doctrine.
Part of our spiritual discipline is to practice humility before God and man. We cannot love God and humanity when there is an absent of humility. If we are seeking after righteousness, then we must seek after humility. Seeking and practicing humility is not relegated to some poor slob of a pastor or holy man or woman, it is the calling of every single Christian. The lack of humility will break you and cause you to stumble. It will shame and embarrass you. And if it persists even after the Lord’s discipline, then you need to seriously seek God’s grace.
Humility is a spiritual discipline that requires our willful effort. We are told to be like Christ. We are not passive but active in exercising the Christian life. Humility requires us to constantly remember who we are. Though made in the image of God, we are sinners, the very opposite of holiness. Yet the holy God has loved us and redeemed us. That very act reminds us of our smallness before God. Humility is our response, not humiliation, but humility, a proper knowledge of whom we are. We are sinners who have been loved and redeemed and declared to be the sons and daughters of God! There is no quality within ourselves that deserves God’s grace. So, we approach our Holy God with the knowledge of whom we are.
Humility is an intrusion of reality into our lives. We are who we are by the grace of God. We are no better that other people. The discipline of humility requires us to treat others as we have been treated by God. We all have the same fallen nature. Maybe they have been redeemed, or maybe not. But all people deserve to be treated with humility. However, we think a person of power should be treated, so should my neighbor. We treat the waitress with respect, even if she has a bad day. We honor those who have less than us, or who have nothing at all. The discipline of humility helps us to see the value in others and leads to the practice of other disciplines like love, compassion, and mercy.
Without humility, there cannot be a good outcome for our Christian life. We can be right with God only when we humble ourselves before him and act humbly toward our neighbor.