Faith, Hope and Love are the three great virtues of Christianity. But Humility seems to be a chief attribute of the believer. You just can’t follow Jesus without it. Humility is defined as “submissiveness before God” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church), “an attitude of lowliness and obedience, grounded in the recognition of one’s status before God as his creature” (Dictionary of Bible Themes), and even “being free from arrogance and pride, and having an accurate estimate of one’s worth” (Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary). But I’ve found that it’s easier to define Humility than it is to actually be humble.
The opposite of Humility is Pride. Pride is the great sin, the mother of them all. It brings competition and division and war. It destroys our fellowship with God and with others. It robs us of peace, and removes thankfulness and gratitude, because it causes us to feel entitled, never satisfied, deserving of better. Pride hinders our forgiveness of others (it would rather hold a grudge), and makes God-glorifying relationships virtually impossible. Someone has said that “Pride is God-repellant.” Nothing chases away fellowship with God like pride. It is a sin that lifts us up in opposition to our Creator.
It is at the moment of our conversion that God breaks our pride with a debilitating blow, and leaves a mark of humility on us that lasts forever. The very act of conversion is an experience of being humbled by God, who cuts us down before he builds us back up. We must recognize we are sick before we will call the doctor. We must feel the great depth of our sin-disease before we will fully appreciate the cure of God’s amazing grace in Christ. At conversion, God touches our pride, and we are never the same. He humbles us, bringing us to our knees. We bow low. Sometimes God uses difficult situations when we are especially stubborn, but he always knows just what to do to bring us to humbleness before him. The good news of the gospel begins with the bad news of our need. Through the gospel God shows us our sin and calls us to repentance. As we begin to see how wicked we are, God’s grace shines brighter and brighter, and the end result is a humbled, thankful and joyful heart that trusts him and loves him.
A picture of what I’m describing can be seen in the Old Testament story of the Patriarch, Jacob. Jacob was a trickster; a manipulator and deceiver. He was selfish. His cunning obtained for him the birthright that belonged to his older brother, Esau. He teamed up with his conniving mother to deceive and manipulate Jacob’s father, Isaac. The blessing came to Jacob, and Esau was furious! Jacob had to run for his life, and God used another trickster to begin to bring some humility into Jacob’s life. His father-in-law, Laban, deceived Jacob, giving him the wrong daughter for his wife! He went on to change his wages and make life miserable for him, until Jacob decided it was better to go home and face the murderous threats of Esau.
While waiting to meet Esau, Jacob had a life-changing encounter with God, who appeared to him as a man and wrestled with him all night! The man touched Jacob’s hip, and he limped for the rest of his life. But God changed Jacob’s name to Israel (Genesis 32:22-32). This was a changing point. Face to face with God. Jacob was a new man. He was still flawed, but there was now some maturity, some humility, about him.
This is a vivid picture of the way the Lord touches our pride at conversion. We limp the rest of our lives, having been brought to the end of ourselves. We see our sin, our need – our place before God. We see his gracious provision in Christ. There is a humility given to us that will become a great fountain in our lives, overflowing in many directions, and touching everything we do. The Christian life is impossible without it.
God’s word is absolutely full of calls to humility. Jesus taught that we cannot enter his kingdom unless we are humbled and become like a child (Mat 18:4)! We learn that everyone who exalts themselves will be cut down by God, and everyone who bows low in humility will be lifted high by God (Luke 14:11; James 4:6, 10; 1 Pet 5:5-6). We see wicked, idol-worshiping kings receive blessing from God when they humble themselves (1 Kings 21:29; Daniel 4:28-37). Even the evil Assyrian kingdom in Nineveh escapes God’s decreed disaster when they humble themselves and repent, much to Jonah’s dismay (Jon 3:6-10)! The mighty Creator God says he takes notice of the man who has a humble, repentant heart, who trembles at his word (Isa 66:2). And God sums up all that he requires of us as walking humbly with our God (Mic 6:8).
The life of the disciple of Jesus is only possible through humility. Pride is the opposite of following Jesus, who calls us to self-emptying, self-denying pursuit of God’s will (Luke 9:23). The life-long process of sanctification is the application of humility to all of life and all our relationships. As we walk in humility we are following Christ. Paul instructs believers to clothe ourselves with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, bearing with one another” (Col 3:12-13). As we embrace self-denying humility we will discover that the secret of Christian relationships is treating others the way God has treated us. Again, this is possible only in humility. Because we have been brought low before God, we understand that he has been gracious to us, much better to us than we deserve. Therefore, we can be gracious to others. Pride hinders this continually, and much of the Christian life is fighting this pride, consigning it to the cross where it belongs, and embracing humility once again. Because God has been patient with me I can be patient with others (Col 3:12b). Because we have been loved by God, we can live in love towards others (Eph 5:2). Because God has forgiven us in Christ, we can forgive others (Eph 4:32).
Paul describes this entire mindset of humility that sums up the Christian life: “In humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil 2:3b). He tells us to have this “mind” (“mindset,” or “attitude”), which is ours in Christ (v5). In fact, Jesus modeled perfectly for us this humble attitude. Though equal with God, he did not fight for the enjoyment of his rights, but rather, “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8).
This humility enables us to have God-glorifying relationships in the church. We won’t be competing and dividing if we are walking with our limp – the humility given to us in Christ. Husbands and wives will discover that the only way it is possible for them to walk in the marriage roles assigned to them by God is through humility. Pride will stop a husband from loving his wife as Christ loved the church, serving her and leading her well in the Lord. Only in humility can he pour out self-sacrificing love on his wife! Pride will make submitting to her husband as unto the Lord the very last thing a wife wants to do. Only in humility can she look past her imperfect husband to Christ, and follow his leadership with respect and joy. Moms and Dads will only be able to patiently and joyfully parent their children through humility. Humility is a great key that opens the door for relationships that honor God.
So, are you limping like Jacob yet? Has God touched your pride and brought you low before him? Have you seen your sinfulness and your need for Christ? Have you embraced God’s will? May the Lord fill us with his humility, and enable us to walk out this life of discipleship, for his glory!
[All Scripture quotations, English Standard Version (ESV) (c) 2001 Crossway]