Jesus explicitly taught his disciples to be humble. Humility is not the same as humiliation. Jesus, being who he was, understood that he was, in fact, the most amazing being in the universe. Yet, he did not insist that others recognize him as such, even though he knew it to be true. The essence of humility is trusting God to make all things right, in his own time.
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Humility is a challenging topic for me to teach about, because it’s so difficult to be humble when you are as amazing as me. (Sorry, I had to do that one – it was so obvious!) Actually, when I think of how bad I am at humility, I am humbled. (OK, I’ll quit now). All right, on a serious note, I do actually struggle with the whole topic of humility, because I struggle with the idea of injustice. It seems wrong to me – unjust – when people are not recognized for their amazing gifts, achievements, or personalities, while other people, less deserving, get credit when they don’t really deserve it. However, Jesus and his apostles are crystal clear about humility: Humility is part of the character of Jesus, and therefore it should be part of the character of every Christian. Paul explains this in many places, but perhaps nowhere better than in his letter 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. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.(Philippians 2:3-11, ESV)
Jesus himself explained the importance of humility to his disciples many times:
7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”(Luke 14:7-11, ESV)
Jesus’ own life was one huge example of humility. Being God, the Creator and Ruler of the universe, he humbly confined himself to the limits of human flesh. Even when he did that, he did not choose to be born in Rome, or Athens, which were the centers of power and culture in those days. He did not become the son of a king, emperor, or even just a noble family. Instead, he became the son of a poor family. Not only was he not born in a palace, he wasn’t even born in an ordinary house, but rather a stable. He grew up in Nazareth, which was a no-account town in a no-account region in a no-account country. When he spoke, it was with a Galilean accent, which sounded to the people of Jerusalem like a hillbilly/redneck way of talking. He washed the feet of his disciples as if he was a common servant. He was put on trial and mocked by people who should have fallen on their faces to worship him. The wood that was used to crucify him came from a tree that would not have existed if he hadn’t caused it to be. And even today his name is mocked. This is how it is supposed to be, for now, says Jesus:
25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”(Matthew 20:25-28, ESV)
Now, I do think sometimes we misunderstand humility. Perhaps we think it is similar to humiliation. We might imagine that to be humble means to have a low opinion of ourselves, or even hate ourselves. But if we look at Jesus as the greatest example of humility, I think we can see more clearly.
Jesus did not have a low opinion of himself. He did not think of himself as worthless, useless or pointless. If you took every human being who ever lived, and every great work of art, culture, literature or engineering that was ever made, and threw in all the gold and jewels and real estate in all of the history of the entire world, all of it together is not as valuable as the life of Jesus. And if Jesus is who the Bible says he is, he must have known that. He knew that he was the most amazing human being to ever walk on the surface of this planet. He knew that the entire planet was not equal in worth to a single drop of his own blood.
So Biblical humility does not mean self-hatred. It does not mean you pretend you are worthless when you know you are not. But Jesus, being who he was, knowing who he was, did not insist that everyone else acknowledge that. He had self-respect, but he did not demand that others treat him with the respect he deserved. In the verses from Matthew chapter 20 (above) he says: “I didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.”
When we are humble, we do not insist upon our own way, even when we could rightfully do so. We do not insist upon getting credit for something, even when we deserve that credit. When we are humble we patiently endure it when others treat us unjustly and unfairly, knowing that one way or another, God will eventually make all things right. We don’t have to defend ourselves, our abilities, our work, or our reputation, because God will do so in his time and in his way.
This leads us to another important aspect of humility. In order to truly be humble, we need to trust God. We need to trust that he will look out for our interests, for our credit, for our good and safety. If we think we are on our own, if it is up to us to look out for ourselves, we cannot be humble, because the world will run over us, and we won’t get what we need and deserve. But if we trust that God will look out for us, we can let go of the need to make sure we get “our rightful share” of everything in life.
On the other hand, in order to trust God, we need to be humble. Humility says, “I need God. I am not enough on my own. I need grace and forgiveness.”
I recently watched a TV show. The story was about a woman named Donna who was married to a violently abusive husband. She had an affair, and got pregnant from the affair. A teenage girl found out, and threatened to tell her husband, so Donna killed the girl. She allowed an innocent man to be convicted of the murder, and that man served twenty-years in prison for Donna’s crime, until she was found out.
When the police finally found out that Donna was the murderer, she blamed everyone but herself. She said it was her abusive husband’s fault. She said it was the girl’s fault for threatening to tell. It was the fault of the man she had an affair with. It was the police’s fault for not making her feel safe from her husband (though she never told anyone, until after he died, that he was abusive).
After serving a few years in prison herself, she developed terminal cancer. The sister of the girl who she murdered came to see Donna, to tell her that she forgave her. Donna’s response was “-—you, and -—forgiveness!” (“—” stands for a swearword). I think this portrays a very real kind of attitude. You see, in order to receive forgiveness, Donna would have to admit that the murder was indeed her fault. She would have to give up defending herself. She would have to put herself in a place of need that she could not fill herself. In short, she would have had to humble herself, and she refused to be humble.
I know that’s only a story, but like all good stories, it connects us to something real about life. Most of us have not committed murder. Even so, we need forgiveness no less than the character of Donna in the story. But in order to be forgiven, we have to admit that we have a need for it, and we cannot meet that need ourselves. Humility means we must depend upon God – we can’t do it alone. We have to rely on him for something – we cannot rely on ourselves alone. We need forgiveness, but we don’t deserve forgiveness, and we are at the mercy of God’s willingness to give it to us. That is a place of humility, and many, many people refuse to be so humble.
We will spend next week on the phrase “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” But for now, I want to point out that to cast our anxieties upon God requires humility. We have to admit that we can’t handle it all. We have to give up trying ourselves to make life work, and trust God. That requires humility.
Peter urges us to be humble not only toward God, but also toward one another. A few weeks ago in one of our local house churches, someone shared some very personal struggles they were having. This person was allowing us to see that they didn’t have it all together, admitting that they had needs that they themselves could not fill. I was struck by two things. First, it required real humility to be so open and vulnerable with us. That person’s open sharing was a demonstration of humility in action. They were willing for us to see their personal struggles, willing to show that they did not have life all working well. Second, it struck me that this kind of humility requires great courage and strength. We tend to think of people who keep it all in as “strong, silent types.” But I realized, while the person was sharing, that I was seeing incredible bravery and incredible inner strength on display. I think it takes much more courage and inner fortitude to be openly humble like that than it does to keep silent.
So humility can be difficult. It requires vulnerability and trust. But Peter tells us that we will not have to humble ourselves forever. Right now, it is the attitude we should have. But what Jesus and his disciples taught, and what the Old Testament teaches also, is that when we humble ourselves, we are trusting ourselves into God’s hands. If we will trust him by being humble, he will make sure that in his own time, we are lifted up. That of course, is what Peter says in the text today: humble yourselves, and then God, in his time, will lift you up. That is the implication of what Paul writes in Philippians: Jesus humbled himself, and then God lifted him up and gave him honor, and he will receive even more honor when he returns. Many Old Testament scriptures teach the same thing:
6 Though the LORD is great, he cares for the humble,
but he keeps his distance from the proud. (Psalms 138:6, NLT)
15 For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57:15, ESV)
34 He mocks those who mock,
but gives grace to the humble.( Proverbs 3:34, HCSB)
We need to trust that he will indeed “lift us up” when the time comes.
A few thoughts for application: As you have been reading this, is there some way in which the Holy Spirit is prompting you to be humble? Is he asking you to be vulnerable about something with other believers? Is he gently calling you to let go of getting your own way in something? Perhaps he wants you to hold your peace when someone less deserving gets credit for something.
On a different line of thought: how is the Lord calling you to humbly trust him right now? Do you need to let go of pride, or self-sufficiency?
Let the Spirit speak to you today!