A neglected but indispensable ingredient of Christian
spirituality is humility. As Richard Baxter put it, "humility is not
a mere ornament of a Christian, but an essential part of the new
creature."1 Indeed, perhaps at no
point does the gospel come into more violent collision with the
world than in its insistence on humility as the paramount virtue.
The wisdom of the world despises humility. Western culture has been
greatly influenced, often unconsciously, by the power-philosophy of
Nietzsche, who envisaged the emergence of "a daring and ruler race."
His hero was the ‹bermensch, tough, brash, masculine and
overbearing, who would become a "lord of the earth." But if the
ideal of Nietzsche was the superman, the ideal of Jesus was the
little child. There is no possibility of finding a compromise
between these alternative models; we are obliged to choose.
then, is more than the first of the seven deadly sins; it is itself
the essence of all sin. For it is the stubborn refusal to let God be
God, with the corresponding ambition to take his place. It is the
attempt to dethrone God and enthrone ourselves. Sin is
self-deification. But God says that, since he is God and he alone,
he will not share his glory with any other (e.g., Isa 42:8, 48:11).
then, is not a synonym for hypocrisy, pretending to be other than we
are. The real hypocrisy is pride, the pretense that we can manage
without God or rival God. Humility is honesty, acknowledging the
truth about ourselves, that as creatures we depend on our Creator's
power and as sinners on our Savior's grace. Only God depends for
himself on himself. His eternal self-dependence is the ultimate
reality in which humility rejoices and against which pride rebels.
So it is that
GOD works, and announces his intention to
work, in order that people will come to acknowledge that he is God.
The most notable examples
in Scripture relate to Israel's exodus from Egypt and the
restoration from Babylon. In both instances God acts, ultimately,
for the sake of his holy name. Of course, whenever human beings act
in order to impress people with who they are, their behavior is
regarded as exhibitionist and reprehensible. How then can we accept
that God acts in order to gain recognition for himself? Our answer
begins with the reminder that it is always perilous to argue by
analogy, and doubly so when the analogy assumes that God (infinite
and all-holy) can be compared with human beings (finite and fallen).
For example, "jealousy," "wrath," and "vengeance," which in human
beings are condemned as sinful, are attributed to God in Scripture
because he is God and because in him these reactions to evil are
perfect, free from all taint of evil themselves.
Similarly, it is because Yahweh is the only God and Savior, and
there is no other, that he desires- even requires- every knee to bow to him (Isa
45:22-23). Worship is due to him; it is not due to us.
It is also because he
alone is God, that pride (the attempt to dethrone him) is such a
heinous offense, and that humility (doing obeisance before his
throne) is essentially good and beautiful. Hence too the biblical
epigram, enunciated often in the Old Testament and endorsed in the
New, that God "abases the proud and exalts the humble." This
fundamental divine principle runs clean counter to conventional
wisdom, which insists that to succeed we must exalt ourselves,
whereas if we humble ourselves, we will fail. But Jesus calls us to
a radical re-evaluation, as a result of which we live by his values
and repudiate the self-centered values of the world.
In his public teaching,
Jesus commended humility as the preeminent trait of the citizens of
God's kingdom, describing it as the humility of a child.
'I tell you the truth,
unless you change and become like little children, you will
never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles
himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of
heaven' (Mt 18:2-4).
That is, not only is
greatness in the kingdom measured by humility, but even entry into
the kingdom is impossible without it.
Because children are
seldom humble in either character or conduct, Jesus must have been
alluding to their humility of status, not behavior. Children are
rightly called "dependents." For what they know, they depend on what
they've been taught. For what they have, they depend on what they've
In our thinking we are
to be adults, not children, putting our God-given intellectual
powers to their fullest use (1Co 14:20). Nevertheless, in the
process of learning we are to be like children. Jesus thanked his
Father that he had "hidden these things from the wise and learned"
and had instead "revealed them to little children" (Mt 11:25). Jesus
was not rejecting wisdom and learning in themselves, but pride of
intellect and trust in autonomous reason. He was advocating neither
ignorance nor irrationality, but humility before God's
self-revelation in Christ. Christian humility begins with an
open-minded readiness to listen to God and submit to his revelation.
"If anyone ... does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord
Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands
nothing" (1Ti 6:3-4). By contrast, the person who is "humble and
contrite in spirit" is the one who "trembles" at God's word (Isa
66:2; cf. Ezr 9:4; 2Ki 22:19; Da 10:11).
Childlike humility is
to be expressed not only in an open mind (the way we learn what is
taught to us), but also in an open hand (the way we receive what is
offered to us). Jesus stressed this in relation to the kingdom: "I
tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God
like a little child will never enter it." (Mk 10:15). In other
words, the kingdom (a synonym for salvation) is a free gift to be
received; no merit can earn it, or even contribute to it.
humility of dependence thus lies at the root of evangelical faith.
What God has said through Christ and done through Christ- the
fullness of his word and deed, his revelation and redemption, both
of which were finished in Christ- are now offered to us freely, and are to be
received humbly as by a little child.
In fact, at every stage
of our Christian development, and in every sphere of Christian
discipleship, pride is our greatest enemy and humility our greatest
friend. This is so in justification, sanctification, and ministry.
Justification and Humility
The central gospel truth
of justification by grace through faith was not Paul's innovation,
for Jesus had taught it plainly in his parable of the Pharisee and
the tax collector. The Pharisee relied for his acceptance on
fasting, tithing, and righteous living. The tax collector, however,
"would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said,
'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'" This man, rather than the other,
Jesus concluded, "went home justified before God." "For"(here is the
double epigram) "everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he
who humbles himself will be exalted" (Lk 18:9-14). Thus, merit and
mercy are the only possible alternatives as objects of our faith.
But to trust in our own merit is to court rejection; to trust in
God's mercy is to find acceptance.
The gospel begins by
insisting that we deserve nothing at God's hand except judgment;
self-salvation is impossible. The "scandal" (i.e., stumbling block)
of the Cross is precisely that it undermines our self-righteousness
and deprives us of all grounds for boasting. It tells us that we
have no merit to plead, no gift to offer, no excuse to make. Our
proud human heart would do almost anything to retain at least a
modicum of self-respect, but the gospel brings us to the ultimate
humiliation of being declared bankrupt and stripped naked.
Sanctification and Humility
The same double epigram,
which Jesus applied to justification, James went on to apply to
sanctification, although in slightly different words: "God opposes
the proud but gives grace to the humble" (Jas 4:6, quoting Pr 3:34).
Again, "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up"
(Jas 4:10). The context of this summons is the temptation to be a
friend of the world and so an enemy of God. James is clear that
God's grace is amply sufficient to enable us to live a godly life
and to keep ourselves "from being polluted by the world" (Jas 1:27).
But God gives his grace only to the humble, who admit their
dependence on it. If, therefore, we hope for his grace to lift us up
to holiness, we must "humble [ourselves] before the Lord" (Jas
Ministry and Humility
Peter quotes the same proverb, but applies it to service (1Pe 5:5).
He goes on to write of "God's mighty hand," the symbol of his power
in creating the universe (e.g., Isa 48:13), redeeming Israel from
Egyptian bondage (e.g., Ex 13:9), and raising Jesus from the dead
(Eph 1:19-21). If we want to be exalted by God's mighty hand, and
used in his service, we must first humble ourselves under it.
In all three examples:
justification, sanctification, and ministry, the same principle
applies. The mighty hand of God can lift us up, to acceptance,
holiness, and usefulness, but only if we abase ourselves under it.
In brief, the only way up is down. Chrysostom is one of the church
fathers who regularly referred to the beauty of a humble spirit and
the ugliness of pride. "Nothing is like humility," he said: "this is
mother, and root and nurse, and foundation, and bond of all good
things: without this we are abominable, and execrable, and
polluted."2 "How ... can a man
extinguish pride?", he asked. "By knowing God. For ... if we know
him, all pride is banished."3 With
this we are back where we began. Pride is primarily an offense
against God, a rejection of his sovereignty, a trespass into
forbidden territory. Only when God is given the honor due to him
does human arrogance wither away and die.
Michael Ramsey went
further. In one of his ordination charges given while Archbishop of
Canterbury, he offered some wise and practical advice on how to grow
in humility, with which we may fully close:
First, thank God,
often and always.... Thank God, carefully and wonderingly, for
your continuing privileges and for every experience of his
goodness. Thankfulness is a soil in which pride does not easily
grow. Secondly, take care about confession of your sins.... Be
sure to criticize yourself in God's presence: that is your
self-examination. And, put yourself under the divine criticism:
that is your confession.... Thirdly, be ready to accept
humiliations. They can hurt terribly, but they help you to be
humble. There can be the trivial humiliations. Accept them.
There can be the bigger humiliations.... All these can be so
many chances to be a little nearer to our humble and crucified
Lord.... Fourthly, do not worry about status ... there is only
one status that our Lord bids us to be concerned with, and that
is the status of proximity to himself.... Fifthly, use your
sense of humor. Laugh about things, laugh at the absurdities of
life, laugh about yourself, and about your own absurdity. We are
all of us infinitesimally small and ludicrous creatures within
God's universe. You have to be serious, but never be solemn,
because if you are solemn about anything there is the risk of
becoming solemn about yourself.4
Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (London:
Epworth, 1950) p.99.
Chrysostom, The Acts, Nicene and Post-Nicene
Fathers 30, P. Schaff, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980)
Chrysostom, 2 Thessalonians, ibid., 13.379.
Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today
(London: SPCK, 1972) pp.79-81.
Taken from Alive to
God, edited by J.I. Packer and Loren Wilkinson.
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