[Note: my apologies for the many copies of the last post many of you received—it felt like a reprise of Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia! We think we’ve solved the problem … but only this post will reassure us!]
Don’t look for this topic—God’s humility—in any systematic theology. You won’t find it! Certainly not as a major heading—as one of God’s major attributes. At best it might be a subcategory of Christology dealing with Christ’s self-emptying in his becoming a man. But it’s not central.
The same is true of God’s love. In the Bible God’s love is a dominant theme. It celebrates and explains God’s motive for engaging us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” And, in 1 John 4, we read “God is love” not once but twice. Love forms the ancient refrain, “for the loving-kindness of the LORD endures forever.” And the great “shema” calls us to love God with our whole being.
But you won’t find love as a defining theme in academic Christian theologies. Even though Paul reminded the Corinthians, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Instead we may treat love as an awkward, even dangerous, emotion.
One benefit of repeated Bible read-throughs is that in reading we gather the courage to see these omissions and eccentricities as problems. We see how some major ideas are muted or missing in the academic tradition while other themes are obviously inflated.
The widespread language of the emotive and responsive “heart,” for instance, tends to disappear in high theology. And the Bible theme of God’s tender care is too often replaced with a focus on God’s sovereign power. That’s not to say that God lacks power—he created and sustains everything—but in the Bible that power is rarely in the foreground.
So, too, his self-giving can be missed by those who portray God as obsessed with selfish glory. The mutual glory within the Trinity, birthed in love (as in John 17:24), is God’s actual concern—and it’s a glory he invites believers to join and enjoy.
Our image of God, then, needs to be nourished by his own self-disclosures in the Scriptures. Most of us will struggle to come to grips with the triune God. So our quest for knowing him ‘as he really is’ calls for bold Bible reading and appropriate critical reflection.
Let me say the same thing in more positive terms. Everyone who aspires to grow in faith needs help. In a fallen world most of us feel young and uninformed; yet we also have spiritual roadblocks to overcome. So formal theology is a gift to us because we get to draw on the lessons of prior generations as growth aids and fast tracks for learning. Yet we also find some dangerous and distracting ‘traditions of men’ blended in the mix if we aren’t careful.
And the sole antidote to misshapen academic or tradition-based theology is Bible truth. So we need to become Bible-enriched Christians who can spot counterfeits sooner rather than later. Bible reading, with the Spirit’s presumed involvement, is what made Augustine the marking figure he became. So, too, Martin Luther, Richard Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards, and many others who became conspicuously Bible-sensitive leaders.
Now back to the theme of God’s humility. In the upside-down realities of God’s kingdom we find the meek honored and the proud debased. Because it reflects God’s own character.
If we take up the lesson Jesus offered Philip in John 14:9—“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”—we have a basis for God’s humility demonstrated in the incarnation of the divine Logos as the human Jesus.
And Jesus was humble—as we read in Paul’s summary, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by 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” (Philip. 2:3-8).
There’s also humility in the Father who, in love for the world, gave his Son over to the terrible shame and suffering of his life on earth that ended in his crucifixion.
Yet there’s more. God’s relative quietness certainly reflects divine humility. He chooses to woo us to respond to his love rather than to impose himself on us. As we see in Elijah’s experience, God’s voice comes in whispers from his Scriptures and not in wind, earthquake, or fire. He’s gentle and caring: never crushing a bruised reed or snuffing out a smoldering candle.
We also need to be careful in how we understand God’s “irresistible grace.” No one and nothing in creation is more attractive than the God who conceived and formed all that is. And in that sense, ‘to know him is to love him.’ Nothing can compete with God’s grace and beauty! But we still succeed in rejecting his love.
How do so many still spurn him, even in light of Christ’s commanding attractiveness?
It’s possible because sin uses skepticism to blind spiritual eyes. People don’t see him as he is. Not when their personal success seems at stake. So that Christ’s call to “good works, which he prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” feels like an obstacle rather than a release.
The case of the wealthy and morally pristine young man in Luke 10:17-22 is an example. Jesus “loved him” and invited him to “come, follow me.” But the man turned away; and Jesus let him go.
So why did Jesus persist with Paul—even after the latter had been “kicking” at Christ’s prodding efforts to capture his heart? We don’t know! But Christ was humbly persistent and his love eventually worked the transformation.
Call it the “amazing grace” that comes to us through God’s tender heart.
Thank you for speaking to this very important conversation of the Humility of God. This is a subject that seems to be easily dismissed. I find myself not having a clear definition of the word humble. I think, as a Christian, I don’t want to seem proud so I try to downplay myself and my abilities but I do not see that in God’s character. I was wondering if you could give a clear definition of the word humble or humility? Thank you for addressing this subject.
Sure, Judy. In my post the measure of humility in God is Jesus. And Paul used Jesus as our own measure of humility in Philippians 2:3-8. Jesus, after all, “is” God – as Jesus told Philip in John 14. So what did Paul say about Jesus to the Philippians? He is “in the form of God” and has “equality with God”
So here’s Paul’s summary of the humility we find in Jesus: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Jesus illustrates this selflessness by coming into humanity and then by being crucified for our sins.
We can be like Jesus, then, by pursuing the welfare of others above our own welfare; and by living for their sake and not for our own. It’s God’s hand at work in us and it’s called humility.
Thank you for your response. I see that Jesus is God’s perfect example of humility. I guess I was thinking more of a dictionary definition but Jesus’ life is clearer, indeed. The fact that Jesus gave up His privileges in Heaven and came in the form of a baby humbles me. Just to think, God loves us so much that He was willing to come as a human to live the perfect life, that I could not live and die the death, I should have died is unimaginable. I guess I got my picture of humility.
By the way, Happy Reformation Day.
Good! I understood your request but, unfortunately, most dictionary portrayals of humility are too human-centered: focused on self-reducing or demeaning attitudes. So, as you’ve obviously picked up in your response here, it’s really a question of where our priorities lie. I.e. I’m not sure dictionaries are always the best sources of insight. Context is everything.
And thanks for the Reformation Day blessing! I just posted my latest blog about 30 seconds before your latest comment arrived: a big smile. If you read that post you’ll see how it overlaps with what we’re talking about here. I hope your remembrance of dear Martin is also fruitful and encouraging.