God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble—James 4:6. The context for James’ words were affective, located in God’s jealous longing for the spirit he made to dwell in us. Humility, James was saying, is at the heart of a proper relationship with God and it opens the door to a much deeper bond with him: “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (verse 8).
This promise sets out a dramatic opportunity for us to gain a stronger connection with God, but first we need to know, what is humility? In human-to-human terms is it mainly behavioral—our waiting for others to celebrate our successes while we keep quiet? Or is it an attitude of self-abasement—of thinking and acting as if we’re insignificant? Or, in a more positive direction, is it a selfless devotion to others? And how is humility best expressed to God, let alone to humans?
In James’ statement he treated pride as the negative counterpoint to humility. That’s a clue to be followed. Pride is something we readily sniff out in each other. Proud people are selfish, narcissistic, arrogant, and careless towards others—hard to be around! Pride is something I struggle with myself. I’ve started to learn that when I take on the I’m-proud-of-myself attitude, the room starts to empty in a hurry. So if pride and humility are eternally antithetical to each other we might do well to find the basis for our pride and then identify humility in whatever we see as its opposite.
And yet almost all of us have learned early on that pride is treated as a good quality; and that humility can be viewed as a weakness. As children, for instance, we were often told, “I’m so proud of you!” Or, “Be sure to take pride in your work!” And, with that, “Stand up for your rights—don’t be a doormat!”
One question to consider is whether God himself is proud; or humble; or both; or neither. As a starting point in asking this we find God calling people in both the Old and New Testaments to “be holy for I am holy.” But I don’t recall his ever saying “Be humble for I am humble” or “be proud for I am proud.”
Yet there is certainly some connection between our own attitude and God’s stance in these issues. Is it, perhaps, that God alone can be proud—given his incomparable greatness—and that we as his creation are by comparison utterly insignificant? That seems to be a common answer, especially among those who portray God as ultimately motivated by receiving our glory.
This connection, I suspect, then sets up answers to our question of what humility is and what its evil opposite of pride is: pride is our act of being self-devoted while humility is to be God-devoted. In this view only God is to be properly self-devoted; and we are to become more Godly by becoming the opposite of what God is!
Yet I quickly realize that this seems to be very different to what holiness calls for: that we are to be holy because God is holy. Aren’t we meant to imitate Christ? And isn’t it the humility of Christ that we were called to embrace in Philippians 2 where “in humility” we’re to “count others more significant than yourselves” by having “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 made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” even to the point of death on the cross for our sakes.
The proper answer, then, is not to adopt a quality of character that is the opposite to God—that is, to his presumed self-absorption. Instead we are invited to Christ’s quality of character where we discover God’s own humility.
Here’s the bottom line: as we come to grips with God’s Triune oneness we realize that when Jesus told Phillip (in John 14) that “when you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” we also find the answer to our questions. In Christ we see a God bold enough to embrace humility. The Son’s crucifixion is the venue for the Father’s love to be made available to us. The Father gave the Son over to death. It was the Father who, in that sense, humbled himself for our sakes by sharing in the humility of the Son within their unending union and communion. And from this came the glory of a plan that allows us to enter into this unending union and communion of the Godhead ourselves.
The sole gateway to God, we find, is to become like him even to the extent that we embrace our own crucifixion. We no longer live for ourselves, but for him—the Triune God—who loves us even to the point of death. How jealous is God for our spirits? Jealous enough to die for our sakes. What should our response be? An awed and holy confidence that such love invites; and with that, a complete and selfless devotion in return. We draw near to God because he first drew near to us; and then he embraces us ever more fondly as we draw even nearer to him in response. And on and on and on.