Humility

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.

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  1. Matthew

    Ron, I’ve been coming to your site in the last few months and have been truly refreshed with your elucidation of God’s love. I’ve been used to hearing the teaching (as per John Piper) of God’s selfishness, self-absorption, self-glorification, etc. It seems logical and sound that God SHOULD have every right to be self-seeking and in constant thirst for more glory for himself, since he IS God after all. The problem, for me at least, is that I’ve come to picture myself as mostly secondary in God’s concern, as a kind of “utility” for his supposed desire for self-glorification, as a means to this greater, God-centered end. Even Christ’s laying down of his life for my sins becomes an act of utility, an act done only because it was necessary for the sake of God’s glory to be satiated. I’m REALLY quite dispensable; I’m only loved because that way, God looks really really glorious, which is all he really wants in the end, so my line of reasoning has gone.

    Humility continues to be a difficult thing for me to grasp. I want to be “humble,” however it’s supposed to be done, and the only way I’ve ever seen for getting there is to work on having no pride, no self-esteem, no self-assertiveness, and to maintain the mindset that I’m worthless before a holy, glorious, and all-powerful Judge of the universe, God. I try to “turn the other cheek,” to “deny myself,” and to “hate my life” at all times as Jesus commanded. In the end, however, it has been a pretty lame ride as I’ve become passive, shy, un-assertive, weak, cowardly, timid, and wimpy. Yet I still don’t see how, biblically speaking, it could ever be right for me to have any sort of self-confidence, self-love, ambition, zeal, courage, etc., as God seems to want to beat me down and keep me in my place: I shall be weak and always needy, He shall get all the glory, and I shall have none.

    Sorry this is kind of long! Do you have any thoughts?

  2. Bobby Grow

    Hi Matthew,

    If you don’t mind, I thought I would float my thinking towards your question.

    Have you ever considered that your life is grounded in Christ’s humanity (His humanity ‘for us’); and that God’s life in Christ is defined by His love for the other (in fact it is shaped by it . . . which now includes us, as we participate in God’s gracious/loving life through Christ?

    This reality places an amazing amount of value (Ps 8 ) on humanity; w/o of course thinking about what it means to be “human” from Christ’s humanity.

  3. R N Frost

    Your question, Matthew, tells me that this post was far too cryptic . . . something I knew to be the case once I reread it “on site”.

    I certainly meant to set up the tension you’ve touched on, but my intended “answer” is that the Bible rejects the sort of asymmetrical arrangement that is present in saying that God can be Selfish as God but we are NOT to be selfish. That’s why I went to the core symmetry of the call to be holy because God is holy. And we’re called to imitate Christ who IS God. What is it in Christ that we’re to imitate in the Philippians 2 text? The emphatic answer is: God’s humility in Christ!

    So the point is that God’s Selflessness has primacy . . . and for the most explicit claims of God’s Self-absorption we can look to Aristotle’s Metaphysics [12.9]; it’s certainly NOT supported biblically. In the discussions of glory in John, for instance, the glory of God is in Christ’s selfless death, which fulfills God’s plan to selflessly send the Son to die for us (chapters 3, 12, 17). Even the famous Isaiah passage that says that God will not give his glory to another ends with “nor my praise to carved idols” (42:8). In other words, God does not distribute glory to so-called images of himself (or of any competitors, of course). But if we look at the context of that chapter we find that the Son is the “covenant for the people” who has come and will not crush a bruised reed nor quench a smoking bit of flax. This Triune God is all about selfless Love, the love of the Cross.

    So, in terms of how we view God: we see him as absolute in his greatness, and his greatness is most dramatically expressed in his love and compassion for us . . . as those who are the poor, the lame, the sinners saved by grace.

    And when the Bible does speak of God receiving all glory, remember that in Trinitarian terms we have one member (e.g. the Son) glorifying another (the Father); or the Spirit glorifying the Son. So, yes, collectively the Triune God is to be glorified by us (as the Spirit speaks his own joy into our spirits), but that’s the bloom of love at work and never a duty.

  4. Matt

    Matthew,

    So interesting what you write. i have had a simialar internal conversation lately and feel Jesus has revealed a truth to me.
    Long story short I was moderately successful- in my career and as a leader in my church. I then went through a deep depression.
    Jesus reminded me that my depression exposed my limitations but also taught me to rely on Him more completely. I also learned how completely loved I am, even when at my most unlovable point- unwilling and unable to get out of bed or out of a fetal position in my closet to care for myself let alone my wife and children.

    Essentially I learned my value is not dependant on my abilities or contributions. I am valuable because Jesus loves me unconditionally. Therefore every human is valuable and none any more nor less than any other.

    I also learned, nothing can separate me from His love, therefore I have nothing to fear. Pray that the next time something scary confronts me that i don’t have to relearn this.

    This in mind I am important and I can be confident- but not based on me or my abilities. I am of equal value and worth to all I meet whether I walk into the White House or Death Row. I have something to offer anyone and everyone because I am a child of God and I come bearing good news.

    I have been taught to consider others more important than myself. Most of my life I felt guilty when pleased with myself or something I accomplished, because of the way I understood this verse. With my new understanding of Christ based worth in mind, I see this verse different.

    Others are not more important than myself. They are as important, because Jesus values us all so highly. My opportunity is to treat them as even more important than highly important me and by doing so, bless their socks off.

    Imagine your favorite celebrity, athlete or historical figure is scheduled to make an appearance near you. You consider this person so important that you wait online or in person for hours to buy the very expensive tickets to the event. You then travel on super crowded roads at a snails pace to park miles away in overflow parking. You walk in heat and dust or the cold and rain to the venue, wait outside for several more hours to get a good seat or place to stand close to the stage. You press in with the oversold noisy stinky rude crowd and wait another couple of hours past the scheduled start time because you are less important than this person and they can make you wait. Finally behind layers of security the appearance is made. They wave or say a few words or sing a few songs. Then you reverse the long process to return home. If you really still value this person you are thrilled, your life continues, the thrill wears off, you are still the same.

    Now imagine if this same person requested to meet with you, or with you and your church. They showed up at a time that worked for you maybe a regularly scheduled event or church service. They come down from the stage or just walked in the same door you did. They shake hands, they listen, they ask questions about you and everyone in the room individually. They laugh at your jokes, they cry over your heartaches, they look at you and smile and you see that they wish this moment could last for hours and days. Finally, when you are ready, they thank you for sharing your life with them. Then they ask if you would like to talk again soon or go to a park sometime or share a hobby with them. Would you be more than thrilled for a few hours? Would your life be the same ever again?

    Now repeat the same scenarios with someone who is as you described in your own attempts a humility. Someone who dares not to accomplish anything, or speak up or lead, because they are supposed to appear humble. Neither scenario would ever happen with someone afraid of their own shadow. Those who have no confidence, so sense of self worth do not capture our attention and can not impact us.

    What I am trying to say is this. You and I are valuable because He values us. We can have confidence because He will never leave us nor forsake us. We are talented uniquely because we are His workmanship. He has made all of us to be incredible. As we embrace this value, confidence and exercise our giftedness we will be incredibly attractive to those God intends us to attract. If we treat them as more important than we treat ourselves, ie consider them more important, imagine the impact we will have.

    Our celebrity is Jesus. He knew that to see Him was to see the Father. He said He is the way the truth and the life. He knows Who He is, yet he came to us, in our time and place and washed our feet, held our children, opened our eyes, raised our dead, touched our leprosy and bore our sin and shame without us even asking.

    He is our picture of confident, bold, impactful humility. He is God and He is Love. Be the incredible person God intends you to be, thank Him for who you are and love everyone you see.

  5. R N Frost

    Thanks, Matt, for sharing your story. As I got to watch you travel through the depression from a near distance and ached with you, I wondered how God would use you to encourage others after you emerged again on the other side. The portrayal of Christ you now offer is more inviting than it ever could have been before your struggle. Again, thank you for offering us a tender heart that exudes the winsome fragrance of humility.

  6. Alex Simon

    Matt, thank you for your view of Christ and our Father. I just prayed for you. Matthew I have prayed for you also that The LORD will reveal himself to you more and more.
    I would really like you to meditate on “SERVANT KING.”
    I listened to the major prophets including Lamentations within a short space of time and was left depressed and devastated at the vengence of GOD on His people – all I could see is the human point of view and not why God allowed it.
    Then I started noticing the chirping birds in the morning the beautiful painting of the sky in the evening and at dawn. I guess the creation was speaking to me saying “Look! This is all for you!” Even as you are reading this your heart has pumped how many times? Is it because you are healthy, young, look after yourself or by nature? NO! LORD allows it! He’s right there with you now watching you, caring for you, loving you every millisecond! He’s doing that to receive glory? Really don’t think so. He was complete in both glory and in love well before he decided to create the world. Which was an out pouring of this bursting love He had for His Son!

    Brother Matthew, please try, in prayer, to know your God, our God. He is love before anything else. He’s having to punish and cleanse as a result of His love.

    Please listen to the below audio discussion which, helped me alot and of course their are so many godly men like Ron and Peter who would guide you to know God more deeply. If all fail I am here for you my dear brother. j.alexsimon@gmail.com

    http://www.theologynetwork.org/christian-beliefs/doctrine-of-god/starting-out/depending-on-the-living-god.htm

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