Saturday, August 05, 2006

Humility: The Heart of Righteousness

[This was published in Christianity That Counts back in 1994.)


Writing about humility is--or at least should be--a humbling experience. I write with both reluctance and a sense of daring--and I hope without presumption. I am reluctant because I am no expert in the matter and do not want to speak too far beyond my experience. Nevertheless, I dare to proceed because I have been brought to see that humility is the living center of the Christian life, the indispensable heart of righteousness. As Andrew Murray said in his classic book Humility: The Beauty of Holiness, "Humility is the only soil in which the graces root; the lack of humility is the sufficient explanation of every defect and failure. Humility is not so much a grace or virtue along with others; it is the root of all, because it alone takes the right attitude before God, and allows Him as God to do all." Christian spirituality is founded upon humility of spirit and cannot live without it.

Without humility, Christ will be scarcely detectable in our lives. No matter what our gifts may be--teaching, preaching, writing, organizing, counseling, leading--and no matter how expertly we exhibit them, they are hauntingly hollow without humility. Without humility, others may hear of Christ from us, but they will not see him in us. He will remain more of a rumor than a reality. If we want Christ to become a public reality in us, we should seek to understand just what humility is and how to cultivate it.

Things valuable and rare, such as money and precious stones, are often counterfeited, and so humility is counterfeited by inept imitators. Someone who publicly bemoans his inadequacies with predictable regularity, is probably not humble. He is, rather, disgusted with himself and seeking to have others build him up. Nor is the one who is forever solemn and glum a good candidate for humility, because humility does not consist in perpetually pondering the somber and unpleasant. Such a dour soul is probably too wrapped up in melancholy to be meek.

We could expose other imposters of humility. But although counterfeits should be unmasked, they can provide no solid food for humility; one can avoid poison and still not know what makes for manna. The manna of humility can be understood as based on two doctrinal pillars known to us all: that we are creatures of the Creator, and redeemed by Christ the Redeemer.

Humility is a condition of the heart in which a person is disposed to receive all good things as a bestowal of grace. The humble refuse to take credit where it is not due, and recognize that "every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights" (James 1:18). Humility is based on our relationship with God. We are humble before God as a result of apprehending who God is in relation to who we are.


Humility is rooted not only in our being rescued from sin by the Savior; it is equally rooted in our position as creatures of the Creator. We are not the source of our own existence nor of any good that greets us. All is a gift from Another--the thunderous rush of the surging waves of the ocean, the luminous smile of a wife or husband, a good night's sleep, a moonlit night, a child's laughter. All is received by mere mortals. Adam and Eve in all their unfallen splendor owed worship and thanksgiving to their Maker. As do we.

It is a short step from thanksgiving to humility; conversely, it is quite a strain to be thankful and prideful at one sitting. Thanksgiving lifts us out of ourselves and into the graces of another where we find joy in the recognition of goodness bestowed. We are the recipients, not the Benefactor. As Andrew Murray put it: "But as God is the ever-present, ever-active One, who upholdeth all things by the word of his power, and in whom all things exist, the relation of the creature to God could only be one of unceasing, absolute, universal dependence."

While a reflection on this dependence naturally triggers thanksgiving and worship, pride is rooted in ingratitude and claims for itself what it can never merit. The book of Acts tells of the pride of Herod who, after an ostentatious public address, was lauded by his subjects as a god: "Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died" (Acts 12:21-23). Although God rarely judges so quickly, pride itself eats away at those who are intent on promoting themselves. Pride deems that no promotion is ever good enough, no accomplishment satisfactory, and no victory final. When we try to fill ourselves with ourselves we remain empty--if noisy. As Pascal put it regarding our need for grace, "this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."


Humility is not only the appropriate response of dependent creatures, it is the Christian's invaluable inheritance in Christ. Our salvation was achieved through humility and for humility. Humility was the very instrument of redemption. Christ did not consider equality with God something to be grasped; instead, he humbled himself in order to serve us and his Father by leaving the perfection of heaven and dying on the cross to set us free from sin (Phil. 2:5-11). It may be difficult to fathom how God Incarnate could be humble, but this is only because our vision of humility is clouded. The humility of Christ is rooted in his servant heart. He came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for fallen people (Mk. 10:45).

The measure of Christ's earthly greatness was his obedience to the Father for our sake. He did not seek his own glory, although he deserved it; and he did not insist on his own will, although he could have commanded legions of angels to save him from the cross. Instead of demanding that the disciples kiss his feet, he washed theirs. Instead of slapping Judas at the last supper, he kissed him. Instead of silencing his opponents by summoning fire from heaven, he loved his enemies--even on the cross, asking his Father to forgive them.

Seen in this light we can better understand what Jesus meant when he said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30). This is Jesus' explanation of how we can receive his humility. His is the yoke of humility because he above all others was meek before his Father in heaven. And it is this humility that he offers to those who take up his yoke. We will miss the heart of this verse (as I did for years!) unless we see that Jesus both exemplifies and offers humility. Humility is a primary benefit of salvation. If we understand the terms of our salvation, our only response can be humility. One who is redeemed by the grace of God has no cause for boasting. As Paul announced, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).

Pride is excluded in principle from first to last. As Jeremiah said, "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness" (Jer. 9:23-24).

If we understand the gospel and know who we are in Christ, we can trust the kindness of God himself instead of pridefully seeking the flattery and approval of others. We are free to be humble in Christ because we are completely at peace with him through his crucifixion and resurrection. We can rest even while we work because we are justified by faith, not works. We are free to serve God and others because we know that Christ will meet our needs out of the riches of his love. Pride is eliminated when we remember that "those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again" (2 Cor. 5:15).


If humility involves knowing who we are as creatures of the Creator and as sinners rescued by the Redeemer, can humility be cultivated in such a way that Christ will be seen in us? Seeking humility is a delicate matter. We should guard against praying for humility in order to be seen as humble, for this is merely pride feigning humility for pride's sake. We can't pray for humility as we would pray for a pay raise at work. We must dig deeper because humility involves a fundamental adjustment of our inner being in accordance with the truths of the gospel. Let's consider several steps for detecting the pride that precludes humility.

First, we should beseech God to lay bare our offensive pride, as David did when he prayed, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psa. 139:23-24). We may need to turn our prayers from requests for material blessings to requests for the spiritual blessing of humility. This is eminently reasonable since nothing can truly be enjoyed without humility; pride is far too petty and protective to enjoy anything. Building the kingdom of self is a dirty and dispiriting business. Finding humility in the Spirit glorifies God and brings life and peace.

Second, we should note what things particularly disturb us and then ask, "Am I bothered because this is evil and offense to God or am I upset because my pride is hurt?" Am I more outraged at not having my good deed applauded than I am over the fact that my friend was cheated by an employer? If so, my pride outweighs my humility. Andrew Murray puts it strongly: "All sharp and hasty judgments and utterances, so often excused under the plea of being outright and honest; all manifestations of temper and touchiness and irritation; all feelings of bitterness and estrangement--have their root in nothing but pride, that ever seeks itself."

Third, whenever we blow our own horns, we fall into pride and make humility impossible. Everyone needs approval and encouragement, but no one should manipulate others in order to gain it. Boasting is a particular snare for those in public ministry where popular approval is so important. Instead of glorying in God's work through us and in us, a subtle shift occurs and we instead recite our deeds of righteousness in order to receive applause. But Proverbs says to "let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips" (Prov. 27:2); it is not honorable to seek your own honor (Prov. 25:27). We disgrace God's ministry when we succumb to pride. But humility comes when our self-esteem is grounded in God's gracious estimation of us rather than in the varying opinions of others.


There are several ways that we can protect our hearts from pride and seek humility in the Spirit. First, in a culture enamored of self, we must be ever watchful not to let the world squeeze us into its psychological mold. The fountain of the spiritual life is humility, not self-love. In Christ we are free to recognize good qualities in ourselves and enjoy them as we offer them to God for his use, but exercises in self-congratulation are never edifying. As the spiritual advisor Fenelon put it, "True humility lies in seeing our own unworthiness and giving ourselves up to God, never doubting that He can work out the greatest results for and in us." We are best used for God's great purposes by realizing that he is great and and we are not. This refutes the advice of a self-absorbed society which desperately seeks to inflate a sinful and unforgiven self to acceptable proportions. Paul put it best when he said, "We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us" (2 Cor. 4:7).

Second, we can study and meditate upon the lives and writings of great saints and heroes of the faith, both within and outside of the Scripture, who put flesh and bone on humility. Here we find that humility is not the enemy of greatness. Moses was called the meekest of men, but he was a world-changing instrument in God's hands. Paul was a humble bondservant of Christ, but bold to preach the gospel and risk all for God. As someone involved with the university, I find the example of Thomas Aquinas inspiring because I need to be watchful to avoid the competitiveness and intellectual pride that besets the academy. Aquinas was a great theologian and philosopher of the middle ages; yet one of his disciples wrote that he "owed his knowledge less to the effort of his mind than to the power of his prayer. Every time he wanted to study, discuss, teach, write, or dictate, he first had recourse to the privacy of prayer, weeping before God in order to discover the divine secrets." The great scholar was great only because he was humble. "Humility comes before honor" (Prov. 15:33).

Third, being open and accountable to another believer is essential to spiritual growth in humility. Humility is not a solitary project; it requires help from friends. My wife has on several occasions observed a sense of self-importance in my teaching and gently encouraged me to reform. I need to hear this--even though it stings--because the pain of correction is far better than the indulgence and deception of pride. Spouses and friends should prayerfully encourage each other to take up the yoke of Jesus in order to experience and express his restful humility.


Is the practice of Christian humility possible in the modern public square, the realm so often characterized by noisy, unprincipled, and power-mongering politicos who are more likely to believe that the earth inherits the meek than the meek inherit the earth?

Humility is not optional for Christians. The humility of Jesus secured a salvation which makes humility both possible and necessary. It is not simply one virtue among many, but the root of all righteousness--because only humility puts us in our rightful place before the Creator and Redeemer. And only humility puts us in the ethical position to represent our Master with authenticity. Empty vessels can be filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit. Vessels brimming with pride can hold no grace. Blaise Pascal summarized the humble life when he said, "Do small things as if they were great, because of the majesty of Christ, who does them in us and lives our life, and great things as if they were small and easy, because of his almighty power." Amen.

1 comment:

Susan said...

The author of a blog that consistently generates posts of this nature and spirit and that are combined with a genuine concern for and love of the body of Christ, would be quite unlikely to ever run into any trouble as an Academic who blogs.