What do you think of when you hear the word humility? What does it look like? How does humility speak? What does humility do? What does it not do? Common notions of humility are of unassuming speech and a deferential manner. That person has to be humble, right? In my mid-teens, I remember overhearing someone at church saying the following:
“I don’t mean to make a big deal of it, but you know when you’re doing the humble job.”
It struck me as an odd thing to say. This person thought washing dishes and scrubbing floors was an expression of humility, but somehow that didn’t sit right with my fifteen-year-old self. I didn’t know what humility was, but I didn’t feel it was that. In my most recent article, Our Most Important Relationship is Not With God, I wrote about young people I’ve known who gave up hobbies, sports and music they loved as a perceived act of service to God – a humble sacrifice. Even back then, in my youthful ignorance, I didn’t feel that this was humility either.
Let’s turn to the Bible, which has much to say about the nature of humility. First of all, the word itself. In the Greek, it is ‘tapeinophrosune’, meaning lowliness of mind and modesty.
Importantly, humility is towards God. It results in service toward others, but it is towards God. Our ‘lowliness of mind’ is not forced or self-imposed, nor is it the result of comparing ourselves to other people; it is a recognition of God’s incomparable greatness. In the presence of God, we know we are lesser beings, and it is this recognition of divinity (and our lack of it) that establishes the platform of reverence our lives can to be built upon. If God were not loving, the knowledge of his might would be terrifying, but God is not only loving; he is love, and as we humble ourselves before him, recognising his divinity, we rest in safe, protective hands. HELPS Word Studies explains humility like this:
In Scripture, ‘tapeinophrosýnē’ (“lowliness, humility”) is an inside-out virtue produced by comparing ourselves to the Lord (rather than to others). This brings behavior into alignment with this inner revelation to keep one from being self-exalting (self-determining, self-inflated). For the believer, ‘tapeinophrosýnē’ (“humility”) means living in complete dependence on the Lord, i.e. with no reliance on self (the flesh).
Spiritual lowliness of mind is a deep recognition that God is God, and we are not. We do not denigrate ourselves or compare ourselves to others to achieve a state of humility. It comes naturally from a close walk with God. For example, in profound times of worship, we are never tempted to leap up and proclaim our own greatness, are we? That would be the most unnatural thing in the world. Our gaze is not on ourselves in such moments, but on the Lord, and we give ourselves in worship – raising our hands, offering our voices, sometimes even falling to our knees, giving him deep reverence and praise. This is not the product of neediness or self-obsession on God’s part, nor self-denigration on our own. It is just what happens when the finite meets the infinite. God does not need our worship, but by his very nature he is worthy of all praise, and we, in our renewed spirits, breathe it out with joy. Worship then is humility, when our eyes are on the Lord, and we know the difference between him and us.
This natural-as-breath, worshipful lowliness of mind, in comparison to the infinite, almighty nature of God, is the essence of humility. Humility is before God, and before God alone. James 4:10,
‘Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.’
Humility – the reverence of God as God, and the acknowledgement that we are not – is crucial to all aspects of the life of faith. In a previous article, I’ve written that grace is the ever-present power and ability of God working to transform our lives, right here and now as well as in the life to come. The receiving of grace – i.e. the entire walk of faith – is dependent on our reverence of God. James 4:6,
‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’
We all need wisdom in life, but wisdom too is only available to the one who reveres God in humility. Proverbs 11, 2:
‘When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.’
God has given us all dreams, gifts and goals; things we were born, called and empowered to do. He wants us to succeed in them, but victory requires our commitment to personal growth and change in the power and leading of his Holy Spirit. The unyielded person cannot fulfil their God-given dreams. It is only in our submission, discipleship and growth (humility) that we are readied by God for success. 1 Peter 5:6,
‘Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.’
Humility, then, is a fundamental part of the life of the disciple. This reverencing of God, and living in obedience to him in faith, allows grace and wisdom to flow into our lives. Ultimately, humility leads to the fulfilment of God-given dreams, gifts and goals in the Lord, when in due time he exalts us in victory. Our destiny is to be exalted by God as co-heirs in Christ, through his victory on the cross and the power of his resurrection, but every step of the path to that destiny is humility.
The enemy of humility is false humility. I think we go wrong when we expect humility to look a certain way – the bowed head, the unassuming manner, the nature of a person’s service, all of which can be fabricated. There is no reason to think the person who volunteers to clean the toilets is humbler than the one who preaches. If either or both of them are saying ‘yes’ to God, they are humble. We are all called to serve in different ways. As members of a body we all have something to contribute, and if a church is functioning well, each person’s service will be primarily within their gifting and calling (though of course, from time to time, needs dictate that we all muck in).
False humility would have us confuse confidence in God with arrogance. Was the Apostle Paul arrogant when he began his letters with the proclamation of his apostleship? Of course not. He was called to carry great authority, as part of his humble service to God.
Was Moses arrogant when he stretched his hand over the Red Sea, and expected it to part? Of course not. He was simply obeying his Lord. Moses understood the nature of humility, which is above all to say ‘yes’ to God. This was a man who’d learned to say yes to the most extraordinary requests – confronting the Pharaoh, prophetically announcing the ten plagues of Egypt, leading a mass escape, parting a sea, receiving the Ten Commandments directly from the Lord on Sinai, and much more. He knew what he was called to do, and he obeyed. He didn’t want to do any of it, initially, but he said yes to God, putting others first as an act of service. This was true humility, which led to his empowerment and the success of his God-given dreams and goals. Numbers 12:3,
‘Moses was a very humble man, more so than any man on the face of the earth.’
Just as a point of amusement, it was Moses who wrote this of himself!
We do not judge who is or isn’t humble by the nature of their calling, or the confidence required in following it. In fact, we shouldn’t attempt to judge who is and isn’t humble at all, as only God knows the heart. For each of us, saying ‘yes’ to God will look entirely different.
Humility always leads to service, but that service has a million different faces. We should not feel forced to serve in a particular way, to demonstrate humility – that would not be humility at all. For me, service is most often drawing alongside people in pain to bring comfort through friendship and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. And of course, writing these posts. What does it look like for you? Is the service you currently perform in line with your God-given dreams, gifts and abilities? Is there something more/else the Lord would ask you to do? If the Lord calls you forward, then step forward. If the Lord asks you to speak, then speak. We can’t let anyone else’s idea of humility cause us to hold back. Our humility is before God, not other people.
And what of our children? We do not want them to become carbon copies of each other, their dreams diminished, their unique contours whittled and shaved until they stand identical, like skittles ready to be knocked down. We want them to be themselves, in glorious technicolour! For the colourful, service should be colourful; for the gifted, service means using their gifts. False humility steals the strength of the mighty and the breath of the singer; it silences the prophet and seats the dancer. It makes us grey, uniform, and ill-equipped for genuine service in the Kingdom of God. It is something to resist.
If we want to grasp true humility, we need only look at Jesus. Philippians 2:4-11,
‘In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.’
Jesus didn’t claim his rights, even the rights of the Divine, but set them aside in order to serve. And who did he serve? His father God, yes, but he also served us, just as he once washed his disciples’ feet. For the humble person (the one who is reverent to and yielded to God, knowing he is God, and they are not), this is the most humbling thought of all – that He who is innately, infinitely greater than we are, served and serves us. Like Peter, we might be tempted to cry ‘No Lord’ as he bends to wash our feet, but Jesus’ response to Peter is his response to us. John 13: 8,
‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’
Along with Peter, we yield to the Servant King:
‘Then, Lord,’ Simon Peter replied, ‘not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’
Psalm 23: 5 speaks of the service of the Lord towards his people:
‘You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.’
He prepares a table for us. He anoints our heads with oil. To the humble person, the service of Jesus is the most humbling spiritual reality of all, because we know He is Lord, and we are not. It is we who should serve, but to be effective in service, we must first let him serve us. Humility is a right relationship with God. It is reverence, gratitude, and an exchange of service so dazzlingly generous on God’s part, that only the truly yielded person can engage with it fully. The humble person receives all that love and looks to those around them, ready to pass it on, serving in the ways God has shaped them to serve.
In submission to the Lord, as part of a yielded life of reverence, the Holy Spirit has called and empowered us to serve each other in unique ways. Let each of us serve God out of genuine reverence, and let us serve as we are, in line with who he has made us to be, and with the gifts and call he has placed upon us. Let us be free of notions of false-humility, and the judgement of others it entices, and serve with freedom, joy and confidence. Most of all, let us draw near to the greatest servant of all, our dear Lord Jesus, and be changed by his loving presence.