Christianity is impossible without humility. John MacArthur has said that humility is “the foundation of all graces” and “the very center of the Christian life.” Calvin called humility “the sovereign virtue – the mother and root of all virtue,” and Jonathan Edwards said that humility is “the most essential thing in true religion.”
Such assertions are true for Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3); and James wrote: “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you” (Jas. 4:10). It would be safe to say that humility is essential to Christianity. You cannot be a Christian without exercising the virtue of humility. Humility is integral to our walk with the Lord. As Micah 6:8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” However, that does not mean that we are perfectly humble! Far from it, we are in a death struggle with pride, and thus we need to know not only what humility is, but how to exercise humility in our lives and grow in it.
The Consequences of Pride
Why should we be humble? That the Scriptures command humility should be motive enough, but God in His mercy has given us numerous motives for the cultivation of humility. We should be humble because of the awful consequences of pride. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas. 4:6). Pride is, of course, the opposite of humility, and the Scriptures present terrible warnings to the proud in heart. For example, Psalm 12:3 says: “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts.” In like manner, Psalm 138:6 reads: “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.”
Proverbs 16:5 states that “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished.” And Proverbs 6:17 names “haughty eyes” (“a proud look,” KJV) as the first thing on a list of seven abominations which the Lord hates. Pride was first on the list of the sins of Sodom as recorded in Ezekiel 16:49: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” The fatal end of Sodom illustrates well the truth that of Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” and Proverbs 15:25: “The Lord tears down the house of the proud but maintains the widow’s boundaries.”
The Blessings of Humility
But we should also be humble because of the great blessings of humility. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas. 4:6). Humility mirrors the character of Christ, who described Himself as meek and humble. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Philippians 2:5-11 describes the humiliation of Christ in great detail, and the whole purpose of the passage is to encourage humility among believers. This is what I call “Christology for Christlikeness.” We should be humble because Jesus was humble. Further, the humble heart is the dwelling-place of God. Isa. 57:15 says, “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” If you would have God’s reviving presence in your life, then you must humble yourself. God does not revive proud, unbroken people.
Eight Strategies for Cultivating Humility
How then can we cultivate humility? Consider these eight strategies:
- Know the greatness of your sin and the greatness of your God.
John Owen said, “Two things need to humble us. First, let us consider God in His greatness, glory, holiness, power, majesty, and authority. Then, let us consider ourselves in our mean, abject, and sinful condition.” True humility results from seeing God as He is and seeing ourselves as we are.
2. Learn to give up self-defense.
To be humble, you must learn to die to what Augustine called “the lust of vindicating ourselves.’ Frances De Sales said “we must not be over-nice in regard to the preservation of our good name . . . persons, by endeavoring to maintain their reputation so delicately, entirely lose it…an excessive fear of losing our good name betrays a great distrust of its foundation, which is the truth of a good life.” There is a balance here. There is a time when you need to defend your integrity – when the loss of it will ruin your witness or mar the testimony of Christ. But most of the time, we spend way too much time trying to justify our actions.
- Be harsher on yourself than others.
Fenelon said, “Can we with justice feel contempt for others and dwell on their faults when we are full of them ourselves? – our strong feelings about the faults of others is itself a great fault.” Be suspicious of your self if you get overly exercised about somebody else’s sin! Chances are you have a log in your eye, while you may be fretting about the splinter in somebody else’s. Here is a good test: is this matter a big enough deal that you will lovingly discuss it with the person you are concerned about? If it is isn’t, then it certainly isn’t a big enough deal to discuss it with others!
- Never get to the place where you consider yourself humble.
Don’t become like Uriah Heep from the old classic novel, who was always asserting his own humility. Don’t be like the church-member who was awarded a medal for humility, but then had it taken it away because he wore it! A humble person will never presume to tell others that he is humble because he doesn’t know it.
- Climb for the bottom rung of the ladder (not the top) and be a servant to others.
Read Matt. 20:20-29 for Christ’s teaching regarding this. To truly be a servant means that we not only be willing to take the name and place of a servant but be treated like one. It has been said that “everybody wants to be thought of as a servant, but nobody likes to be treated that way.” Our tendency is to want to climb for the top – to drop names, to get recognition, to brag on ourselves, to get in good with the powerful people. But the Bible tells us to do exactly the opposite: Proverbs 25:6-7 says, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”
- Practice humility in the little things.
Andrew Murray wrote: “The insignificances of daily life are the tests of eternity because they prove what spirit really possesses us. It is in our most unguarded moments that we really show and see what we are. To know . . . how the humble man behaves, you must follow him in the common course of daily life.” What does this mean practically? Give in to your mate next time the two of you disagree. Don’t get mad next time somebody cuts you off in traffic. Be eager to take the blame for mistakes. Quickly seek reconciliation with others.
- Forget your self.
This is really what you should be aiming for in the fight for humility: to be really unconscious of your self at all. This is especially relevant when it comes down to your motives in what you do: do you do it unto the Lord or for the applause of men? C. S. Lewis said that the relationship between self-regard and the need for approval of others was like an itch that needed to be scratched. “As long as we have the itch of self-regard, we shall want the pleasure of self-approval; but the happiest moments are those when we forget our precious selves and have neither but everything else.” This is subtle. It is easy and tempting to want the approval and nice comments of others after you cook a nice meal, or pray a moving prayer, or give a sacrificial gift. But that is an unhealthy itch that wants to be scratched; it would be better not to have the itch at all.
- Finally, delight in the Lord – not in human distinctives and accomplishments.
Jeremiah 9:23-24 says: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.’” Note the three things men tend to glory in. Some men boast in wisdom, whether in the form of education, natural intelligence, practical know-how, or wit and cleverness. Others tend to boast in might – a sharp physique, physical prowess and strength, fitness, muscle tone, and beauty. Still, others are proud of riches – wealth, prosperity, success, and affluence.
But God says that we should glory in understanding and knowing God, not in our own human distinctives and accomplishments. The most important key to humility is a sight of the satisfying God who is infinitely greater than we are. Teresa of Avila said, ”We shall never completely know ourselves if we don’t strive to know God. By gazing at His grandeur, we get in touch with our own lowliness; by looking at His purity, we shall see our own filth; by pondering His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble.”
Pride in its essence is satisfaction in self. And the only thing that breaks it is a greater and deeper satisfaction in God. John Piper writes: “Is not the most effective way of bridling my delight in being made much of, to focus on making much of God? Self-denial and crucifixion of the flesh are essential, but O how easy it is to be made much of even for my self-denial! How shall this insidious motive of pleasure in being made much of be broken except through bending all my faculties to delight in the pleasure of making much of God!”