The Virtue of Humility

Posted by Joe Wooddell

Contemporary American culture has become increasingly narcissistic and prideful. Popular music, reality TV shows, and advertising all bear this out. The virtue of humility is neither sought when absent, nor esteemed when observed. In fact, when it is observed it goes largely unrecognized or worse, it is condemned as weak and pathetic.

A Christian philosopher, whom I highly regard, once said that next to love, humility is the greatest virtue. We might quibble about whether faith and hope are greater, but it is doubtful whether we can even have faith or hope (in the 1 Cor. 13, biblical sense) without humility. Faith in God requires us to acknowledge our need of Him, which requires humility. Hope is similar, in that it often involves both the unseen (Rom. 8:24-5) and a desire for something we cannot attain on our own, which requires faith, which we just said requires humility.

Christian humility includes acknowledging at least the following:

  • I am not God; rather, Jesus is (you are the Christ, the Son of the living God, Mt. 16:16)
  • God and others come first (i.e. love God, and love your neighbor as yourself: Mt. 22:36-40)
  • Without God I can do nothing (Jn. 15:5), but through Christ I can do anything which He requires of me (Phil. 4:13).

This amounts to being realistic about ones place before God, others, and the cosmos. No extreme on either side (self-deprecation or self-exaltation), just sober-mindedness (Rom. 12:3).

The Bible says we should clothe [ourselves] with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time (1 Pet. 5:5b-6). Jesus is our best example, washing the disciples dirty feet (Jn. 13:1-11), which doubtless was easy compared to humbling Himself by becoming obedient to the point of deathon a cross (Phil. 2:8).

So humility is important, but how do we get it? As with any other good gift (Jas. 1:17), we may ask it of God (Phil. 4:6). Moreover, we may cultivate a proper attitude and take additional steps. John 13:1-4 depicts Jesus as knowing both His identity and His reward, and in light of these He was able to wash the disciples feet and ultimately go to the Cross (He loved them to the end, v.1). The great heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 could endure humble circumstances, because they were seeking a country of their own . . . a heavenly one (vv.14-16). They knew their final destination. So one way to become humble is to remember who we are, whose we are, and where we are headed.

Another simple way to advance in humility is to do the menial, unrecognized tasks no one else wants to do, and to do them both voluntarily and with the right attitude. Being forced to do menial tasks might simply result in bitterness. Mere voluntariness, however, is insufficient; we also must cultivate the right heart. That is, we do everything as unto the Lord rather than for the mens approval (Col. 3:23). In one of his books (either Celebration of Discipline or Freedom of Simplicity, I cant remember which, but recommend them both (with some qualifications, as usual), Richard Foster advises believers to do good unnoticed, not worrying about who gets the credit.

Here are some small, practical ideas: pray silently for those with whom you interact day to day (both friends and enemies); donate anonymously to a worthy cause; pick up trash when no one is looking; serve others, especially those closest to you (whom you often take for granted); let someone in front of you in traffic or at the store; acknowledge anothers expertise, ask him or her for instruction or advice; when questioned and you dont know the answer, say I dont know; confess or apologize quickly and genuinely when you are wrong. These things are merely a beginning, and much greater trials may one day come. Finally, saturate your mind with the Word of God. Truth has a way of putting us in our place, which is a good thing.

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