The Precious Grace of Humility
Humility is a precious virtue that is highly commended by the Word of God. It is also a virtue too rarely possessed and practiced as well as too often misunderstood. The popular conception is one where weakness and mindless compliance characterize the attitude and actions of those who are humble. While it is true that meekness, gentleness, and kindness are aspects of true humility, nothing could be further removed from those who are genuinely humble than weakness and obsequiousness. Similarly, the notion that the humble are not aware of their humility is more a foolish myth than a fact. Moses was certainly not lying or destroying his humility when he wrote of himself that he was the meekest man on earth (Num. 12:3), nor was Jesus boasting arrogantly when he said that he was meek and humble in heart (Matt. 11:29).
If humility is not synonymous with weakness, what then are the facets of its true character? To answer this, we but need to consider the men mentioned above, whom we know from Scripture to be examples of humility. Moses was a man of strength, assertion, power, zeal, and compassion. Jesus showed courageous zeal when he cleansed the temple, apparent insensitivity when he ignored the pleas of the Canaanite woman who beseeched him with cries for her demon-possessed daughter, he was angry with men’s hardness of heart (Mark 3:5), and he boldly castigated the scribes and Pharisees. Were these strong actions inconsistent with the humility of these men? Perhaps Moses, who was himself a sinner, acted at times contrary to his virtue of humility, but Jesus, who was sinless and ever consistent in his holy walk, was surely acting boldly without compromising his meekness. Clearly, then, humility will at times manifest itself through its possessor’s bold, frank, and seemingly hard actions, as well as through the patient gentleness that would be appropriate at other times.
Our understanding of humility cannot be formed on the basis of psychological analysis or sentimental feelings. The Bible makes clear to us that the starting point for humility is not our determination to act with meek gentleness toward all people in all situations. Instead, the starting point for genuine humility is one’s subservient attitude before God. Accordingly, if God cries out against sin, so do his humble servants, such as the prophets; if God is grieved over men’s hardness of heart, the humble are grieved; if God stoops to serve and save unworthy sinners, the humble follow the divine example (Phil. 2:1-11). Therefore, we should expect to find the truly humble acting at times as bold as lions and at other times as meek as lambs. The key to their attitudes and actions is found in their utter communion with, devotion to, and faithfulness toward the God whom they serve with humble gratitude and love.
Such humble devotion to the Lord is without the sort of fawning affectation that characterizes counterfeit humility. Genuine humility is an attitude of mindful and loving devotion to God. The humble person is mindful of the Lord and of his will revealed in his Word supremely above his being mindful of his own needs and desires or even those of other people. At its heart, humility is characterized by an adamant determination, on the part of its possessor, to know and obey the will of God, though such obedience should lead to the death of the one obeying (Phil. 2:8).
Through such supreme and loving regard for God, the humble also have higher regard for others than they do for themselves (Phil. 2:3). But this does not mean that the humble render themselves uncritical servants to further the godless goals of others. True humility is godly humility, and those acting from such humility will ever seek and serve to move others into increasingly vital and blessed communion with the Lord. Their service may at times include strong cries of admonition or exhortation to those who are nurturing rather than mortifying their sin; at other times their service may consist of patient and gentle ministry of comfort and encouragement to those who may be growing weary in their course of well-doing. Whatever form the administration of the humble man’s service may take, it always issues from a sense of blessed privilege, holy joy, and deepest gratitude that the humble find when they lie low at the foot of the throne of God’s grace and glory. The service of the humble ever aims to move others to that place of supreme blessedness that only those who walk humbly with their God can enjoy. The humble have found and strive to share with others the secret that the way up is down, the way to highest, most glorious and everlasting life, is when one buries oneself in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.
William Harrell is Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia
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