What is Humility?

In my early years when I became a follower of Jesus, whenever I’d hear the word “humility” in church I felt I could never really define it clearly but I did have a general idea or picture that would come to mind:

Someone that wasn’t prideful but who wasn’t all that confident as well...even weak to a certain degree. Someone who didn’t assert themselves but gave way to others to avoid conflict at all costs. This person would never talk about themselves or about gifts or talents they may have and they would most certainly be nice, pleasant, and careful to not offend anyone's sensibilities....they’d be tame...there’d be no extremes of positivity or negativity, joy or sadness but more of a muted personality. They would definitely not be the risk-taker or entrepreneur type as they’d probably gravitate towards what was always safe.

This bothered me as I grew older. It bothered me because I kept hearing that “being humble” is something I should do but being that person I just described sounded miserable. It didn’t sound like living life to its fullest but rather admitting that I’d never know the answer or have what it takes. That the issues of life and my own sin were bigger than me and that was a good thing to realize because I was a sinner and that would never change. I couldn’t help but notice though, that every time I read the gospels I was astounded by the things Jesus would do and say and the boldness and frankness with which he would say them and think, “Man...Jesus doesn’t seem very humble.”

Now, before you cry “blasphemy!” and reach for a stone, let me explain:

That “general idea” that I had of humility wasn’t correct but I never had it explained to me or was shown what true humility looks like. I love clear definitions. Understanding the different aspects of life as a follower of Jesus is so important...after all, how can I walk in Jesus’ ways if I don’t clearly understand what those ways are? So, I obviously needed a redefining of what humility was as I’d heard from a number of pastors things like, “Jesus is the most humble person that has ever lived.” THAT was exciting to me...because I wanted to be like Jesus...I wanted to live full of the spirit, full of the love of God, full of confidence in my identity, and boldly. I’d also heard a pastor named John Piper say that, “Humility is the good soil in which all of the fruits of the spirit grow. If that soil is no good, then everything else in the christian life will wither.” Alright then, humility is important...very important. So, what is humility?

The world’s idea of humility is, I believe for many, much like the one I used to believe and described above. If Jesus is our model of humility though, that definition must be wrong. Where do we look then? The Word of God. Scripture is such a gift to us. It’s like a compass which helps us to navigate life when we align ourselves with it...it always points “north” to Jesus. Unless your talking about magnetic north as opposed to true north but that’s another blog post ;)

When we search in the scriptures we find a plethora of them which deal with humility or what humility looks like. The scriptures I’m going to talk about below are by no stretch of the imagination an exhaustive list...if you just search “humility” or “humble” on a bible search engine you’ll get a tons of results but that’s not all the scriptures have to say about it. I’ve found that many of the scriptures that talk about humility or being humble don’t always use the word itself but rather they describe how we ought to relate to God and the habits of the heart that we create (or neglect) to relate to him rightly. So, for this (relatively) short blog post, I’m going to look at only six key scriptures that I believe, viewed as whole, reveal a great picture of what humility is, what it looks like, what it feels like. Sure, there’s plenty more scriptures than I’m using today, but as a beginning point these six will serve us well. I encourage you to do a longer study on the topic on your own...can’t imagine many better ways to spend time with God than by learning how to relate to him and what habits of the heart we need to foster that in our lives. Also, a succinct one or two sentence definition won’t do either as I don’t think it’s enough. Scripture rarely gives us definitions and procedures. Rather, it tells a story, namely the story of who God is, how He has reconciled the world to himself, and how we as his people ought to relate to him.

Humility is Giving God All The Glory for Our Salvation

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” - 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV

So what is this scripture saying? When we stand before God in heaven after Christ has returned in glory I don’t think the first thing out of my mouth is going to be, “Man Jesus...I’m so glad I followed you and saved myself...I’m pretty sharp aren’t I? Heh? Thanks for the cross and all, but life was pretty tough and I’m glad I persevered and earned it.” I think it will look more like me on my knees weeping joyfully, praising God, and overflowing with thankfulness saying, “Thank you Jesus for saving me when I didn’t deserve it, thank you for renewing my mind and my heart so that you seemed beautiful to me, thank you for loving me even when I didn’t love you, you are my greatest treasure.” Or something like that...I’m sure I’ll come up with something more eloquent by then. The point is, God didn’t save us because we earned it, in fact, we deserved the opposite of saving: punishment and wrath. However, this is where Jesus steps in:

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” - Ephesians 2:4-9

We won’t be boasting in the presence of God. We’ll be rightly giving all the glory and all the credit to him. Humility does this, Jesus does this. A humble person gives all the credit, all the glory, for our salvation to God and God alone because they know they are saved by grace alone that comes through Jesus Christ.

Humility is Believing Everything We Have is a Gift from God

“I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” - 1 Corinthians 4:6-7 ESV

I remember the first time I joined a Life Group in Abilene, TX. After I had attended for a while, the leader of the group approached me about leading a life group and he encouraged me and listed off a number of things that he saw in me...things I was currently good at or gifts I had and gifts that he believed I had that I wasn’t currently using or walking in and, honestly, they were nearly impossible for me to imagine EVER doing. I remember walking away from that conversation thinking something like, “Does he really see that in me? I don’t think I’d ever be able to do that...I don’t think I have those gifts...I definitely don’t have gifts like he does. But I trust him so much and for some reason he sees those things in me…” Now, if you’ve ever thought similar thoughts when you’ve been encouraged by someone who seems to have so many gifts that you can’t count them, I share that so that you know you’re not alone. That’s often how discipleship and encouragement works! It’s a good thing.

What I realized and came to believe later is that my Life Group leader was seeing things in me that God sees...he was seeing gifts in me that God had put within me which could only be lived out and used by the Holy Spirit working in and through me. What’s even more surprising, is I realized what I was actually doing was not only NOT trusting God and the things he’d put inside me but that I was trusting and relying more in myself and my own abilities than in God’s...I was being prideful. What?! How can pride make me less confident? I thought prideful people thought way too much of themselves? However, pride can take many forms:

“I, I am he who comforts you: who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten the LORD, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth…” - Isaiah 51:12

I love when scripture throws me a curveball and that’s exactly what happens in this passage from Isaiah. God literally says, “who do you think you are to be afraid? Have you forgotten me and who I am?” Wow. I don’t normally expect to be accused of pride when I’m feeling less than confident. So when I forget God and don’t trust in him, pride can manifest in two ways:

  1. Despair - By thinking that our gifts are not all that significant because we’re looking at our own abilities and not to the Holy Spirit working in and through us and the abilities we possess.
  2. Arrogance - By thinking that our gifts are pretty awesome and we’re the best thing since sliced bread. Saying to ourselves, “Why do I need God if I have all these talents?!”

So, what’s the point? My boasting always needs to be rooted and grounded in the Lord...if I boast in my own great abilities that is called arrogance or pride and if I look to my own abilities and despair because I can’t find anything to boast in that’s pride too. Paul says in 1 Corinthians above, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” A humble person believes that everything they have is a gift...A GIFT FROM GOD! So, if they’re from God, there are no insignificant gifts. Gifts, talents, intelligence, humor, wit, possessions, EVERYTHING is a gift from God to be used for God’s glory so do not speak of your gifts as if you did not receive them from God almighty. Humility does this, Jesus does this. A humble person loves to acknowledge that apart from God they could do nothing.

Humility is Believing Life Itself is a Gift from God

“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” - James 4:13-17 ESV

This one is similar to the last except, instead of focusing on the gifts we possess, it’s focus is on our very life itself. I’ve made a lot of plans in my life. Things I wanted to do, careers I wanted to have, places I wanted to go, etc. and if there’s anything I’ve learned in the last 5 years it’s that plans can change! :-) Jesus’ brother, James, writes this amazing passage above that puts a tremendous question mark over all my plans because he points out that tomorrow is not owed to me...that it’s not a guarantee that I’ll even have tomorrow.

So, simply put, my life is a gift...every breath, every heartbeat, every sunrise, every sunset, every fulfilled dream, every moment...it’s all a gift from God. James goes even further to say that me making plans and not acknowledging, “If the Lord wills” before I make those plans is arrogant boasting. I used to think when people said that it was just a phrase really meaning “I hope this happens” but what I’ve realized from seeing truly humble people live life is that actively acknowledging that all my plans are subject to the will of God has the wonderful effect of making my heart overflow with thankfulness towards God for even the smallest of things...like a heartbeat, or a breath, or another day. Humility does this, Jesus does this. A humble person makes it a practice to speak in this way which then creates a habit of the heart to thank God for every big thing and seemingly mundane thing.

Humility is Rooted in The Gospel

“Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” - Colossians 3:12-13 ESV

Have you ever met someone who’s not a believer but seems pretty humble about their amazing talents or abilities? I have. So, can a person be humble and not be a believer? I don’t think so, or at the very least, their humility will not be true humility in the sense that true humility can’t even begin without receiving what Christ accomplished on the cross. In the scripture above, the apostle Paul states that “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” What he’s saying is that knowing that we are forgiven by God is the only thing that allows us to walk out the exceedingly humble act of forgiving an offense or sin against us. Christ’s forgiveness empowers us and is the model for how we ought to relate to those around us.  

What’s more is that I believe humility being rooted in the gospel, in the grace and forgiveness of God, not only allows us to forgive others but it also allows us to walk in so many other things that we are called to do as Christians. Remember the quote I shared earlier from John Piper? The one about humility being the good soil in which everything good in the Christian life grows? Without humility, forgiving others, serving others, having faith, obeying God, worshipping God, so many things will begin to wither because we begin to focus on ourselves rather than God.  

Knowing, believing and trusting that we’re forgiven by God and therefore we ought to forgive others is the starting point for humility. Humility does this, Jesus does this. A humble person values and treasures the very forgiveness they have received from Christ by giving it away to others in the same way it was given to them.

Humility is Serving Others

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” - Philippians 2:3-8 ESV

I love this passage. It relentlessly pulls on the roots of the self-centeredness and pride which is my default condition apart from relationship with Jesus. To count others more significant than ourselves, to humble ourselves like Christ, and to take the form of a servant is to go upstream against our broken human nature and become more like Jesus. I love how this scripture charges us with how we are to live and see others and then immediately points us to the example of Jesus’ humility and servanthood. When I really let this reality hit me...that Christ serves US...that Christ humbled himself on our behalf it leaves me in awe. The knowledge that Jesus serves me in every way and that I do not deserve it disarms me. It drives home the importance of obedience to God and the fact that obedience to God cannot be lived out without humility.

Jesus’ humility in his relationship with God was necessary to reconcile us to God and that makes me wonder: How much of the relational issues, difficulties, problems, heartaches and sins in our lives would be remedied if I would take on the humility that Christ demonstrated and obey God even to the point of death. How much peace and life would I bring and how many people would come to know God if I began to serve others as Christ has served me. Humility does this, Jesus does this. A humble person takes the form of a servant...they serve others.  

Humility is Believing That True Greatness is Measured Differently

“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” - Mark 10:42-45 ESV

In a world where success or greatness is measured by a bank account, possessions, praise of others, or achievements this passage turns the world on its head. Jesus redefines greatness for us here by again pointing to himself and to how he lived. Humility will never be something that describes us if we don’t understand this passage. Jesus came not to be served but to serve. Did you hear that? If we think serving Jesus is something Christians do...we may be right in a way...but we’ll miss the more important jaw-dropping reality that Jesus is the servant of all. He served us. He still serves us. He serves us every day of our lives. He knew what true greatness was and that was to be the servant of all, to go low and to help lift up others around him to God that they might come to know Him and glorify Him. Humility does this, Jesus does this. A humble person defines greatness as going low, humbling themselves, and becoming a servant to those around you that God might be glorified.

If you read all of the above and feel like you’re miles (or light years) off target do not despair...to be humble...to give God all the glory for our salvation and our gifts, to believe life itself is a gift of God, to be rooted in the grace and forgiveness of the gospel, to serve others, and to believe that true greatness is to serve like Jesus has served us is not just a feeling or a belief that you muster up and just start doing...it is a habit and a discipline of the heart which requires the Holy Spirit to walk in. It is something the Holy Spirit empowers you to do. Humility is not one of those things that we seek directly like we seek to have more knowledge or we seek to use our time more often to serve...it’s only attained when we seek to live like Jesus lived. When we begin believing all the things listed above, when we begin talking in those ways (even when it feels silly and our heart isn’t always in it), when we begin serving and doing the things God calls us to do we will find that the Holy Spirit grows in us something called humility.  The Holy Spirit will help you to get there, he will remind you along the way, and will convict you when you begin to stray so that, by grace of God, we become more and more like Jesus.

What is Humility? We have only to look to Jesus.