Trying to Pin Down Humility

Pride was the focus of one of my posts last week, and I said that I would focus on humility for this week. To be honest I find humility much harder to pin down than I do pride, even with its somewhat complicated nature. This is because humility has often been defined and modeled in very different fashions in my life. It also doesn’t help that while the Bible speaks of and promotes humility as a virtue, it doesn’t directly present a guidebook on how to be humble.

For a bit too long I thought of humility as thinking poorly of oneself. This way of looking at humility was to believe that you were not worth a whole lot and that your only worth was ultimately found in God working through you. I’ve since changed my opinions on this. While I do believe that our ultimate worth is in following and allowing God to work in your life, I also believe that we all have intrinsic worth as humans made in God’s image and by being loved by God even though we were enemies.

This type of humility is rather bleak. It can even lead for us to think too much of ourselves because we are always the cause of every misfortune and disaster. It was because we were worthless that things went wrong in our lives, and that is not a very healthy view to hold.

There are also those who want to present humility as not really thinking about yourself at all. Peter Kreeft in his book Back to Virtue presents a view like this by saying that humility, “isn’t so much thinking about yourself in a low way but not thinking of yourself at all.” This also seems to be a view taken by Tim Keller. In his book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness he says this, “…the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.”

While I think I understand what these attempts are getting at, they seem insufficient to me. The idea of self-forgetfulness seems to be too much of a reaction to the view where humility is always thinking of yourself negatively. We cannot help but think of ourselves at times. One could say that thinking of our needs is a way to keep ourselves alive. Also, what do we do with ideas like self-reflection or evaluation? Isn’t there a need to think of ourselves to some degree? Done properly, thinking of yourself would not be a hindrance to humility or a road to pride.

So with these definitions of humility seeming to come up short, in my mind anyhow, my thoughts have been led into a slightly different direction. To me humility, and particularly Christian humility, seems to be about understanding one’s proper position. This position changes depending upon whether we are relating to God or to the fellow men and women around us.

In terms of being humble before God, the Bible seems to indicate that humility is exemplified in understanding the fact that we are not equal to or over God, but that God is over us. A brief example of this is in Genesis 18:27 where Abraham in an exchange with God says, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes.” Here Abraham is understanding that his position compared to God is lower. Using language that would bring up echoes of the creation story, Abraham is highlighting his understanding of the creator being over creation. This isn’t stopping him from questioning God or anything, but Abraham knows his place while doing it.

There are other examples that could be used like how Deuteronomy 8:2-3 uses humility that highlights following God’s commandments and relying on God for certain provisions. It again presents the idea that people are not equal to God, but rather subject to God. Rejection of this setup is considered sinful, because humanity is trying to be equal to or over God.

Humility has different nuances when we are relating with other humans. In this case humility is the understanding that we are all equal even in our diversity. I’ll give a couple examples of this. To take a direct verse we’ll look at 1 Peter 5:5, which says,“In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,“’God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’”

Now one may expect that with the idea of the younger submitting to the elders that humility would be on the shoulders of the young, but that doesn’t seem to be what follows. Instead a call for everyone, I’m assuming both elder and younger, are to be humble towards one another. To me this presents the idea that while there may be some hierarchy to follow in certain cases, true humility is the understanding of each of us all having a different combination of weaknesses, sins, strengths, gifts, and a united dependence upon the forgiveness, love, and grace of God.

I think this is what is on display in 1 Corinthians when Paul is talking about the body of Christ. Some people within the church at Corinth were starting to view certain gifts as higher than others. This was leading to pride among some of the members, who believed that they were better than others with so-called lesser gifts. Pride also seemed to follow along economic lines as well as the rich were abusing the communion to the point of drunkenness while the poor had little to nothing to eat and were left hungry.

Yet Paul lays out the idea of the body of Christ. It is a model that displays one of unity and equality, we are all part of the same body. However, at the same time it is a model of diversity as well. In a body there are many different parts doing different things. We will all have different gifts, personalities and talents to bring to the kingdom of God. It is not prudent to expect that everyone within the faith would have the same gifts, talents, interests, and personalities. We can all be quite different, but even in our differences there is to be an equality and unity.

This is also true in a more negative way too. We all have our own sins and struggles that we face. They will not always be the same struggles and sins, but they all require us to repent and draw near to the grace and love of God. It’s easy to look down on the sins of others, especially if they are not our particular sins, but just because the sins and shortcomings may be different they do not place us as better off.

We are all on a level playing field in that regard. We are all in the need of daily grace and forgiveness. Due to our great need for this grace, I would hope our desire would be to display it to those around us as well no matter where they may be in life.

So this is what humility looks like to me in the Christian life. It is twofold. One part is focused on our position with God and recognizing that we are not equal to or over God. This doesn’t mean that we may never question God or display doubt, but simply that we have a proper understanding of the relationship between creator and creation.

The second part of humility is recognizing the equality that we have with one another. Whether we are looking at our sins or our gifts and talents, there is an equality in both. We may not all struggle with the same sins or have the same abilities, but we share a need for grace and we can’t do everything ourselves no matter how gifted we may be.

This is the basic view of humility I’ve attached myself to over the years. I feel like I could write more, but we’re already getting a bit lengthy. Next week I plan to look at some of the practical outworkings of pride and humility in a church setting. Until then what do you think of this definition of humility? Feel free to add any insights you might have here.


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