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Moses stepped into the gilded chamber of Pharaoh, the religious/political leader of the greatest nation in the world, Egypt. This shasu (Egyptian for “wandering nomad”), this gnarly, smelly man, demanded in perfect court Egyptian that his people be set free to worship in the wilderness. Thus began a contest of wills, of kingdoms, of supernatural powers. As the contest progressed, Pharaoh’s magicians were able to fake one or two of God’s signs, but they could not duplicate the work God had done in Moses. Nor did they want to.

Ever met someone with fake humility? Put it in quotes—it was “humility,” not humility. “Humility” draws attention to itself and tries to manipulate people, for it is a contrived effort driven by fear of man and envy of the truly humble. It is not the same thing as humility.

With so many people claiming to be Christians when they clearly are not, and with churches filled with people playing the cultural Christian, thus being forced to fake one of the key areas of maturity—humility—you would think we would be experts in distinguishing the real and the false. But since humility is something we are rather than something we do, Western Christians have little interest in thinking about this virtue, let alone writing about it. We should make it our duty to reflect on true humility so that we can better detect the fake in those under our care and, primarily, ourselves. Moses will be our guide on this part of the journey.

Choosing Humility

Three key events in Moses’ life shaped him, making him into the meekest man on the face of the earth (Num. 12:3). His birth and subsequent adoption, his flight from Egypt, and his death atop Mount Nebo just short of the Promised Land were crushing blows. All three were humiliating, but just because something is humiliating doesn’t mean it necessarily leads to growth in humility.

Pharaoh is an example. In the midst of Pharaoh’s overwhelming, crushing defeat, Moses says, “ ‘Thus says the LORD God of the Hebrews: “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?” ’ ” (Ex. 10:3). Pharaoh had to make a decision at each miraculous humiliation, and he chose to suffer in proud arrogance rather than with a humble heart. By contrast, Moses found grace to walk through all of the key points of suffering in his life with his head bowed before God, from whom all things flow. Moses chose humility.

Beginning in Humility

There is a particular humiliation that comes with adoption, and some handle it better than others. Before you jump to conclusions, I was adopted and have no regrets. But others seem to look at the experience with shame: “I was abandoned by my parents!” Still, I’ll guess that most were not placed in the Nile Adoption Agency, floated down a crocodile-infested river in what we might call, in political parlance, a “dangerous adoption scheme.”

Moses could take no pride in his beginning. His life was saved, but he was stripped of his heritage. He might have gloried in his education, but imagine the torment of being the only shasu in the royal school. Rather than being raised a man of obvious intellect and strength among his own people, he was brought up as a shasu-boy, an abandoned son, in a pagan court that did not acknowledge his God or his people except in derision.

Since humility is something we are rather than something we do, Western Christians have little interest in thinking about this virtue.

We may take no pride in our beginnings either. J.C. Ryle says, “He that desires to be saved—let him know this day that the first steps towards heaven are a deep sense of sin and a low estimate of self. Let him cast away that weak and silly tradition that the beginning of religion is to feel good about ourselves. Let him rather grasp that we must begin by feeling bad and that, until we really feel bad we know nothing of true goodness or saving Christianity. Happy is he who has learned to draw near to God with the prayer of the publican, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ ” (Luke 18:13).

There is much benefit in seeking to be fulfilled in Christ and His Gospel promises. But seeking self-actualization, self-aggrandizement, or self-improvement from God or any experience we have had with Him makes as much sense as the mouse seeking the same from a cat.

Humility and Sanctification

Moses, the shasu, made his home in Egypt. For this, the Hebrews viewed him with suspicion. Rather than esteeming him a “country boy made good,” they saw him as a traitor. When he risked everything to save a Hebrew, committing a capital offense by killing the Egyptian who was beating the slave, he may have thought, “This will win me favor with my Hebrew brothers.” It mattered not. He was still a shasu and a traitor. He was forced to flee and live as a nomadic sheepherder for 40 years. It was not just name-calling any more; he was now a professional shasu. But it was then that he grew, maturing from an impulsive vigilante to a man who would bow down low before a holy God speaking from a small burning bush.

Where do we experience the most spiritual growth? It can occur in various places—at fancy conferences, by the deathbed of a parent, or while reading a Gideon Bible in a stale hotel room. But we never experience growth when we lack humility. Ryle says, “The riper he is for glory, the more, like the ripe corn, he hangs down his head. The brighter and clearer is his light, the more he sees of the shortcomings and infirmities of his own heart.”

Humble in Life and Death

Moses lived a remarkable, obedient life. His powerful, God-fueled leadership brought the nation of Israel to the Promised Land. But because he openly rebelled against God (Num. 20:11–12), he was denied entrance into Canaan. He calmly accepted this punishment, this shameful pronouncement. And after God repeated this death sentence in Deuteronomy 32, the next words we see from Moses are not complaint but blessing. God graciously took him to the top of Mount Nebo and showed him the lands that awaited Israel. Then, as God gently took his life and buried his body in Moab, Moses died in humility.

Our technology has given us the illusion that we can stand up against death, against the God who is sovereign over life and death. In the spiritual realm, we are deceived into thinking that it is the theology we cherish or the law that we keep that sustains our spiritual life. God’s command to persevere cannot be separated from God’s moment-by-moment gifts of grace, the constant intercession of Christ to the Father on our behalf, the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit. We cannot watch a Christian die without being profoundly moved and humbled by the experience.

Let us watch and learn from humble brothers and sisters. And let us avoid like the plague those who would infect us with their false humility and ask us to play along with their game. Remember, “Many are humbled, but not humble, low, but not lowly” (John Trapp).

Hocus Bogus

Enthroned in Ashes: David the King

Keep Reading The Inconspicuous Virtue: Profiles in Humility

From the February 2001 Issue
Feb 2001 Issue