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“For those who would learn God’s ways, humility is the first thing, humility is the second, and humility is the third.” It has been more than 1,600 years since Augustine wrote those words. They are counterintuitive in today’s world, where self-assertion is in our social DNA. Yet their truth was established long before Augustine, and God’s Word gives us clear directions on how to avoid false humility and to experience the real thing.

Take our regeneration. When we read that “of his own will” God “chose to give us birth” (James 1:18, NIV), there is no room for even a particle of pride. The fact that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) confirms that the miracle of regeneration has its genesis nowhere else but in the eternal will of God. Although we are “justified by faith” (Rom. 5:1), which we are responsible to exercise, we are told that this “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:9). It is not the cause of our salvation, entitling us to take at least some credit for having believed; instead, it is the God-given means through which the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. We are not saved for believing, but by believing, as God graciously enables us to take Him at His word.

True humility, rather than one that masks pride, should permeate our daily lives as Christians. With the ultimate economy of words, the Bible gets straight to the point: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). If we were to do what this verse says, it would have a life-changing impact.

Two things need to be noted here. The first is that the verb “humble yourselves” is in the passive voice in the original Greek; its literal translation is “be humbled.” The truly humble person doesn’t join Charles Dickens’ Uriah Heep in boasting, “I am well aware that I am the ’umblest person going”; nor do they even think this might be true. If we try to give the impression of humility, we may be deceiving others, but we are certainly not deceiving God. Oswald Chambers was right to call conscious humility “the most satanic type of pride.” False humility invites attention to itself; true humility is unconscious.

True humility comes by cultivating the mind that seeks only to serve others without either recognition or reward.

The second point is that “before the Lord” means having the Lord in mind as we go about daily life. King David was hardly a consistent paragon of virtue, yet he testified, “I have set the Lord always before me” (Ps. 16:8). If we truly did this, it would revolutionize our lives at home, at work, at leisure, and in our church-based relationships, and it would have a profound effect on what we read, watch, think, and say.

The Bible’s promise that “he will exalt you” makes nonsense of our own pathetic appetite for appreciation, and it tells us that true humility is the key to receiving God’s favor: “One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor” (Prov. 29:23). As G. Campbell Morgan neatly put it, “All God’s thrones are reached by going downstairs.”

A major area of life in which false humility can mask pride is in the exercise of our spiritual gifts. The Apostle Paul easily deflated “puffed-up” members of the early Corinthian church by asking two questions: “Who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). As Matthew Henry pointed out, “A sinner snatched from destruction by sovereign grace alone must be very absurd and inconsistent if proud of the free gifts of God.” It should only take a moment to see that answering Paul’s questions would be a great antidote to arrogance and a great help to humility. Pride of performance can often be hidden by a show of humility, a cloak deliberately designed to help others value our virtues. We repeat pious platitudes about giving God the glory but are not averse to receiving at least some of the praise. Yet true humility is fundamental to God-honoring ministry. Great men never think they are great, and small men never think they are small. A truly humble person is more jealous for God’s honor than his own.

One key pointer to genuine humility is this: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). Jesus laid aside heaven’s glories, took on all the perils and pressures of humanity, and allowed Himself to be crucified. In all of this, He humbled Himself so that others might be exalted. As Alec Motyer pointed out, “He recognized no limit to the extent to which his obedience in self-humbling must go.” Of course, the vicarious element in His sacrifice was unique, yet His followers are called to cultivate the mind that drove it on. True humility does not come by smugly ticking boxes but by inwardly cultivating the self-humbling mind that seeks only to serve others without either recognition or reward. Preaching recently in a church in Athens, I was struck by a notice in the minister’s office that displayed the words of the missionary Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf: “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.” In Matthew 25, Jesus taught that on the day of judgment, those welcomed into heaven will not even remember every time they had faithfully served the Lord.

Our Savior was “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29); true humility earnestly seeks to follow the example of the One who is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).

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From the January 2018 Issue
Jan 2018 Issue