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I recently turned on the television to watch my Boston Celtics in a playoff basketball game. The telecast began with a song that continually repeated the words “I’m the greatest.” “So much for humility,” I thought to myself. This kind of language is common today. When I was growing up, boasting was typically frowned upon. Of course, pride was rampant, but most people seemed to have a sense that they should act humble, even if true humility was lacking.
The Bible calls us to be humble. This means not simply an outward show of humility but true humility that goes to the heart. Yet there is perhaps no virtue more important and no virtue more elusive than humility. Pride always seems to get in the way. The battle for humility begins with the battle against pride. And this battle has more at stake than simply acquiring a virtue. It is a salvation issue.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes: “The essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. . . . It was through Pride that the devil became the devil. . . . It is the complete anti-God state of mind.” Pride was not only the root of Satan’s sin; it was also the root of Adam and Eve’s sin: “You will be like God.” Pride is deeply rooted in the human heart. It keeps people away from God. And it makes the ongoing battle for humility a titanic struggle.
Yet we can have hope in this struggle. God declares, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly [or humble] spirit” (Isa. 57:15). Similarly, Micah says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8). If God dwells with the humble, if God requires humility from us, then God will enable us to attain humility, even if imperfectly.
Humility begins with the recognition that we are not God, that we are sinners who fall short of the glory of God. It recognizes that in our sinful state, not only do we not deserve His blessing, but we deserve His curse, His wrath. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23)—both physically and spiritually, eternally. It causes us to cry out with the Apostle Paul: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Yet he immediately responds to this cry of despair with the answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” in whom there is “no condemnation” (Rom. 7:24–8:1). James puts it this way: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). Humility is vital for salvation.
Humility is also essential for sanctification. The church father Augustine, in responding to a pastoral letter from a young man, said, “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility.” Like salvation, sanctification and humility come only in Christ.
Paul exhorts the Philippians: “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” (Phil. 2:3–4). This is the essence of humility in the Christian life. The way to attain it is to have the “mind” of Christ (Phil. 2:5).
Christ “humbled himself” by “taking the form of a servant” and obeying God “to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7–8). Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce writes, “To die by crucifixion was to plumb the lowest depths of disgrace; it was a punishment reserved for those who were deemed most unfit to live, a punishment for those who were subhuman.” Christ stooped low to raise us on high. He sought our good even though it meant rejection, pain, and suffering.
Humility is not the same as low self-esteem. Christ knew exactly who He was—eternal God. It does mean, as Paul puts it elsewhere, that a Christian is “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (Rom. 12:3). It means obeying God by becoming a servant to others.
As with Christ, humility has a cost. Yet it also brings great reward. Humble yourself before the Lord, and He will lift you up.