The two Christian character traits taught most frequently in the New Testament are love and humility. The classic passage on love is, of course, 1 Corinthians 13. The classic passage on humility, though it never uses the word, is Matthew 5:2–12, popularly known as the Beatitudes. And just as 1 Corinthians describes love, so the Beatitudes describe humility.
Jesus began His teaching with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). The poor in spirit are those who have become convinced of their spiritual poverty. They see their continued sinfulness even as believers. In contrast to the self-righteous Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men,” they identify with the tax collector who cried out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:9–13). This is where humility begins, with a deep sense of our own continued sinfulness.
Jesus continued, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4). This second beatitude follows naturally the first. Those who see their continued sinfulness mourn over it. They long to see more progress in putting to death the persistent sins in their lives — even those “respectable” sins we so often tolerate in ourselves.
The third beatitude, “Blessed are the meek,” (v. 5), arises out of the first two. Meekness is not weakness of character but strength of character. It is the attitude of one who, realizing his own spiritual poverty, acknowledges he deserves nothing from the hand of God or his fellow creatures. He does not become resentful under adverse providences of God or the mistreatments of other people. He believes God will work all things for his good, so he leaves his case with God.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (v. 6). What causes believers to hunger and thirst for righteousness? It is a growing recognition of their own continued sinfulness, coupled with the glad realization that their sins are covered by the blood of Christ and that they are clothed with His righteousness. They deeply desire to be in their experience what they are in their standing before God. They long to be freed more and more from the persistent sin patterns in their lives and to see more of those gracious traits that the Bible calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” The tension between what they desire to be and what they see themselves still to be produces a continual state of humility toward God and other people.
“Blessed are the merciful” (v. 7). Mercy in its most basic form denotes a sense of pity or compassion for those in some state of misery. But sometimes it stands for forgiveness, as when the tax collector prayed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). This is undoubtedly the sense in which Jesus used it here. The best description of this form of mercy is in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:23–35). The master had pity on the servant who owed ten thousand talents and forgave him that tremendous debt. Shortly thereafter the servant encountered a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii (a paltry sum relative to that which he had owed) and refused to forgive. The master, when he heard about it, said, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (vv. 32–33).
The merciful, then, are those who realize how much they have been forgiven, and they readily forgive those who sin against them. Mercifulness begins with humility, with a deep sense of one’s own spiritual poverty coupled with a growing realization of how much one has been forgiven by God.
“Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matt. 5:8). To be pure in heart is to be free from defilement in the very core of our being. It does not mean sinless perfection, but it does mean one’s life is characterized by a sincere desire for and an earnest effort to pursue that holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).
“Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9). A peacemaker seeks first to be at peace with others. As Paul wrote, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). That means we take the initiative toward peace even when we have been wronged. Only when we have this attitude toward ourselves can we seek to be a peacemaker among others.
The person who seeks to live out these seven beatitudes will usually stand out in society. One would think that people would admire and appreciate those whose lives are characterized by these traits. But the opposite is often true. Society does not appreciate humility because it is so counter to their values. As a result you may be reviled and even persecuted, but in the end you will be blessed because “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).