We all want to do well, get ahead, be successful, and be blessed by God. Therefore we should take special note of the fact that two separate times the Bible says in the New Testament that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6, 1 Pet. 5:5). If God gives grace to the humble, then being humble is a well-marked doorway to being blessed and spiritually successful in life. However, many people in this day and age do not have a clear biblical idea of what it means to be humble. This can be easily seen by watching television or movies, or from reading the dictionary.
The first definition of “humble” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “Having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits.” Included in the definition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary are meanings such as “not assertive, ranking low in a hierarchy,” and “insignificant.” While the dictionaries also point out that humility is the opposite of pride, it is safe to say that the average person “on the street” thinks of humility in terms of a person who does not think of himself as very important, is very submissive, and does not stand up for himself, but allows himself to be pushed around. That attitude was expressed more than a century ago by Josh Billings (1815-1885), who said, “The more humble a man is before God the more he will be exalted; the more humble he is before man, the more he will get rode roughshod.”
It is true that one meaning of “humble” or “humility” refers to when something high is “made low” or someone proud is forcibly “humbled.” When it is used that way, “humble” refers to being at a lower point than one was before, or to have lost prestige or status, or even to have been abased or humiliated. However, humility is used in two different ways in Greek culture and in the Bible, and the other use of humility refers to a godly posture of the heart.
In this article, we want to focus on the godly side of humility and get a clear understanding of what it is, and therefore what it looks like to be a humble Christian according to what the Bible says. Godly humility is, like the dictionaries say, the opposite of pride. However, a humble person never has a low estimate of his importance or thinks of himself as insignificant. Furthermore, humble people can be some of the most assertive people on the planet.
In the Greek text, the noun (humble) and verb (humbles, humbled) are from the same root word and refer to something that is low, or made low. In the godly sense, “humble” refers to a knowledge and recognition that we are lower than God, and humility is expressed by a state of voluntary submission to His will. Godly humility starts when we see things as they really are, and realize that God is the Creator of the universe and the standard by which everything is measured or evaluated.
If we do not understand that humility is always measured in terms of belief and submission to God’s will, we will not be able to recognize it when we see it. That is because humility occurs in the heart of a man or woman, and is not a standard “of the flesh.” Because humility is always measured in terms of submission to God’s will, the clearest indicator of true humility is a person’s obedience to God. The humble person lovingly and honestly obeys God, not like the Pharisees, who only made a show of obeying God, but omitted important parts of the Law such as mercy and justice (Matt. 23:23).
It is precisely because true humility is expressed in believing and obeying God that the humble Christian never has, as the dictionary says, “a low estimate of his importance” or thinks of himself as “insignificant.” It is God, our creator, who said that every member of the Body of Christ is important and significant (1 Cor. 12:12-26), and that is the truth on the matter.
In some ways, the dictionary definition of humility illuminates the clash between the Christian and non- Christian worldview. Dictionaries express the basic concept of humility, which is to be low in one’s own eyes. However, the dictionaries contrast the “humble” person’s worldview in terms of other people—that he is “lower” than they are, and thus we embrace definitions such as “a low estimate of one’s worthiness; not being assertive; insignificant.” A Christian definition of “humble,” modeled by Jesus Christ, is someone who in his own eyes is lower than God his Creator and thus always willing to believe what God says or do what God asks.
Jesus Christ—the model of humility
The clearest picture of humility in the Bible, indeed, in history, is Jesus Christ. He modeled godly humility for us.
Philippians 2:5 and 8
(5) Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…
(8) …he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Jesus “became obedient.” That, in a nutshell, is “humility.” We think of ourselves as lower than God so we obey Him, which Jesus did. For example, Jesus wanted to live, not be tortured and die. We know that because on the eve of his arrest he prayed three different times to God, asking if there was a way he could fulfill his messianic mission without going through what the prophecies had foretold (cp. Ps. 22:6-18; Isa. 52:13-53:10; Zech. 13:6, 7).
Matthew 26:39, 42 and 44
(39) Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
(42) He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
(44) So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Jesus certainly modeled true humility, and from his example we learn that humility is putting the will of God before our own will. It is imperative that we understand that, or we will get caught up in trying to judge humility by the standard of behavior. Some examples from the Bible will help us to be clear about this. One myth about humility is that if you tell others you are humble, then you are not. While that may be generally true, it is not “truth.” Again, let us look at the example Jesus set.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Jesus pointed out to his followers that he was humble. Although the Bible does not say why he did it, we can certainly imagine one possible reason. The Greco-Roman culture in which Jesus and his followers lived extolled strong, self-willed people who bullied their way through life and “came out on top.” King Herod, the man who was king when Jesus was born, is a good example of this. Through singular focus, worldly ways, and forceful moves, he came to reign over Judea even though he himself was from Idumea, the Greek name for Edom. The fact that he was a terribly oppressive ruler often gets skimmed over, and he is referred to as “Herod the Great” in our history books. People such as Herod would never have been thought of as “humble,” and they were not. In that culture, just as in ours today, “humble” can be mistaken for “weak.” Thus, one reason that Jesus might have said that he was humble in heart was so that others could see what “humble” really was.
It takes great inner strength and confidence to be humble. We have to be completely comfortable with who we are before God alone, and with not being recognized by earthly authorities. In that light, it is significant that the angel Gabriel told John the Baptist’s father that John “would be great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:15), because John was never acclaimed by earthly powers, and ended up dying in prison.
Jesus told a parable about one way that humble people act: they take the least important seats at a feast.
(7) When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable:
(8) “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.
(9) If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.
(10) But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.
This parable has a happy ending. The humble person did not vie for an important seat, but the host noticed him and invited him to move up to a more honored place. However, we all know that does not happen very often. What usually happens in situations like this (if the seating is not assigned) is that no one really pays attention to where the guests sit. At that point, the situation becomes a test of true humility. The humble person recognizes that he or she is a servant to everyone and is comfortable with the seating and the people he or she is close to. In contrast, the person who is not humble, but prideful and self-important, is upset at the company close by and wants to be with “more important” people.
The above example fits our standard idea of humility; that a humble person would naturally take the lowest seat at a banquet. But notice the humility Jesus demonstrated in the following record.
(13) When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
(14) In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.
(15) So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
(16) To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”
Although we may not be used to humility looking like this, Jesus was once again demonstrating humility. Jesus had been in the Temple many times before and had never done anything aggressive like this. Furthermore, he would be in the Temple many more times, but only confronted the dishonesty and merchandizing that regularly occurred there one more time (Matt. 21:12ff; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45ff). Why this show of his authority? God prompted him to do what he did, and he obeyed (John 5:19, 30). This action of his, along with the other things he was doing, led many to conclude that he was the Messiah (John 2:23).
Interestingly, it would be possible to confuse Jesus’ action in the Temple and call it pride instead of humility. What Jesus did was so powerful and assertive that many people could assume it was motivated by pride. However, pride is two sided. In what some linguists would refer to as a “happy coincidence” of the language, the English word P-R-I-D-E portrays both sides of pride. In the middle of “pride” is always “I.” On the left side is the kind of pride we are used to, which is “personal reputation.” Pride bolsters and protects its personal reputation. The other side of pride, however, is not as well known, and actually masquerades as humility! In fact, we often refer to it as “false humility.” That is the “D-E” of pride, “devalued estimation.” Devalued estimation occurs when we do not submit to God’s will and thankfully and fearlessly accept what He has done for us. Paul’s humility shines brightly when he says, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…” (Col. 1:1). Paul accepted who he was and the minstry God gave him.
In the instance of Jesus clearing the Temple, Jesus knew he was the Messiah and he was acting on the will of God. He would have been happy to walk right by the moneychangers and animal salesmen without a confrontation, as he no doubt had done many times before. But humility is submitting to the will of God.
It is humility when we read the Bible and accept it as the will of God for our lives. Note, for example, what 1 John 3:1 says about us: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” God has made us His children. It is not humility that says, “Oh, a child of God. That is such a huge honor; I am not really in that category. I am happy just to try to be a good person.” Does that sound humble? It is not, it is prideful (or perhaps done in ignorance). It is pride that denies the work of God and holds a devalued estimation of itself. Humility recognizes and accepts the work of God for what it is, and lives accordingly.
It is hard to be humble
As the song writer says, “it’s hard to be humble.” However, not for the reason Mac Davis gave when he wrote the song and the now famous line, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.” There are real reasons that it is hard to be humble. One is that we humans have a sin nature that is always trying to express itself. The Bible warns us that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit” (Gal. 5:17 – ESV). Our flesh and sin nature are always prodding us to be self-willed and ignore or disobey the commands of God. Humility takes self denial.
Another reason it seems hard to be humble is that often we do not work hard enough at it. This reason is related to the reason above, that we have a sin nature, but we often “wish” we were obedient and humble, but do not actually make the concerted effort to do it. The Apostle Paul knew that a halfhearted effort to be humble would never work. He wrote to the Church at Corinth, “I beat my body and make it my slave…” (1 Cor. 9:27). Many of us would like to think that obedience to God is easy, but it is not. Humility takes hard work.
A third reason it is hard to be humble is because the Devil makes sure we pay a high price for it. The god of this world is Satan (2 Cor. 4:4), and one of his chief characteristics is pride. In fact, it was due to his pride that he was ejected from his heavenly position before God (Isa. 14:12-14; Ezek. 28:17). He submits to God in nothing, and refuses to acknowledge any good in God’s work, which is why he only steals, kills, and destroys (John 10:10). Satan, and the world he controls, hates God’s work, which is why the New Testament tells us, “Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).
To the world, Christians are narrowminded, bigoted, exclusive, and even foolish or dangerous. Furthermore, the world mistakes the gentle, loving, and humble ways of Christians for weakness. The Adversary and those who work for him make sure that whenever Christians speak up, the world reacts violently against them. That is why Scripture says, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). The truth of these words is evident, and the persecution of Christians is occurring all over the world.
It seems certain that we would see more persecution of Christians than we do if more Christians were truly humble, i.e., truly submissive to the will of God. For example, God tells us to share our faith with others, and even that He has made us ambassadors of His Kingdom and committed to us the message of reconciliation between man and God (2 Cor. 5:18-20). Yet many people ignore the commission God gave us and do not share their Christian faith—sadly, many times for fear of being persecuted, which in the United States usually comes in the form of being mocked, laughed at, spoken against, or excluded, but can also take the form of being fired from a job or not considered for promotion.
God says that Jesus Christ is a “stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence” (Rom. 9:23 KJV), and no matter how hard we try, we cannot change that. The holy and singular nature of God clashes with the “do-what-I-want” nature of the world, and the world reacts violently to the fact that they are not “good enough just as we are” to come to God, but that they must come with and through the blood of Jesus Christ.
The violent behavior of the world causes many Christians to squelch their obedience to God, and thus their humility. As was pointed out earlier in the article, it takes great inner strength and confidence to be humble; weak and fearful people are almost never truly humble because they submit to their weakness instead of submitting to God. Thus, often because of fear or a dislike of conflict, many Christians do not openly express their love, devotion, or thanks to their heavenly Father, even though He greatly deserves it and would love to have it. Humility takes courage.
Humility in a nutshell
In summary, humility is submitting ourselves to the will of God and obeying Him. Humility is expressed as believing what God says and doing what He asks. It is an attitude of the heart that naturally recognizes that we are lower than God and owe our lives to Him. We learn about humility from studying the words and actions of Jesus Christ, the only perfectly humble person who ever lived. Finally, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that developing and maintaining a humble heart takes constant work and great courage. If we are not careful, our sin nature will rise up within us and produce pride and an entitlement attitude that will then be quickly followed by greed, anger, gossip, and other such sins. Also if we are not careful, our courage will give way to fear, and we will submit to it and not to God, and act in ways that do not bring the honor and glory to God that He deserves. Yes, it is hard to be humble, but God deserves it, so as Paul wrote, “…we make it our goal to please him…” (2 Cor. 5:9).