By Peter Amsterdam
May 2, 2017
One key element in our pursuit of Christlikeness is emulating the humility of Jesus. By “putting on” humility, and “putting off” pride in doing so, we strive to become more like Jesus. In the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans, humility was seen as a negative trait. It denoted a subservient attitude on the part of someone considered to be of a lower class. It was seen as a cowed attitude, one of self-belittlement or degradation. The honor-shame culture of that time exalted pride, and humility was seen as undesirable. Jesus, however, redefined humility. He, the Son of God, humbled Himself by becoming human; thus showing that if even He, as exalted as He was, exhibited humility, it was something believers should emulate. His followers in the early church, through His teachings and example, learned to treat humility as a virtue, an important moral attitude, and a fundamental trait of Christian character.
Jesus both preached and lived humility:
For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.1
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.2
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.3
Humility was a principal characteristic in Jesus’ life, so if our goal is to be more like Jesus, humility should become central to who we are.
Dictionaries define humility in a variety of ways, such as freedom from pride and arrogance, not thinking you are better than other people, having a modest or low view of one’s importance, a modest estimate of one’s own worth. While these are proper definitions, a Christian understanding of humility takes on a deeper meaning, as it is based on our relationship with God. In their book Character Makeover, Brazelton and Leith provide a definition of humility from a Christian perspective, as follows:
Humility is a natural result of having an accurate view of who God is and having a right perspective of who you are in relation to Him.4
And who are we to God? We’re His wayward children—broken, sinful, and unable to attain full righteousness before God. Yet despite our brokenness, He loves us unconditionally. We don’t deserve His love; it’s a gift of grace, of His unmerited favor. We can’t claim His love because we are sinners, but He gives it to us anyway. He sent His Son to die for us because of His deep love for us. It’s humbling to know that we are loved regardless of our sins. We know we aren’t worthy of His love, but He loves us anyway. This helps us feel secure in our relationship with our Creator. God’s love and acceptance is the basis of our self-worth.
Because we are unconditionally loved by the Lord, we can be honest with Him and ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses, since neither will change God’s love for us. He doesn’t love us more because of our talents, nor does He love us less because of our weaknesses. Knowing that we are accepted by God makes it easier for us to have a realistic picture of ourselves. We can be comfortable with who we are and not feel that we have to be ashamed of or hide the fact that we have weaknesses, nor feel the need to inflate our strengths.
Secular and popular definitions of humility generally include traits such as low self-esteem, lack of confidence, or being a doormat, but that’s not the humility Jesus taught. As Randy Frazee wrote:
A believer has a strong sense of self-worth and a secure position of identity as one who no longer feels the need to elevate the flesh or pump up personal pride.5
Knowing we’re loved by God can allow us to have a strong sense of self-esteem and thus be able to wear our self-worth lightly, with humility, because we are secure in God and His unconditional love for us. Being secure in God’s love, we recognize that there is no reason to try to exalt ourselves in His eyes or in the eyes of others. Doing so is an expression of pride, the opposite of humility. (Pride will be discussed in an upcoming article.)
As individuals created in God’s image and uniquely loved by God, we can have full confidence in our personal worth. We can candidly recognize and acknowledge both our strengths and weaknesses, our talents and negative habits. We should strive to have a realistic picture of ourselves, without thinking that we’re either wonderful or awful. We shouldn’t lift ourselves up in pride, nor consider ourselves worthless. Either extreme—feeling that everyone is better than us, or that we are better than everyone else—is wrong, and shows pride. Thinking we’re better than others is boastful, prideful thinking; whereas feeling that we are the worst can be false humility, which is also pride because it’s self-focused.6 Humility lies between these extremes. Recognizing that we are valuable to God, that He loves us, made us, and has given us gifts and talents can help keep us from demeaning ourselves, while also keeping us from thinking that it’s all about us, that we are better and more gifted than others. As Rick Warren said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”7
Author Todd Wilson wrote:
Humility isn’t meant to make you think less of who you are, but to enable you to love others regardless of who they are. Humility is how love expresses itself toward those of a different status, rank, or position. It’s the capacity to view everyone as ultimately equal. This doesn’t mean denying differences between people. But it does mean looking past those differences to the underlying equality of all people. There are two important senses in which we are all equal—as creatures made in God’s image, and as fallen creatures in need of God’s grace. These two facts, in turn, are the foundation for true humility, because they radically level the playing field.8
If we are humble, we recognize that we are sinners just like everyone else, and therefore we don’t feel more deserving of love or less responsible to show love to others. Humility frees us from worrying about prestige or position, physical features or attractiveness, success or failure, and many other anxieties that come along with pride and measuring ourselves against others.
As Christians, we know that humility is important, as it is laced all throughout Scripture.9 We’re called to live with humility and gentleness;10 in humility consider others more significant than ourselves;11 put on humility;12 be clothed with humility;13 humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God;14 walk humbly with our God;15 do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;16 receive God’s word in humility;17 take the lowest place at a feast;18 seek humility;19 be humble in spirit.20
The Bible repeatedly extols humility and tells of the positive attitude God has toward the humble. Humility goes before honor;21 the humble will inherit the land;22 blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth;23 the humble will receive honor;24 the Lord is on high, yet regards the lowly;25 “I dwell with the lowly and contrite in spirit”;26 “I look to him who is humble and contrite”;27 God saves the humble;28 God gives grace to the humble;29 God teaches the humble his way.30
Scripture also tells us that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.31 He humbles and he exalts;32 he has brought down rulers and exalted the humble;33 humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you;34 humble yourselves and he will exalt you.35
When writing to the Philippians, the apostle Paul spoke of Jesus’ humility:
Do nothing from rivalry 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. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…36
Some translations render that last sentence as “have this attitude” or “your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” Being humble is to have the attitude of Christ, or the mind of Christ.
Paul then went on to either quote or compose an early Christian hymn,37 which makes the point that Jesus provided us with the best example of true humility.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.38
Here we’re told that our inner disposition should be similar to Jesus’, that the attitude we should have is like that of the Lord. What attitude was that? While Jesus had the same inherent character and quality and equal “rank” or “status” with God, He set it aside and took on the nature of a servant by becoming human. While He could have claimed power and glory, as was pointed out when the Devil tempted Him in the desert,39 Jesus instead chose to lower His status and humbled Himself to the point that He was willing to die the cruel, torturous death of a common criminal for our sakes. Because of what He did, God “hyper-exalted Him”—which is the literal translation of this passage. He was exalted in the greatest possible manner. In a biblical sense, one’s name carries the idea of one’s character, position, role, rank, or dignity; so when we’re told that Jesus was given a name above every name, it can be understood as saying that He was given the highest rank or dignity of all, which indicates that He is the direct object of worship. Bowing and confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord is understood as declaring that He has sovereignty over the entire universe as its Lord.
While we are not on the same plane as Jesus, we can follow the principle of humility that we see in His example. During His ministry, Jesus did many mighty works. He healed the sick, cast out demons, fed 5,000 people by multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish, and walked on water. He told the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate that He could ask His Father to send twelve legions of angels to protect Him—such was His ability, power, and status. But instead, He humbled Himself, lived His life in submission to His Father, and avoided the glory that many wanted to give Him. In doing so, He was ultimately exalted above all.
If we want to become more like Him, then we will strive to “put on” humility; and if we do, we will find ourselves blessed by the Lord.
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.40
(To be continued in Part Two)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Luke 22:27.
2 Matthew 23:12.
3 Matthew 11:29.
4 Katie Brazelton and Shelley Leith, Character Makeover (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 24.
5 Randy Frazee, Think, Act, Be Like Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 217.
6 Brazelton and Leith, Character Makeover, 25.
7 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).
8 Todd Wilson, Real Christian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 58.
9 The collection of verses in this and the following two paragraphs is from A. C. Day, Collins Thesaurus of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009).
10 Ephesians 4:2.
11 Philippians 2:3.
12 Colossians 3:12.
13 1 Peter 5:5.
14 1 Peter 5:6.
15 Micah 6:8.
16 Romans 12:16.
17 James 1:21.
18 Luke 14:10.
19 Zephaniah 2:3.
20 1 Peter 3:8.
21 Proverbs 15:33; 18:12.
22 Psalm 37:11.
23 Matthew 5:5.
24 Proverbs 29:23.
25 Psalm 138:6.
26 Isaiah 57:15.
27 Isaiah 66:2.
28 Job 22:29.
29 James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5.
30 Psalm 25:9.
31 Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14.
32 1 Samuel 2:7.
33 Luke 1:52.
34 James 4:10.
35 1 Peter 5:6.
36 Philippians 2:3–5.
37 Many scholars believe that Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn. The basic question regarding form is whether these verses are an early Christian hymn. Most contemporary scholars interpret these verses as a hymn because of the rhythmical quality, rare words and phrases, and motifs. If the verses do constitute a hymn, which seems reasonable, they reveal something of the worship of the early church. At least two characteristics predominate: They express a depth of theology which reveals in particular a highly developed Christology; they reveal that the early church had formulated its Christology in cryptic but powerful language. Further, the fact that Paul could appeal to the (apparently) well-known hymn indicates the widespread interest the early church had in Jesus. (R. R. Melick. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991. Vol. 32, 96–97).
38 Philippians 2:5–11 NIV.
39 Matthew 4:1–11.
40 1 Peter 5:5–6.