Of all the qualities of virtue, few are cloaked in as much mystery as humility. Like anything rare, the true nature of humility is not easily measured or known.
It is simply impossible to gather enough humble subjects to effectively conduct any reasonable group study. Genuine humility rarely reveals itself. It exists out there, but like some snow leopard, it strives to do its thing out of sight. To most, it is a mystery that few find worth the effort to pursue.
We speak of it with respect. We admire it when the strong appear to express it. Outside of training centers or religious fellowships, where the subject is often given a nod, we find that self-promotion is far more attractive and practiced.
Historically, the humble don’t get ahead in life. They tend to die early, lose more often, and receive more hurts. The humble are not viewed as the strong. They are easy targets that are known for giving ground and walking away from fights.
Governments don’t rule for long without a strong military or aggressive politicians. Companies can’t compete and survive by stepping out of the way of the competition. Death cannot be overcome with humility, so what is the point?
Like some misunderstood appendix that physicians prefer to cut out of patients, there simply is no worldly use for humility…unless one understands the mystery.
Per popular definition, humility is “a modest or low view of one’s own importance”.
Therein is the key problem. The educated pundits think that humility is about the person who expresses it, when in truth it is exactly the opposite. Humility is not about one’s self. It has nothing to do with how a person views them self, whether low, modestly, or high. It is other focused.
Humility is a social reality, not a private quality. It doesn’t even exist outside of relationships. Humility is about others, not self. That is the key to the mystery. In order to understand what God says, this distinction must be recognized.
A quality like love may be defined in the context of being “other focused”, but humility is more precise than that. It does focus on others, but it does so for a specific purpose. To grasp the real significance and power of humility, a person needs to recognize what humility tries to accomplish and why.
Rather than some expression of self-abasement, perhaps to combat some unwanted trait like pride, humility is principally about giving honor. That is its primary reason for existing. A humble person thinks and acts for the main goal of giving honor to another person. The humble always act in the best interest of another, not for anything about themselves.
In negative terms, the humble do not put themselves down, have low self-esteem, think less of themselves, distain what they have, let others abuse them, avoid pleasure, or reject praise from others. Such expressions that appear humble are fake replicas. That is not what humility is about, as we shall see shortly.
In positive terms, the humble give credit where due, including to themselves. They are not afraid of speaking about their accomplishments, positions of responsibility, received blessings, or developed skills. They are appreciative when others give them appropriate credit and respect.
Like all great qualities, there is no better source to study than the Lord Jesus. It is his humility that Christians are encouraged to imitate, so reviewing what humility is in him, and why he did what he did, will help confirm the insight to the mystery of humility.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 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.” (Phi 2:3-11)
The biblical idea of considering others ahead of self is not about lowering self, though that may often be the observed expression. It is done for the purpose of actually elevating another. That is an important difference. It is what Jesus focused on in doing everything to bring glory to his Father. That purpose of bringing glory is what is meant by giving honor.
The secret here is that Jesus did not take glory away from himself. Rather he stepped aside from receiving the full extent of what rightly could have come to him, for the reason of ensuring the fullest expression of glory could be given to his Father during that season. The humble don’t go around in sackcloth and ashes, claiming they are unworthy. A sinner might do that, but a humble person, alters the attention toward self whenever doing so could bring greater honor to another.
The reason Jesus set aside his unlimited prerogatives as the Son of God and limited himself for a time in the fleshly existence as a man under the subtle direction of the Holy Spirit, was to bring greater attention to God. He let the full attention that rightly was due him, be resisted but not rejected.
He resisted the moments of glory so that his humanity could be demonstrated per the plan of God, that he give himself as the human atonement to pay the penalty of death for mankind’s sin. He did not, however, deny the attention his followers gave him, nor refuse the worship of those who put their faith in him, nor claim that he was nothing when in fact he knew full well who he was, where he had come from, and where he was returning (as recorded in the Gospel of John).
The humility of Jesus shows restraint of self for the purpose of elevating the will of God. That same humility remains in Jesus, even as the exalted One. Self-attention has its place, but it is only rightly upheld in the context of honoring others.
Jesus didn’t reject his “equality with God”, or think it of less value, but willingly set it aside for a season in order to do the will of God. He deserved glory and honor and worship before he came to earth. In spite of his expressions of humility, he continued to rightly deserve the same worship as a human; and, as the above text states, he clearly has been exalted to that full extent of glory.
His current state of exalted position does not mean that he has stopped being humble. Accepting worship is rightly due to him and humility does not mean that he needs to lower his view of himself. The reason for lowering his radiance, was to take on a role of sacrificial lamb in human form, in keeping with the Father’s will. Doing so brought his Father glory. It also brought us salvation. He humbled himself to honor God and to share his glorious honor with us.
In order to honor God in becoming our Savior, Jesus needed to restrain what was due to him, until it had been accomplished. His humility demonstrated the social interplay between resistance and promotion. The reason for his recognized humility was to promote another. The method came through resistance of self-attention.
Observing the method, without understanding the purpose, is what leads to distorted views of humility. It is what it is because of what it seeks, not because of how it accomplishes its desire. Humility is about elevating others, through stepping out of demanding our due, while still appreciating our positions, abilities, and rights.
What looks like weakness, feels worthless, and often appears to end just like the Cross–in disappointing death at the violent hands of the prideful–is not what it seems. Humility allows self-benefit to be donated at times to lift up another, who is either in need or is worthy of honor, with the full belief that what we sow will come back to us in overflowing measure.
The humble are fully convinced that the momentary experience of loss is worth it even to self. Godly humility exists in the belief in promised glory. It never ends with loss. That is all the ignorant can see. Humility can give up self, even to death, for the benefit of another, because it believes in the resurrection. Humility can give the unthinkable, because it has a hope in experiencing the glory of the Lord which far, far outshines any and all things that may have been given up.
Humility never rejects what is good, but it is very willing to set aside experiencing the good to self whenever there is a chance to elevate the good of another. Amazing mystery.
In this way, our humility is not about denouncing self, demeaning ourselves, putting ourselves down, rejecting any attention to ourselves, or avoiding any references toward our accomplishments, abilities, or experiences.
Seeking a job is a good place to promote our perception of personal qualifications. Looking to attract a mate, when marriage is desired, is a great time for appropriate self-promotion. Sharing our testimony of faith is another time that is often fitting for speaking positively about ourselves. Admitting to our skill at a sport, a topic, or in solving certain types of problems, is often useful in developing social relationships and contributing to the mental potluck with others. Even in a teaching situation or parenting, personal experience or wisdom, is a very appropriate expression that directly translates into the benefit of those less experienced.
That said, all the above, and many other situations can equally be distorted into pride, mixed with inappropriate agendas, and simply masked for selfish gain. That is our natural tendency. As shown in Jesus, such self-attention in a Christian is kept in check when we bring it into the primary subjection of his will. That means that we need to restrain such references to self in ways that ensure that our relationship to God is kept as the primary focus for both ourselves and those with whom we are interacting.
Whenever a circumstance indicates that it would be better to hold ourselves back, so that “he can become greater”, as John the Baptist taught, then that is humility without twisting it into self-abuse. Whenever our own desires seem to be swelling up for our own private benefit, then that would be a good time to discipline ourselves by restraining our pride, so that Jesus would be honored inside ourselves. Whenever an opportunity presents itself to elevate solutions toward the God-revealed needs of others, that is a prime time to set aside our private preferences, so that we can honor God by blessing those around us.
The mystery of humility is about striving to give honor to others by getting ourselves out of the way.