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J. C. Ryle called pride the “oldest and commonest of sins” and humility “the rarest and most beautiful of graces.”[1]Medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux said, “It is a great and rare virtue to preserve humility in the midst of honors.”[2] Thomas à Kempis advised reading the Bible with “humility, simplicity, and faith, and never seek a reputation for being learned.”[3]

If Humility is one of the highest virtues of the Christian life, more desirable than praise, and the best posture for reading scripture why is pride so common and humility so rare?

Humility is Rare

Jesus gives a vivid picture of humility in Luke 14. In a parable about where to sit at a banquet, he says not to take the best seat at the table, instead “when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when the one who invited you comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ You will then be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Humility is taking the lowest seat when you could sit at the head of the table. It’s the choice to give the place of honour to someone else.

This is why humility is rare. It’s easier to find someone who wants praise than someone who gives it up for the sake of others. Our sinful hearts want God’s throne and the praise that comes with it (Isa 14:14, John 5:44).

Humility is Essential

This is also why humility is a Christian virtue. Chase Replogle, in The 5 Masculine Instincts, says “Humility senses opportunity beyond yourself. It recognizes the value of an authority higher than yourself. We learn to fear the Lord. We learn to respect those lessons God is offering us. Fear is the beginning of wisdom. Respect is the beginning of maturity.”[4] Humility is a choice to honour God. To seek his glory, to learn under his authority and be shepherded by him.

The person whose life exemplifies Biblical humility chooses to follow Christ instead of following the desires of their heart.

In a way that seems backwards, the choice to humble ourselves is the path to honour. Lowering yourself is the way to be lifted up. James says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10).  The promise of entering the kingdom of heaven comes with humility. Jesus said, “unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child—this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3-4).

Why does humility correlate with entering the kingdom of God and also with greatness in his kingdom? Part of the answer is the connection between humility, love and maturity.

Humility and Love

The incarnation and the cross are stunning demonstrations of humility. Paul says, Jesus “emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross” (Phil 2:8-9). The one who sits on the throne over all creation took the form of a servant to die in the place of sinners.

The motive behind his humility was love. “God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:9). Love, the highest virtue of the Christian life, moved Jesus to put on flesh and take up the cross. His humility is the flesh and blood proof of his love.

Humility and Maturity

The other reason humility correlates with honour is because humility leads to maturity. The proud person is beyond teachable. Cain, in his pride, refused to learn why God rejected his offering. Instead, he complained under his breath like a grumpy teenager. To become mature, we must admit we need to learn. “It is better to presume ignorance and invite learning than to assume sufficient knowledge and risk the consequent blindness.”[5]

Humility is the scaffolding for learning. It equips us to submit to God’s lessons and make progress. I love the way Chase Replogle puts it: “Maturity does not mean you are everything you could be; instead, maturity begins by taking responsibility for who you are now, submitting to the divine lesson at hand, and humbly seeking a path toward something better.”[6]

To be humble is to take responsibility for ourselves, admit our need to learn, and grow in maturity under God’s teaching. A humble person takes up the hard work of becoming mature.

Humility is rare because people are proud. Humility is beautiful because the highest honour is to be called great in the kingdom of God. There is no path to God, no road into his kingdom, that isn’t paved with humility.

 


[1] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), 17.

[2] Elliot Ritzema and Rebecca Brant, eds., 300 Quotations for Preachers from the Medieval Church, Pastorum Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013). Adapted from Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent & Christmas: Including the Famous Treatise on the Incarnation Called “Missus Est” (London; Manchester; Glasgow; New York; Cincinnati; Chicago: R. & T. Washbourne; Benziger Bros., 1909), 70.

[3] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1996), 10.

[4] Chase Replogle, The 5 Masculine Instincts: A Guide to Becoming a Better Man (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2022).

[5] Jordan B. Peterson Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life (Random House Canada (March 2 2021) 17

[6] Chase Replogle, The 5 Masculine Instincts: A Guide to Becoming a Better Man (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2022).

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