Humility might be the most misunderstood of all the Christian virtues. It might also be the most important. After all, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5 ESV).
Old Testament and New, the issue of humility appears inseparable from the issue of salvation. King David said, “You save a humble people, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down” (2 Samuel 22:28 ESV).
So what is humility?
Obviously, it matters and just as obviously, getting it wrong could have eternal consequences.
Perhaps it would be helpful to begin with what it’s not.
What Biblical Humility Is Not:
People often mistake personal insecurity for biblical humility, but they are clearly not the same. According to the Bible, it is no sin to know who you are and to know what you are called to. The Apostle Paul said:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10 ESV)
Paul knew what he was and he knew who he was and when necessary he spoke openly of those things to the people under his care. The opening line of his Epistle to the Galatians betrays no hint of personal or ministerial insecurity, “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father” (Galatians 1:1 ESV).
When he had to, Paul could assert his authority. In the midst of his sometimes-troubled relationship with the church in Corinth he put the matter plainly, “What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Corinthians 4:21 ESV).
Knowing who you are; knowing what you are called to and being diligent in the discharge of your duties in the household of God does not mean that you are proud, any more than being hesitant, retiring and unwilling to fulfill your commission makes you humble.
Insecurity ought not to be confused with biblical humility – and neither should indecisiveness.
There is no surer way to be labelled as a humble person in many an evangelical context than to preach a sermon or write a book filled with questions instead of answers.
Who can know?
Who can say?
I’m open to any and all perspectives.
That is what humility sounds like according to many.
But not, apparently, according to Jesus. He preferred men of character and conviction. He pointed to John the Baptist as a prime example:
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
10 This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” (Matthew 11:7–11 ESV)
John the Baptist was a man of straight lines and hard edges. He made bold statements and gave clear directions. He pointed at Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).
Indecisiveness is often nothing more than a failure to take God at his Word. It is not humility – though it is often mistaken as such.
Hedging your bets, playing it safe and hiding your talent in a cloth should in no way be associated with biblical humility.
The Apostle Paul lived his life and executed his ministry almost like a man possessed. He said:
“I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10 ESV)
“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14 ESV)
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7 ESV)
Evangelicals too often look at a hard-working person and wonder what they are trying to prove. Are they trying to earn their salvation? Are they trying to merit God’s kindness? Are they proud of what they can achieve through will and force of labour?
But perhaps, like the Apostle Paul, they are merely living each day with one eye on the Final Judgment. Perhaps they are fearful of entering into eternity as a naked man escaping from the fire. Perhaps they are motivated by the desire to receive from God the greatest of all commendations:
“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:21 ESV)
In that same parable Jesus made it clear that he is no respecter of laziness and sloth:
“You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:26–30 ESV)
Inactivity is not humility. It is rebellion; it is sloth; it is unfaith.
So what is biblical humility?
What Biblical Humility Is:
Jesus is the ultimate standard for biblical humility. What he said, and how he lived ought to serve as our definitive guide. In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, he made it clear that true humility means utter dependence upon the mercy of God.
1. Utter dependence on God’s mercy
Luke tells us that he gave this teaching to counter a tendency among some to “trust in their own righteousness”:
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10–14 ESV)
In this parable, to be “humble” is to be aware of your own sin and unworthiness and to cast yourself entirely upon the mercy and undeserved kindness of Almighty God. It is in that sense, very similar to what Jesus meant by “poverty of spirit”. In the Sermon on the Mount he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3 ESV).
People who are “poor in spirit” are aware of their desperate position and entirely dependent upon the mercy and kindness of God. They are humble – in the biblical sense of the word.
2. Unconcern for power, prestige and position
According to Jesus, humble people are not scrambling for power, prestige and position. They take the lowest seat and they are content to function as servants. Jesus often contrasted his own expectation for his disciples with the proud and self-serving conduct of the scribes and Pharisees:
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall l be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8–;sawœc12 ESV)
In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus caught the disciples arguing over rank and seniority, he called them together and said to them:
“If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:35–37 ESV)
To be humble – in a biblical sense – is to disregard all concern for rank and privilege and to live one’s life in service to the least of Christ’s disciples. It is to accept all, serve all and prefer all – in Jesus’ name.
3. Unquestioning acceptance of God’s Word
Jesus is the ultimate example of biblical humility, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6–8 ESV)
There is no biblical definition of humility that does not include absolute, unquestioning obedience to the Word of God. In Isaiah 66:2 God says, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2 ESV).
J. Alec Motyer says helpfully here, “This, then, is what looms large before the Lord’s gaze: our lowliness before him in worship, our self-awareness and our painstaking sensitivity to his word.”
That is true humility. That is the one who receives mercy. That is the one who is given grace – thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
N.B. I was helped in writing this blog by a conversation I had with several Christian pastors, leaders and teachers. You can listen to that conversation here.
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.
 J. Alex Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20 of Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 453.