Are you humble?
Wow. Few questions unsettle the God-fearing soul like this one.
If we claim to be humble it sounds like a boast, suggesting at once we are not. But if we admit we are not humble, we are compelled to explain or justify ourselves, that we try to be humble and fail, etc. Or perhaps we dismiss the question as inappropriate, that it is not for us to say.
But in dealing with such a core virtue, is this hesitation and uncertainty acceptable? Can we afford to not be humble, or to be unsure if we are? Why do none of our answers satisfy, nor any variation of them? Perhaps the dilemma lies in our ignorance: not understanding what humility is.
And ignorance here is no small thing. Humility is not just any virtue, it is the gateway virtue, square one, apart from which there is no virtue. (Pr 15:33)
Without humility we are proud, an abomination to God (Pr 16:5), contrary to Him (Ja 4:6) and to each other (Pr 28:25), in a dreadful state from which we must with all diligence deliver ourselves. But if we do not know what humility is or how to recognize it, we might very well be proud and self-deceived about it, which cannot be good.
So, what is humility? Is it thinking poorly of ourselves, always disapproving of our own actions and behavior, walking in self-deprecation, never admitting to any goodness or excellence within ourselves (2Co 11:5), never measuring up? How could we then ever encourage others to follow our example? (Php 4:9) Or avoid thoughtless contradiction as we admit to seeing goodness in each other while denying it in ourselves? (Ro 15:14) The godly in Scripture did not live like this. (2Ti 4:7) Walking in honesty (Ro 13:13) requires being frank and unassuming about ourselves, even if it be good.
Is humility then refusing to claim any knowledge with certainty, always doubting ourselves? (1Jn 3:19) Again, this seems inconsistent with Scripture (2Co 11:6); the godly are certain in their understanding. (Ps 119:99)
Is humility then feeling that we are unimportant, that we should always be putting the interests of others before our own, and never asserting our own value or significance? What then of the value God has placed on us? (Lk 12:7) Has He not counted every human soul of infinite importance by making us in His image, and by being willing to become our sin and die for us, to lay down His very life to rescue us? (Ro 14:15) How can anyone be unimportant, or less valuable or significant than another?
Is humility then just thinking less about ourselves, or not of ourselves at all, refusing to carefully and consistently consider our own ways and behavior? Again, this contradicts scripture: God tells us to ponder the path of our feet, and to let all our ways be established. (Pr 4:26) We cannot do this without thinking carefully and extensively about ourselves. How can we diligently add virtue to our faith if we are unaware of ourselves and where we are in our spiritual journey? (2Pe 1:5) If we fail to examine ourselves, considering our ways, will and orientation, we may well end up missing God altogether. (2Co 13:5)
Is humility then just minding our own business, staying out of other people’s affairs? But this is not love: we are to be constantly seeking the welfare of others (Php 2:4), encouraging, rebuking, exhorting (2Ti 4:2), and admonishing one another. (Ro 15:14) Failing here destroys the very foundations of spiritual community.
Is humility then refusing to acknowledge the wrong doings of others, to refuse to name sin? Again, this is inconsistent with scripture. (2Ti 4:14) When others sin against us or others, at times we are to address it in love, not ignore it. (Mt 18:15)
Is humility then the avoidance of curiosity and exploration, being content in our ignorance? This is not the noble example of the Bereans, who searched the scriptures daily to verify what they were being taught (Ac 17:11), nor of the wise crying after knowledge. (Pr 2:3-5)
Is humility then found in weakness? Not when God commands us to be strong. (1Co 16:13) Perhaps then in a lack of confidence, or in timidity. Not when the righteous are bold as a lion. (Pr 28:1)
We can serve others, and be proud in our serving. We can be proud in our knowledge, and we can be proud in our ignorance. We can be proud in aloofness and isolation, and in our constant meddling in the affairs of others. We can be proud in ignoring sin in others, and also in incessantly bothering them about it. We can be proud in our tolerance of wrongs against ourselves, and proud in our indignant unwillingness to let things go. We can be proud in our self-focus, and in living for others. We can be proud in our importance, and proud in our insignificance. We can be proud in our weakness as well as in our strength. We can be walking in the pride of life as a manner of life, no matter what kind of life we are living, if we have no idea what humility is.
What if most everyone is walking in darkness (Ep 4:18), in wickedness (1Jn 5:19), in pride in all its hideous forms. (1Jn 2:16) What if, in our ignorance and brokenness, pride is as natural and intrinsic to us as eating and drinking (Job 15:16), and we are destroying ourselves and each other through it. (Ho 4:6) If we do not even understand what humility is, how can we expect to be otherwise?
Perhaps it would be good to establish a rigorous, working definition of humility, one which does no injustice to any text of scripture, which makes sense in the context of life’s complexities. On a concept this important, our understanding must be clear, precise, and unarguably wholesome and good. We ought to be able to say without any discomfort whatsoever, “Yes! I am humble; I am also growing in humility, and this is how.”
A Working Definition
A good place to start, as usual, is scripture. Is there a text which defines humility, or at least points us in a direction, from which we can derive a useful, working definition? I think so.
Christ says, “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Lk 14:11) Jesus contrasts humility with self-exaltation: having an elevated sense of ourselves in comparison with others. This is consistent with what C.S. Lewis says about pride: “A proud man is always looking down on people.”1 Exalting ourselves is thinking too highly of ourselves, which God warns us against (Ro 12:3), for in this we depart from humility.
Yet, if we are each infinitely valuable to God, and cannot be more important to God than we already are, we may only look down on others by diminishing them, disdaining them and disvaluing them; to do this we must devise a means to do so, a means to calibrate the value of someone else, which of necessity must be contrary to God.
We may rank people in value or importance based on their power, wealth, intelligence, strength, skill, beauty. athletic ability, or in any number of other ways. But perhaps it is on moral grounds where pride is the most destructive, and also the most common: thinking we are more righteous than others, and thus more acceptable, important, significant or valuable to God. (Lk 18:9) Yet God tells us to esteem others better than ourselves (Php 2:3), not (as in some translations) more important (since we are each infinitely important to God), but morally superior.
Being careful here, we are not told to conclude that others are morally better than we are, for that requires a moral judgement which we are not told how to make. (2Co 10:12) Esteeming is simply acting as if others are morally better, without necessarily knowing that they are, or even comparing ourselves to them, because we cannot know if we are better or worse, and since it is unlikely that we are exactly morally equivalent to anyone else.
The only possible non-presumptuous posture, that of humility, refuses to look down on any other person as less righteous than ourselves, to presume anyone else is morally beneath us in any way. It is not a judgement per se, but a refusal to evaluate the goodness or badness of others, and therefore giving them the benefit of the doubt. And when we are esteeming others above ourselves in the metaphysical realm, in our standing with God Himself in relation to His Law, which is the most important area of our lives, this tends to preclude all other harmful forms of self-exaltation.
This gives us working definitions which we can test and validate.
Pride: esteeming myself morally superior to others.
Humility: esteeming others morally superior to myself.
We thus define humility and pride together, as two sides of the same coin; in understanding one we also grasp the other.
These definitions put humility and pride on a spectrum, as we might expect, giving us degrees of both humility and pride. Extreme pride is thinking we are above everyone else, more important than all others, that all others are morally beneath us; perfect humility is esteeming all others above ourselves, that we are inferior to all others in intrinsic moral goodness.
Accordingly, we now have a practical test for perfect humility, and thus for traces of pride: apart from the constant and undeserved enabling of God, as He restrains me from evil (De 18:14) and works goodness in me (Php 2:13), do I concede that I would very likely be the most wicked soul who has ever lived? Do I live this out as a manner of life? Any other posture is to tolerate some degree of pride within, and therefore to be abominable to God to some degree. How abominable to God are we willing to be?
This definition is certainly not common, perhaps not what we might expect, and it might at first seem deeply problematic. But does it stand the test of scripture, and ultimately of common sense? When we reason it out, is this perspective unarguably wholesome, practical and healthy? Is any alternative unreasonable in the end? And what does this have to do with judging, as in our title?
Ever since the Fall, we have been making moral evaluations on our own; it is part of our DNA to recognize good and evil, but in departing from God we have taken an additional step: we now presume to define our own moral standard rather than applying God’s, presuming we know what good and evil are apart from Him (Ge 3:22), effectively setting ourselves up as little gods, and crawling up onto God’s throne to take His place.
We do this instinctively, without even thinking about it, and apart from God transforming our character at the core, we will all do this nearly all the time; we decide how guilty people are and what kind of punishment they deserve without ever consulting God, and we don’t even realize we are doing it.
For example, in the movie Taken, about a young woman abducted by a sex trafficking mob, her father (Liam Neeson) finds the ring leader and does him in. The justice of the scene is immensely satisfying, at least it was to me: the villain gets what he deserves, full throttle. Agreement with his brutal termination seems almost instinctive; anything less would be unjust, frustrating. Why?
Think of any villain in any narrative getting what they deserve: Nazis being defeated in WWII, the Unabomber finally being caught and convicted, Osama Bin Laden seeing his last. The theme of justice is central to most any conflict between good and evil. How does it make us feel when justice is done, or when it is not?
How do we know what is just? How do we know what people deserve, or how guilty and culpable they are? What standard do we use in arriving at our conclusion?
Looking at this another way, if we try to rate our own moral goodness on a scale of 0 to 100, 0 being absolute and total wickedness and 100 being absolute perfection, what grounds do we have to give ourselves any specific positive value? Is 80 reasonable? Too high perhaps. How about 50, or 20? Might still be too high. Is 1.0 low enough? How about 0.0001? How low can we go? Is it not naked presumption to give ourselves, even on our very best day, any positive value, anything above zero? (Ga 6:3)
I have some idea what absolute perfection looks like in Christ, and I know I don’t measure up, but in attempting to determine how close I am to His perfection, or how far away someone else is, I find myself in strange and unfamiliar territory, trying to make measurements in a space where I have no means to calibrate distance.
When God looks at a sinful soul, how does He measure their sinfulness? Most of what He hates about us is not even on our radar, because there is no lawful penalty for it: what is the legal punishment for a proud look, or a lying tongue, an heart that devises wicked imaginations, feet swift in running to mischief, or sowing discord among brothers? (Pr 6:16-19) Most of what we admire in others is abominable to God. (Lk 16:15) Even if we could see each others’ hearts, our moral compasses are generally so entirely broken we have no idea which way is up.
Perhaps this is why Paul put so little stock in the moral evaluations of others, even his own, calling it “a very small thing.” (1Co 4:3) We cannot see another’s motives, why they are doing what they are. We cannot know all their wounds and insecurities and baggage, what makes them tick. It is impossible for us to determine the moral quality of someone else’s heart, or even our own entirely; it is a space where we just do not belong; God occupies it well enough, all on His own. (1Co 4:5)
So, God is telling us, “judge not” (Lk 6:37): refrain from measuring or evaluating others on moral grounds. This posture does not actually condone or enable anyone else’s sin, or excuse our own, or require us to ignore sin, it’s simply the only default position that makes sense when we are not equipped to make any kind of moral evaluation. This kind of judgement is God’s job, and He does not need our help.
If we are unable to place ourselves accurately on God’s moral scale at any positive value, much less place anyone else on it correctly, then how do we compare ourselves with others on this moral scale?
In other words, being very practical, what evidence do you have that you are not, in fact, the vilest person who has ever lived? What evidence do you have that the moral choices you have been making, based on the raw material you have to work with in your upbringing and experiences, will not put you last on Judgement Day?
The answer is simple. None. You have no idea. For all you know, you actually might be the worst person who has ever lived. Unless, perhaps, it is me.
This isn’t merely academic. We are constantly and instinctively ranking others in moral goodness, judging them, comparing them with ourselves and invariably finding someone worse (2Co 10:12), looking down on them as if we are God and can tell what they deserve for their bad behavior. (Lk 18:9)
And if we are typical, we don’t do this on occasion, but as a manner of life. We do this persistently and willfully, without the slightest hesitation or trouble to our conscience. We have trained our souls in this, and we are experts at it. We are not just a little proud, we are overflowing with it.
We don’t generally do this with compassion, with tears, recognizing that we likely deserve even worse than the accused. As Tim Keller says, “Pride is the pleasure of being more than the next person.”2 We find smug satisfaction in others getting the punishment they deserve, as if we know what that should be, or we become frustrated and bitter if they appear to be getting off and not paying for their crimes.
Implicit in our responses is the thinking that we know how guilty others are and what they deserve, and that we deserve better. We are, in effect, looking down on others, passing sentences as their judges. This is, by our definition, pride, so common among us that anything else appears wildly unusual, out of sync with humanity itself.
In contrast, arguably the greatest Christian ever, writing more books of the Bible than any other, freely admitted that he was, in his own estimation, the worst sinner who ever lived. The apostle Paul thought of himself as less than the least of all God’s elect (Ep 3:8), the chief of sinners, the guiltiest of all. (1Ti 1:15) When he saw others living for themselves and not for Christ, whom he considered his moral superiors, it moved him to tears. (Php 3:18) Who lives like this? (Lk 19:41)
If I am, in my own estimation, likely the vilest person who has ever lived, this changes everything.
This is radical.
We are looking at something so profoundly different than the norm, from what we have been thinking, that it requires a paradigm shift on the deepest level, an overhaul of our entire world view. We must rewire our mindset and orientation on every level to align with this.
How can we even begin to entertain the idea of earning our own salvation, or keeping it, of somehow meriting God’s favor by trying to be good, in any way, shape or form? Even if we were perfect, we would not earn anything from God, for absolute perfection is merely our duty. (Lk 17:10) Apart from a Savior who takes our place before God, taking our punishment and giving us His perfect righteousness, what hope have we of surviving the perfect indignation of God? (Mi 7:9) Absolutely none.
And how can we ever hope to evidence those things that accompany salvation unless God not only begins the work of holiness in us, but also completes it? (Php 1:6) If He does not clean us up, put His Spirit within us, restrain us from evil and work righteousness in us, what hope have we? Absolutely none.
And how can we pretend that the benevolence of God is conditional, that His care for us depends on how well we are doing? He is kind to His enemies as well as His friends. (Lk 6:35) If there is any way that we could possibly sin away the lovingkindness of God, we would have already done this long ago.
And why would we try to leverage our talents, beliefs or actions to posture ourselves as more important or valuable than others? What real value can anyone have, apart from how God values us all, as evil as we are, in willing to be our Savior? (Ro 5:8) And how can we conclude this value to be anything less than infinite?
And why would we complain or be resentful for the way we are treated, or how we suffer, if in being the worst of sinners we clearly deserve the fires of Hell? What room is there in humility for resentment? (La 3:39) Wouldn’t a deep realization of what we truly deserve bring forth a continual fountain of profound gratitude, thanksgiving and rejoicing? (Ep 5:20)
And would our own depravity, in itself, provide an excuse for us to be less than our very best selves? Of course not! Being evil in itself is no excuse to let ourselves go and be worse than our best. If we are the very worst there is, knowing all sin harms, grieves and angers God, would we not want to make that worst the best we can possibly make it?
And should our profound sinfulness be a cause for grief? Yes, in a limited and controlled fashion, it is good that we should grieve that we are so evil without God. God sets aside a day in His calendar to be afflicted over sin in and about us (Le 23:27), and we do well to fully engage in this. (Ja 4:9) But it is not a cause for despondency and depression, for we are yet infinitely loved, and grace reigns in us as we seek the living God with whatever energies and will we do find that we have. (Ro 5:21) Our primary focus the remainder of the year is in feeding on the majesty of God, glorying in His infinitude, and meditating on His laws, which reveal His amazing nature. In this we have joy unspeakable.
And when sinners harm us, themselves or others we can care enough to be angry (Ep 4:26); we can be grieved (2Co 11:29), we can confront in love without retaliating, without vengeance, seeking the well-being of all, without deciding how good or bad anyone is. We can seek to restore relationships, or to avoid some for our mutual well-being (1Co 5:11), without evaluating anyone morally, without judging them as better or worse than ourselves.
Rather than disdaining anyone as beneath us, disvaluing them, we can see everyone as infinitely valuable, yet voluntarily enslaved to their own depraved will, captive to their own lusts and self-deceptions. We can hate what they have made themselves into, and what they are doing to themselves and others (Jud 23), without ever looking down on them; we can have compassion for them (He 5:2), praying for them, acting as if, were not for both the mercy and enabling grace of God, we would be doing worse than they are.
Yet we need not ignore sin, betraying God and destroying ourselves, by refusing to deal with sin justly; He has given us His Law to define how and why to deal certain kinds of sins through civil institutions, for His glory and our own protection. (De 16:18) In being faithful to Him we must respect and uphold His law as best we can, but we would never do so rejoicing in the destruction of another (Je 13:17), feeling satisfied in their punishment or enjoying their suffering. (Pr 24:17)
And in recognizing that we should not be struggling to prove we are more important than anyone else, being valued infinitely by God, we are free to be our very best selves, to be excellent for Him, for His own pleasure (Re 4:11), whatever that looks like in us, regardless if others value us or not.
If and when anyone finds fault with us, we need not be defensive, or protect ourselves. There is nothing to protect: they cannot possibly know how bad we actually are without God. We are free to consider their claims objectively and to grow, to improve, to prayerfully and diligently rid ourselves of all lies and deception and strongholds, if there is any merit at all in their accusations.
And we are free to observe goodness in ourselves and others without pride, without any self-exaltation or boasting, for any goodness in us is the work of God, a fruit of His Spirit working in and through us; this is enabling grace. (1Co 15:10) We are nothing but what we have received from Him (2Co 12:11), and the more goodness we find within the more God is glorified in us. (1Pe 1:7)
And we are free from fear. Fear of being rejected by God, fear of being rejected by others, fear of not being important or significant. (2Ti 1:7)
And we are free to fail; we have nothing to lose by giving our very best, our all. Failure does not mean rejection, or vulnerability, or being cast away. As God commands us He is willing to equip us, and this is hope. We have no reputation to mar by not succeeding, if we are giving our best. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by obeying God and seeking excellence in every area that we can. (Ps 16:3)
And we are free to care for ourselves as well as for others, for we are all equally valuable to God. In loving our neighbors as ourselves, we must also love ourselves. We can live our lives in service to others, yet also in balance, saying “No” when we need rest, or to enabling others in carelessness and ease (2Co 8:13), fully enjoying all of God’s gifts to us in this life. (1Ti 6:17)
And we are free to pursue our gifts and calling, for we do not deserve them; we have not earned our skills and gifts, but are pleased for God to reap a return on His investment in us, for His sake as well as our own.
And, ultimately, we are free to succeed, to be wildly successful in any and every area of our lives, for that can only be explained by the exceeding grace of God in us, giving us the will and the energy to live for Him, and this will glorify Him immensely. (1Co 15:10) We shall never be tempted to boast in our success, only to glory in our Lord. (2Co 10:17)
Is this good, unassailable and unarguably wholesome, or what!
Well, perhaps this is wholesome, and perhaps it is not. It is easy for us to reason our way into a place of falsehood, darkness and lies, further deceiving ourselves and those about us. Our reasoning may be faulty, biased; we might be blind. How do we minimize the chances of being deceived, if not in carefully considering all reasonable objections to our claims in their strongest possible form, and answering each one with diligence and integrity from the Word, as well as we can?
In other words, each of us individually esteeming ourselves the worst sinner who has ever lived raises some very difficult and penetrating questions.
An initial obvious objection is that living out this concept implies some form of inaccuracy. Clearly, we cannot all be correct in our estimation of ourselves, that we are each the very worst sinner who has ever lived; only one person can actually be the worst, and this distinction appears to have been claimed by Paul the Apostle in Scripture itself (1Ti 1:15), so how can God expect this same behavior of every single one of us? (Php 4:9)
Again, God is not asking us to conclude anything about ourselves, making a final judgement about our own moral condition, or that of any other. As we have already noted, He actually tells us not to do this. (1Co 4:5)
What He is doing at present, while we remain ignorant of His ultimate moral evaluation of all men, is telling us to take a non-presumptuous posture. Apart from an ability to conduct precise moral evaluations, we are not to exalt ourselves; we are to consider that we might actually be ranked last in the end. We allow this possibility to impact our estimation of ourselves, and leave it to God to correct us if we are wrong, rather than being corrected in any other posture. (Lk 14:10) The alternative to inaccuracy in this case is arrogance and presumption, which is intolerable. Inaccuracy is only a concern when rooted in carelessness and indifference, which is not our context.
Even if inaccuracy is permitted here, very difficult questions remain unanswered. How does this actually work? What are the practical dynamics of humility as we apply this in our daily lives?
For example, how then can anyone actually be good (Ac 11:24), while esteeming themselves to be the worst sinner ever? How do we explain any apparent goodness within ourselves or others? What is the root cause of this goodness? How can we properly account for it and yet remain humble?
The answer here is perhaps more straightforward than one might think: only God is good (Mk 10:18); without Him we are totally depraved, incapable of any goodness on our own. Even so, God is absolutely sovereign in the human heart (2Co 1:21), and is Himself our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification and redemption. (1Co 1:30-31) We are His workmanship, created in Christ unto good works, which God has already ordained for us to walk in. (Ep 2:10) This is not merely positional, it is practical: any goodness in us is the work of God, moving in and through us according to His pleasure. (Php 2:13)
Appealing to the sovereignty of God here is not a strained bit of theology, but perfectly natural; we know instinctively that God can prevent us from doing evil. This instinct forms the basis of perhaps the most common complaint from unbelievers against God: He allows evil when He could prevent it. All our bitterness reveals this instinct, being essentially a complaint that God has allowed evil to come upon us when He could have protected us. And our prayers all show us the same, being chock full of this notion; it is impossible for us to pray consistently in any other way, as if God is unable to move the hearts of men according to His will.
Understanding the sovereignty of God in our lives enables us to acknowledge and appreciate goodness within us while we consider ourselves incapable of producing this goodness on our own. We can actually be good without exalting ourselves above anyone else, considering that without God’s enabling grace we would likely be the worst sinner who ever lived. This is, in fact, the law of faith. (Ro 3:27)
All theological reasoning aside, perhaps the most imposing problem with our definition of humility is our personal experience: what we observe in ourselves and others seems to contradict it; we don’t actually appear to be the worst sinner ever. There are those about us who are, by all appearances, committed to hating God, mocking Him, grieving Him at every turn, and enjoying the company of those who do so. (Ro 1:32) How can we esteem ourselves to be the worst when we don’t experience this as a reality in our daily lives, as we are seeking God with our whole heart and displaying the fruit of the Spirit?
Our answer here is inevitably the same, since the question is the same, simply moving us from theory to experience. Paul answers when he says, “by the grace of God, I am what I am.” (1Co 15:10) It is the restraining grace of God which keeps us back from presumptuous sin (Ps 19:13), and this is our common experience.
No one knows the depravity of their own heart (Je 17:9), for God has not yet given anyone up to fully pursue their own way (Ro 1:24), so no one yet has been totally unrestrained in their sinfulness. (2Th 2:7) Since we are all uniquely designed by God, with unique potentials for good and evil, we have no idea who among us would actually be the worst if God were to totally let us go our own way.
And God must not merely restrain us from evil in order for us to be good, He must also enable us to do the right thing in the right way for the right reason. (2Co 12:9) Our sufficiency in living a righteous life is thus ultimately in the power of God and not in ourselves. (2Co 3:5) Without Christ, we can do nothing worth doing. (Jn 15:5)
With this understanding we can be humble according to our definition, acknowledging that without God restraining and enabling us, we would very likely be doing worse than everyone else (whom God is also restraining in some fashion (2Th 2:7)), willfully breaking God’s commands as a manner of life. Furthermore, we can assert without hesitation that appearances can be deceiving; motives are what God measures (De 19:6), and we cannot see another’s heart, or even our own very clearly.
Mental and Emotional Health
Finally, it is easy to anticipate a number of abuses of this concept which would be destructive to mental and emotional health. Using our innate moral poverty as an excuse to sin, or as fuel for self-hatred or neglect, or to be less than our very best selves, is not implied in humility.
Being poor in spirit, recognizing our moral poverty, is natural to the saints, but we need not be timid, ashamed, or feel vulnerable in esteeming ourselves the worst sinner ever, if this worst is, in fact, the best we can offer. (Ro 2:7) While we do not depend upon our own righteousness to be God’s children (Ro 10:4), we do try to please our Father to enjoy fellowship with Him. (2Co 5:9) It is in not even trying (Lk 19:20-23), in neglecting to abide in Him, that we find shame before Him. (1Jn 2:28)
In answering the common objections to our definition of humility, we might become convinced that we are correct, yet what good is this unless we give ourselves to pursuing humility, to actually becoming humble? How should we go about it? What would that look like?
Everyone strives for goals in different ways, and developing new habits takes time, especially habits of the mind. Training our souls in holiness is a mysterious work of the human and divine. (2Pe 1:5-7) We must be creative, persistent, and prayerful; each of us may find a different set of tools to be helpful, and this may vary over time as we grow in Christ. Every journey will look different, but there will be a common thread.
Growing in humility requires  prayerful awareness of how our own hearts are responding, both to the behavior of others and to life in general (Ps 139:23-24), and  asking God to help us see where our attitudes, feelings and motives are rooted in any kind of presumptuous moral judgment. (Pr 20:27) As we note any trace of pride within, we then  ask God to help us reject the way of lying and believe the truth (Ps 119:29), that He would restrain us (Ps 19:13) and give us repentance and deliverance. (2Ti 2:25-26) This is not something we can do in our own strength; God must help us.
It is a labor to know ourselves, to become aware of what we are thinking and feeling as we are thinking and feeling. (Ps 119:136) This is an exercise in self-examination (1Co 11:28), finding a sense of where we are so we can grow up more into Christ. (Ep 4:15) Once we understand the concept of self-awareness, the rest is simply practice and inviting others in trusted community to remind us and ask us how we are doing. Once we become aware of our own reactions we can begin to evaluate them in light of God’s Way, asking Him to reveal Himself to us. (Ex 33:13)
Pray for Insight
The purpose of self-awareness is not self-absorption or unhealthy self-focus, but to check ourselves with God’s perfection (He 4:12), the nature of Christ revealed in His Word and by His Spirit. We are to compare every thought and emotion with holiness, with God Himself, and seek to align ourselves with Him. This we do imperfectly, but as we learn we grow, and God progressively reveals His righteousness to us, moving us from one degree of faith to another in the power of God. (Ro 10:17) As we meditate on God’s Word He reveals Himself and His ways to us (Ps 119:99), continually revealing new facets of and insights into holiness. (Ps 119:18) It is the life-journey of faith.
Stating the obvious, any tinge of disdain, scorn or contempt for another (Ps 123:4), feeling they are unimportant or insignificant, or beneath us in any way at all, must go at once. This is a plain violation of the gospel itself (Ga 2:14); treat any hint of it like poison in the soul. (Ps 119:113)
It is particularly important to closely examine our hearts as we respond to those who appear to be sinning, whether in fact or fiction. Our immediate, visceral reaction in thoughts, feelings and sensations reveal what lies or truths are operating within us. Do we feel compassion and sorrow welling up, or disdain, contempt or indignation? Is there any pleasure at all in seeing others missing the mark? Does this feed any sense of superiority within us? Can we esteem these souls to be morally superior to ourselves, more worthy, and grieve over their sin, agreeing that we would probably being doing worse if we were in their shoes?
We must also be aware of any tendency to feel either threatened or validated in the approval or disapproval of others, to be wounded by the fiery darts they throw at us (Ep 6:16), or to feel overly pleased and exalted in their acceptance and praise. (Jn 2:23-25) Let opinions be such as they are, the judgments of fallen souls, a very small thing to us. (1Co 4:3) Giving them too much weight is itself a form of pride, thinking we may rank their views about ourselves as more important that God’s view of us. (Lk 16:15)
We must also guard against being puffed up through any knowledge, talents, skills or abilities we have, whether natural or acquired through study and practice. (1Co 8:1) Any differences between us and others at this level are gifts, unearned and undeserved (1Co 4:7), for even the desire, opportunity and ability to develop ourselves comes from the grace of God. (1Co 15:10) Similarly, feeling superior to others in any way due to our calling, our works or our service is to deny the ultimate source of all goodness within us. (Php 2:13)
Similarly, we must not be respecters of persons (De 16:19), valuing the powerful, the wealthy, the famous, the beautiful, the brilliant, any more than anyone else. Humility is loving others as they are, recognizing their infinite value, neither fawning over nor despising any other soul.
Finally, any sense of resentment, bitterness, vengeance, or satisfaction in seeing justice served, other than as a vindication of God and for His pleasure, is a failure to recognize that were it not for Him, we would certainly deserve worse.
Observing pride in our hearts, minds, emotions and thoughts is a necessary first step, but observing pride does not root it out. We must deal with the root cause, not just detect its presence.
The root cause of pride in us is the lie, the wrong beliefs about the nature of God and Man operating within and through us. In other words, the root cause of pride is poor theology, and it is rooted out through repentance, a change of thinking, aligning with God’s perspective about Himself and ourselves.
Our definition of humility requires us to acknowledge our inability to conduct our lives in a way that is even remotely acceptable to God without His aid; humility implies that we consider ourselves altogether incapable of doing this as well as others. This posture precludes any form of self-dependence, yet depending on ourselves rather than God alone is woven into much of our theology today. Should we then reject our definition of humility because we cannot find any way to align it with much of our current thinking, or should we instead acknowledge this insight as a powerful challenge to common theology, and an incentive to explore further?
As we observe prideful reactions and presumption operating within, we are to continually present the truth of God’s Word to our minds and souls, asking God to give us repentance and to quicken us in His Word. It is like wearing down a stone with a constant drip, washing away the hardness of our hearts with the water of His Word. (Ep 5:26-27) It is a continual process of re-calibrating and re-aligning and renewing. (Ep 4:23)
To walk this out consistently as a manner of life, we must work this definition of humility into our thinking about God and ourselves at every level: election, salvation, faith, justification, sanctification, sovereignty, free will, eternal security, and how God works in our hearts to accomplish His will, must all be reconciled with humility. We must internalize these concepts on every level, completely realigning and rewiring our minds and hearts to conform to His truth. Our entire world view may need to be reoriented, rebuilt, energized by the Spirit and the Word. Every lie, one at a time, must go; we cannot hold any of them dearly, or we will stunt our growth.
In other words, if we are very likely, even on our very best day, the worst of the worst (Je 17:9), how can we entertain any dependence upon our own personal moral effort to gain acceptance with God? How can we account for our love for Him, and for our desire to please Him, apart from His choosing us (Ro 11:5-6), or how can we hope to succeed in our spiritual journey unless He preserves us to the very end? (Jud 1:24) Working these concepts throughout our theological understanding is part of this re wiring process.
To put it another way, if God is respecting our free will, as so many believe, having provided us a way of salvation, calling us to follow Him, and leaving the rest up to us, how can we esteem everyone else morally superior to ourselves? If at our very best we might indeed be counted worse than those who are not seeking God at all, how can we ever hope to earn God’s favor? If we are to consider ourselves to be incapable of righteousness apart from God, how can we tolerate a theology which requires that we ultimately depend on our own ability and goodness? If God requires some basic goodness from us to enter His kingdom, over and above what He Himself is willing to provide for us, and if we truly esteem everyone else morally better than we are, how can we entertain any hope of eternal life?
Apart from acknowledging our own total depravity and God’s absolute sovereignty, what sense does it make to esteem ourselves to be the worst of sinners? If we cannot ask God to make us good (Ps 119:35), believing He is both able and willing, and that this is our only hope of ever being good, and our only explanation when we are good, how can we avoid all forms of self-exaltation? If we cannot acknowledge any goodness within us as entirely His work and not our own, how can we possibly be humble?
And what is our only alternative? Cling to a theology requiring self-exaltation? That only makes sense if we are morally superior to those who do not belong to our particular persuasion, or who do not measure up to our own moral standard? And come to Christ at last in this, exalting ourselves in His presence, only to be cast away, found in the end to be workers of iniquity? (Mt 7:22-23)
If we neglect to refine their theology, what we really believe, our incorrect thinking about ourselves and God will continue to blind us to our own pride, and keep us alienated from the life of God.
This is, in fact, our dilemma: we are either exalting ourselves to some degree through our beliefs about ourselves and God, or we are not. There is no middle ground. What is at stake here is our entire world view: it is everything.
To be humble we must continually remind ourselves that JEHOVAH our God places infinite value on every human being; He is willing to die for every single one of us, one at a time. Thinking of ourselves as more important or valuable than anyone else, to disvalue them in any way, is essentially to deny this basic truth.
We must also be continually aware that if God left us to ourselves, and withdrew His grace from us, there is no telling what we would do. Were it not for the irresistible restraining and enabling grace of God, there is no deed so low that we would not pursue it.
Yes, humility changes everything. As we start out with pride corrupting our every thought, word and deed, so our growth in humility purifies all we think, say and do. There is no sense in which humility can be isolated or quarantined to one aspect of life; it is, by definition, all-encompassing.
Pride was evidently the first sin (Is 14:13), appearing in Lucifer in the dawn of Creation. (Ez 28:15) All his religions are based on it, relying on Man having some potential of goodness in himself, apart from God. (Ga 1:8) He tempts us here above all, in every aspect of our lives, continually, since this sin, above all, makes us God’s enemies and alienates us from the only power which can enable us in holiness. (1Pe 5:5) He need not succeed in us in any other place; success here is sufficient for him to destroy us.
In family life, where our souls often struggle most fiercely, contention in our hearts indicates a root of pride. (Pr 13:10) How easily we stoop to fighting each other (Ja 4:2), trying to maintain respect, secure love, establish boundaries, or cover our fear and shame. Yet all our soul needs is found in Christ (Col 2:10), and He dwells with the humble. (Is 66:2) In humility, His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. (Mt 11:29-30)
We can disagree without being contentious, without seeking discord and divisive conflict, without any sense of indignation or disdain. We can be uncooperative, unwilling to act in foolishness or selfishness, refusing to enable others in sin, without being threatened or intimidated, free from inner discord rooted in self-exaltation.
In our professional life we find the same; we can rejoice in our success and be excellent in our work without exalting ourselves, rejoicing in the accomplishments of others as well as our own, as evidence of the grace of God. We can also offer correction and rebuke without disdain, condescension or anger. Speaking the truth in love is perfectly consistent with humility.
In sports, pursuing excellence, giving our very best, does not mean comparing ourselves with others, or drawing any personal value from our accomplishments or performance. Rejoicing in the victory and excellence of others as much as in our own, and not connecting this with anyone’s significance or value, is the mark of humility.
Help for the Journey
In pursuing this fundamental transformation, our very definition of humility, in itself, moves us to seek the living Christ in others to help us in our pursuit of more humility. Esteeming others better than ourselves naturally moves us to seek help and encouragement from other godly souls in our pursuit of God.
So, in seeking to grow in humility, it is essential to engage regularly with other God-fearing souls who are also pursuing holiness, and pray for each other in these things. (Ma 3:16) Share your victories and failures, and help each other with encouragement and exhortation. (He 10:25) Memorize and meditate on God’s Law (De 17:19), especially scriptures which reinforce godly thinking (Ep 4:23), and quote them when you find your mind and heart misaligned with humility, praying for God to help you understand and believe (Ps 119:27), and to make you go in the way of His commands. (Ps 119:35)
Clearly, this is not the work of few days, or even a few years, it is the journey of a lifetime. (Php 3:13-14) There will always be room to grow here, and we have our God to guide and help us at every turn. (Mt 28:20)
1 Mere Christianity
2 The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness