Some valuable words, common not so long ago, have almost passed out of use completely in the Western world. As a boy I was taught that “humility” and “modesty” were important words to know and indispensable principles to live by. Deference and mutual submission were common social values and attributes, whether in the sacred or secular worlds.
Now modesty and humility are not considered desirable or positive traits. In fact we’re encouraged to be quite the opposite by pop-culture, advertisers, movie directors, media celebrities and politicians. Our heroes are attractive, confident, aggressive and arrogant. They want to flaunt what they have. They’re successful, and they don’t stand for any nonsense. They’re beautiful and sexy, and we’ve been led to think that if we’re not at least trying to be the same way, we’re of little value. The mood of our time is self-exaltation in any way possible.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “humble” as follows:
1 having a modest or low opinion of your own importance
2 of low rank
3 not large or important
The word “modesty” is a synonym for “humility”.
I’ve been disappointed to find that if Christian ministers do ever mention humility-because it rarely happens-they’ll skirt around its real definition. Its original, traditional meaning is very unpopular, even in many churches. I’ve heard a few declare that humility isn’t about putting yourself down, and it’s not allowing people to walk over you, and it’s got nothing to do with weakness. Instead, they say, humility is a “quiet strength” and an inner confidence. They may admit that Jesus was meek and mild, but he was so in an assertive way, with a deep, powerful voice, a sexy hairstyle, and a big muscular chest. Nobody messed with tough, manly, strong Jesus!
Neither am I saying that Jesus was effeminate: he was not. Is there not a middle-ground between the two extremes?
I agree that all believers need to have an inner confidence which comes from faith in the will, power, faithfulness, Truth and goodness of God: if God is for us, who can be against us? This confidence, however, is not the same thing as humility, though the two can and should go hand in hand.
Paul encouraged the Philippians to imitate the humility of Christ (Philippians 2: 1-11). What did that look like to Paul?
He wanted them to be like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose (verse 2). That means a genuine love for each other: treating one another as equals. He wanted them to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (v 3a), but to consider others better than themselves (3b). He wanted them to be concerned about the interests of others, and not just about themselves (v 4).
Paul then went further, by giving Christ as the perfect example of humility:
“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, and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross” (verses 6-8).
So we see that Jesus, though he was God in the flesh and had the right to parade around and vaunt himself, instead “made himself nothing,” and lived his life as a servant to others. He didn’t go around boasting about who he was, and he didn’t look for public acclaim, and he wasn’t interested in being sexy or “cool”. In fact, Isaiah said that “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men…” (Isaiah 53: 2-3).
I’m not saying that it’s wrong to look your best, as long as you aren’t trying to elevate yourself above others. But the present day obsession with appearance and image, even in some Christian circles, is not godliness. It’s up to each one of us as believers to imitate Christ, not what we see on TV.
Of course humility doesn’t just relate to what we look like, but far more importantly it’s about obedience and submission to our Father, and recognition of our spiritual condition. You see, if we go around thinking “I’m better than that person over there”, we are calling the sacrifice of Christ unnecessary, because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3: 23) and “there is no-one righteous, no not even one” (Romans 3:10). Without Christ we are all lost and separated from God, no matter what our income, our occupation, or our appearance.
Didn’t Christ say that the first will be last and the last first (Matthew 19: 30)? Why then would we want to be considered “first” in this world? Didn’t he say that “he who exalts himself will be humbled” (Luke 14:1)? Why then would we want to exalt ourselves?
I find that when I realize I’m thinking too much of myself, or thinking too little of someone else, it helps to pray something like this:
“Lord, I am no better than anyone else, in fact I’m as guilty as anyone else, and I’ve failed you in so many ways. I’m probably the most sinful man I know – please have mercy on me, and forgive me for what I was thinking, and please bless that other person”.
It’s not wrong to recognize sin in the world and gently and lovingly point it out. However, admitting my own spiritual condition to myself and to God brings me down to the level of others in my mind and in my actions, and brings others up. I realize that Christ loves them as much as he loves me. Now it’s easier for me to love them.