Witness

Humility: A Missing Ingredient

Tension often fills the air between us, even between those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ.

While church slogans on signs and websites express openness to newcomers, many of us are wary. We’re skeptical about connecting to new communities because experience has conditioned us. We have learned that not every organization with a virtue in its name seems ready to practice it. We’ve witnessed too many churches called “Grace” that aren’t gracious and some with “Faith” as a moniker that were instead fearful of guests who did not fit a particular image of the dominant group.

We have learned that not every organization with a virtue in its name seems ready to practice it. Click To Tweet

Christian communities are fractured, but humility will help us to heal. Our world has always been fragmented, and Christians are not immune to the forces that drive wedges between people, but we seem to be at a critical juncture in this moment. Although some church leaders seem to be experts at erecting barriers between people, there are many other church workers eager to discern how to love people well while denouncing misinformation, sexism, racism, and other forms of injustice. I applaud this latter group and want to encourage them as they seek to embody humility.

Humility calls us to adopt a posture that welcomes people and their perspectives for the sake of mutual growth and development. This is not to say, however, that all viewpoints are equally valid. Some behaviors and attitudes are evil. Consequently, humility does not look for a theoretical middle ground between opposing views but rather elevates truth and love without being arrogant. Unfortunately, because humility does not rely upon bombast, it too often gets defined as passivity or false modesty. It can appear to some as humiliation. But humility empowers because it epitomizes our Lord Jesus Christ’s countercultural way of living.

Humility does not look for a theoretical middle ground between opposing views but rather elevates truth and love without being arrogant. Click To Tweet

Humility Is a Christian Identity Marker

In the first few centuries after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, his followers could be identified by their humility. Eve-Marie Becker, in her book Paul on Humility, contends that “in early Christianity, humility was regarded as a virtue that was unknown in the pagan world…[and] thus as a Christian identity marker.”[1] In light of how our ancient forebears were known, we might wonder what identifies Christians in our time. To some onlookers, bigotry, stinginess, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, nationalism, and hypocrisy are among the signifiers of Christians in the United States. But even if we disagree with these assertions, we might confess that there is at least an ambiguous Christian witness when it comes to humility. Many of us struggle to practice humility because we misunderstand it as a sign of weakness even though we give lip service to the contrary.

Many of us struggle to practice humility because we misunderstand it as a sign of weakness even though we give lip service to the contrary. Click To Tweet

In Reclaiming Humility: Four Studies in the Monastic Tradition, Jane Foulcher acknowledges that, “while humility had a central place in early Christian theology and practice, it has generally been marginalized by the modern Western world and in contemporary Christian life.”[2] Foulcher is one of several authors who note that Scottish philosopher David Hume dismissed humility as a “monkish virtue,” and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to humility as Christian “slave morality” that demonized the pursuit of power and self-fulfillment.[3] Humility’s poor reputation has made us fearful of becoming too small.

Consequently, speakers and writers are quick to distinguish humility from self-deprecation. John Dickson, for example, presents humility as beneficial for worldly success in our society. In his book Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership, Dickson explains: “My thesis is simple: The most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility.[4] Dickson seeks to make humility more of an American value than a biblical one, offering exemplars from the worlds of business, sports, and the military—the usual trinity invoked as inspiration for church leaders in our nation.

Dickson offers humility as a strategy for success in order to counter the way it is commonly viewed as something that limits or devalues us. Perhaps the need to present humility as part of a formula for influence in our society comes more out of our fear of being devalued than our fear of devaluing others . This is to say that we think of humility as potentially limiting us, not necessarily as the lens to see how others are being limited. We fear that humility will weaken us rather than empower us, so we give greater energy to self-preservation instead of collaboration.

A lack of humility means that the vulnerable in society will continue to suffer. Rather than fear becoming doormats, we should instead become agitated that too many people already are. Humility opens our eyes to the needs of others and is more than a stepping stone on our journey of self-actualization. Human nature focuses on personal advancement. Even the words of Jesus in Luke 18:14, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted,” are sometimes paradoxically construed as a strategy for worldly success.

A lack of humility means that the vulnerable in society will continue to suffer. Rather than fear becoming doormats, we should instead become agitated that too many people already are. Click To Tweet

Moses as an Example of Humility

The Scripture points to humility as instrumental in fulfilling God’s desires for humans to form communal bonds with others based upon a submissive posture before God. Scripture is filled with examples, but one Old Testament description of humility sets a tone for subsequent discussions.

In Numbers 12:3, Moses is described as “meek” (e.g., KJV, ESV), or “humble” (e.g., NIV, NRSV, NASB). The humility of Moses is about his relationship with God and not about his posture toward others. However, commentators typically interpret the representation of Moses as primarily describing his gentleness, or meekness, in relationship with others.

The humility of Moses is about his relationship with God and not about his posture toward others. Click To Tweet

In Numbers 12:1-2, Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses’s role as God’s spokesperson. They question Moses’s status before God, not his sense of self-importance. The lowliness of Moses describes his connection to God more than his interpersonal connection with his siblings or with the rest of the people of Israel. God’s response to Miriam and Aaron (Num 12:6-8) confirm that Moses’s humility corresponds to his submission to God. God explains that Moses has rare access to God’s presence: While other prophets receive God’s messages mediated through visions or dreams, with Moses God speaks “mouth-to-mouth.” There is a direct correlation between humility and intimacy with God. Moses being “very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3, NRSV) means that he enjoyed greater intimacy with God than others did.

There is a direct correlation between humility and intimacy with God. Click To Tweet

Numbers 11-12, along with other places in the Pentateuch, shows that Moses used his special relationship with God to lead Israel through the wilderness and to intercede for them in prayer (e.g., Num 14:13-19). Even though humility starts as submission to God, it does not signify a relationship with God in isolation from others. Our peacemaking actions and attitudes directed toward others flow out of our intimacy with God.

Humility Means Yielding to God

Because we live in a competitive society, we could approach humility as a competition that demands winners and losers. As Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung observes in her book Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice, “Our culture is especially competitive. Because so many of those competitions are public, it is perilously easy to feel like we can’t be good unless we’re better than another, as judged and confirmed by an audience.”[5] We are compelled to compare ourselves to friends, neighbors, and even strangers. Instagram makes us envious as influencers provoke our fear of missing out so that we wonder why our lives are not better.

There may even be a tendency to use the social media posts of others as an indication of our own relationship to God. If, for example, our network of friends includes Christian believers whose lives appear to be going well, we may attempt to mimic their behaviors. But of course, we can only copy what they allow us to see. In this competitive environment, we take our guidance from those who fit the popular image of success, causing humility to be defined by our impression of others.

However, humility, according to the Scriptures, is not grounded in how well we compete in the world’s game of life but begins with deference to God. Humility will affect our relationships with others, but it is fundamentally rooted in devotion to God. Humility is a unifier—at least to the extent that members of the group recognize it as starting with submission to God. When members of Christian community submit to God, they are better able to submit to each other.

When members of Christian community submit to God, they are better able to submit to each other. Click To Tweet

[1] Eve-Marie Becker, Paul on Humility, p 28
[2] Jane Foulcher, Reclaiming Humility: Four Studies in the Monastic Tradition, p. xx
[3] Foulcher, p. 10
[4] John Dickson, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership, p 19
[5] Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice, p. 120

 

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