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Please explain: As a Christian, what does it mean to be humble?

Humility is one of those topics that I really don’t like to talk about. To be clear, I do have a really good idea what to say about humility from Jesus and from the rest of Scriptures. I’m just not sure how to talk about it, not in sincerity, not in truth and honesty. American theologian Tim Keller highlights the problem with talking about humility: “Humility is very shy. Once you start to talk about it, it leaves.”

So, maybe we shouldn’t talk about humility. Maybe we should talk about you. Why do you want to know about humility? Why do you want to know what it means to be humble? Perhaps, a part of you desires genuine, real, and true Christian piety. You want to be humble. You want to learn the lessons about humility that Jesus taught his disciples (Matthew 18:4; Luke 14:1-14) and study the example of his humble service to his heavenly Father. Perhaps a part of you wants to learn true Christian piety and the humility that flows from it. That’s a good thing. The Scriptures are full of exhortations and encouragements toward humility.

But, if you are anything like me, another part of you wants to take pride in your humility. It sounds strange, doesn’t it? Pride in humility. Pride in lowliness. But that’s there too, isn’t it? We want the epitaph on our gravestone to read: “More humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). We want to be noted and praised and exalted for our humility. But because we still retain our sinful nature, as soon as we start to talk about humility, it disappears. Pride takes its place.

It’s not about you!

Maybe we should talk about humility in a different way. Maybe we should talk about it in terms of what it’s not. Consider this brief list:

  • Humility is not looking down on yourself.
  • Humility is not belittling yourself.
  • Humility does not mean hanging your head.
  • Humility does not mean other people walk on you.

Sometimes we think to ourselves that if we just put ourselves down, that’s true humility. But that’s not humility; the focus is still on us. We want people to notice how humble we are. That’s still pride. Whether we’re boastful or we belittle ourselves, whether our chin is raised or our head is down, the spotlight of our life is still on us. Either way, we still want people to notice us. That’s pride, not humility.

C. S. Lewis suggested what it would be like to meet a truly humble person: “He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” Now, we’re getting somewhere. A humble person doesn’t think about himself at all. A humble person wants the spotlight on someone else; he wants to remain in the shadows. Paul explains it this way: “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3,4). He wants us to spotlight others and value them above ourselves. “Look at you!” Paul would have us say to another. He would have us scope out all the ways in which the other person can benefit.

How do you enter a room? What are you thinking and seeking when you enter a room? Do you, by word or just by attitude, say, “Here I am! Everybody, look at me!” Are you bold, brash, and loud, or do you slink into the background, just hoping to be noticed? Or do you enter a room and by word or by attitude say, “There you are! I’ve been looking for you!” One writer explains: “A humble person will make you feel like the most important person in the room.”

God sees you so you can see others

So, how do we do that? How do we get there? The answer is in Paul’s “if.” Philippians chapter 2 begins with a series of “if” statements. “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” (2:1,2). Before Paul asks the Philippians to shine the spotlight on other people, he asks them to consider what they already have. He urges them to see how the spotlight is already on them. “If you have this . . . then . . .”

Try some of these on for size.

Are you shaped and formed by your almighty Creator to be the person that he created you to be? Of course, you are! Your Creator took special care to make you who you are. There is nothing about you that you need to be ashamed about. You are exactly the person God has made you to be, “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

You don’t need to be noticed by other people because you have been noticed by the Creator of heaven and earth.

Have you been redeemed and forgiven by the blood of the Lamb? Of course, you have been! Your Savior left his home in heaven and “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). And he would have done all of that even if you were the only one whom he would save. But, of course, he didn’t; he did it for you and for all others. There is no reason for you to hang your head in shame and disgrace. He removed your shame and gave you his glory! Yes, Jesus came into this world and said, “There you are! I came for you!”

Are you a temple in which the Spirit lives? Of course you are! The Father and the Son sent the Spirit through the gospel in Word and sacrament and transformed you into his child, into his temple, into his servant. God’s Spirit lives in you! He is working powerfully in you to live and to give of yourself through that same gospel.

You don’t need to be noticed by other people because you have been noticed by the Creator of heaven and earth. You don’t need to be praised by the people in your life because you already have a standing ovation from the One who redeemed you from sin and gave you his glory.

Even though there are billions of people in this world, God hears your prayers and sees you as if you are the only one in this world. You don’t need to be noticed by anyone else!

So, instead, start noticing others. Walk into a room and notice who is there. Walk into that room and say, “There you are!” Do all that you can so that anyone who steps into your line of sight feels as if they are the most important person in your world, that they are your favorite. Then you’ve begun to learn what it means to be humble.

Author: Nathanael Bourman
Volume 108, Number 12
Issue: December 2021

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