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The auditorium buzzed with noise and activity as people arrived and found their seats, waiting for the high school musical to begin. I had been invited to attend the event with two girls who were several years older than me, which, at fifteen, was a huge honor. As the three of us chatted together, a woman named Cindy* (the former youth leader of one of the girls I was with) came up to say hello. As we all talked, Cindy asked how the youth group worship team was going, which all three of us were a part of. One of the girls turned toward me and announced, “Heather is part of our worship team this year, and she has a great voice!” Flattered and taken off-guard, I fumbled with my words, saying something like, “Oh, it’s really not that great.” Cindy looked at me and in a firm yet kind tone she told me, “Just say, 'thank you'.” I could feel my cheeks getting warm as I timidly uttered a “thank you” and sat quietly, thinking. The interaction, though brief, had sparked an important question in my mind…what does it really mean to be humble?
I had attempted to appear humble by brushing off the compliment about my singing voice. But Cindy’s simple advice made me aware that true humility was something more than acting sheepish when words of praise came my way.
In the years since that awkward moment in the high school auditorium, my understanding of true humility has deepened, as has my appreciation for its importance. In our culture, people often equate humility with weakness. There is such a push to promote yourself, let everyone know about everything you can do, and do whatever you can to get ahead no matter how it may affect other people. Humility is seen as a bad thing; something that will hinder you from “finding who you really are.” Even amongst Christian circles, the way women are typically encouraged to combat insecurity is by exalting ourselves, our talents, or our looks. We are told to be “proud” of who we are.
Does this approach really work?
Let’s see what the Word of God says on the matter.
In Scripture, humility is a virtue that is highly praised. It is precious in the sight of God, and He shows favor to those who embrace it.
For the Lord takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the humble with salvation (Ps. 149:4).
The humble also shall increase their joy in the LORD, And the poor among men shall rejoice In the Holy One of Israel (Isa. 29:19).
These are just a few of many times that humility is mentioned. In every reference of humility in Scripture, it is portrayed as a good, beautiful thing. Why is this? Because the ultimate model of humility is Jesus Christ. Philippians 2:8-11 says, “And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus is the Son of God, the rightful Ruler of the universe. He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. But out of love, He humbled Himself. The Lord of the universe took the place of the lowliest servant. He left His place in glory to come down, to become a man, so that He could take the punishment for our sin and save us from death. And because of this, God the Father exalted Him to the highest place, giving Him honor above anything or anyone else. And this is the example we are called to follow.
Humility is counterintuitive to our sinful tendencies. We naturally crave recognition—it feels so good to have a place of position and honor. But God says that those who humble themselves are the ones who are worthy of His honor. This doesn’t just happen the moment we become Christians. I don’t know about you, but I often wish that my desire to be praised and noticed would float away all on its own. Yet James 4:10 says, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” One of our tasks as Christians is to deliberately put to death those prideful, self-exalting desires and choose to live in humility.
Charles Spurgeon put it this way: “Every Christian has a choice between being humble or being humbled.” God, in His mercy, humbles those who exalt themselves. It is a mercy, because we need to awaken to see that we are nothing in light of who He is; that there is no good in us, and that each of us is in desperate need of a Savior (Ps. 14:2-3). The only worth we have is found in Him, and it is when we are in a place of humility that we have the proper lens through which to view both ourselves and God. He brings us to this place of true humility when we first come to know Him. But we then have the responsibility to keep humbling ourselves by remembering just how great God is, and how lowly we are. This right perspective comes from spending time in His presence and growing in our knowledge of Him, which in turn increases our love and reverence for Him.
Many of us desire to be humble, but just when we begin to think, “I’m really getting the hang of this humility thing,” we find that we’ve slipped right back into prideful, selfish thinking.
Let’s take a look at some ways humility is practically lived out in the life of a Christian.
One way we practice humility is by putting others ahead of ourselves. We are willing to see things from their perspective, and change our way of doing something in order to honor them. This can be in our actions, our words, or our attitudes. This might mean letting someone else head up a project you are doing together. Or, if you’re married, changing the way you fold shirts because your husband likes to fit them into the drawer a certain way. Or, choosing not to retaliate when someone has teased you in a hurtful way in front of others. Prayerfully consider practical ways in which God is asking you to “take the lowest place” by putting someone else’s needs or preferences above your own.
It is a joy to serve others. And in the midst of serving, our mindset can often be completely pure. But what happens when, after cleaning an elderly person’s house from top to bottom or doing the task your sister is usually responsible for, you don’t get any recognition? All of a sudden, indignation can rear its ugly head, and you’ve just gone from a heart of selfless service to a heart of discontentment. A true test of our motive for service is whether we choose to deny those feelings and say, “Ultimately, I did this out of love for God and for others”. It’s not wrong to receive recognition. But it’s wrong for recognition to be what drives us to serve. Ask God to show you whether any of your “selfless acts” are done from a selfish desire for appreciation or recognition — and if you are harboring tainted motives, ask Him to purify your heart, by His grace.
Humility is based in love — love for God, and love for others. So those who are humble are willing to do whatever it takes to love, no matter how it makes them look. This might mean befriending the social outcast. Or this might mean standing up for truth when we know we will be mocked and ridiculed. Or it might mean selling everything we have and moving across the world to live in a slum to minister to those whom society has labeled as trash. Humility is putting aside how we desire to be seen in the eyes of others and caring only about God’s opinion of us. Prayerfully evaluate whether there are any steps of obedience you have hesitated to take because you know they will make you appear foolish to this world. Ask Him for the grace to choose humility by becoming a fool for Christ’s sake.
A humble person cares more about being right with God and others than they do about their reputation. A truly humble person will, upon realizing they have done something against someone, quickly apologize and ask for forgiveness. And, on the other side, if someone has sinned against them, they will choose to forgive that person, regardless of whether they are repentant. A humble person realizes just how much they have been forgiven of by God, and knows that forgiving someone else is minute in comparison to the forgiveness God extends to us for our sin against Him. Do you need to ask anyone’s forgiveness or admit that you have been wrong? Have you been pridefully refusing to forgive someone who has wronged you? Ask for God’s enabling strength to both forgive and be forgivable, no matter how it may humble you to do so.
Each of us has been given unique gifts, skills, or talents. And being humble about them doesn’t mean denying that you have them. It means using them in a way that glorifies the Lord, not yourself. It all goes back to our motive for what we do. If it is for self-glory, it is based in pride. If it is for God’s glory, it is based in humility. If God desires you to use that gift, perhaps in front of thousands of people, and you do it out of obedience to Him, then wholeheartedly using your gift is the most humble thing you can do.
So what should we do when we receive a compliment related to our special gifts? The default response is often to turn the praise from ourselves, just as I did in the high school auditorium. But it’s important to be aware of how the other person will perceive our response. Have you had those moments when you go out of your way to encourage someone, even if it was somewhat awkward to do so, and they brush it off as if they couldn’t care less? Or make it seem like they are actually bothered and uncomfortable because of your words of appreciation? The person you complimented probably simply wanted to deflect the praise, unsure of how to handle it. But how did it make you — the bearer of the compliment — feel? I know when I have been in those situations, it has made me feel embarrassed and left me wishing I had never said anything in the first place.
When someone offers us encouragement, often the most humble thing we can do is graciously accept it with a thankful heart. This is the kind of attitude that glorifies the Lord, and whenever we have an opportunity, we should direct the praise back to Him with our words, as well. Remember, God sees our hearts and knows the attitude with which we received praise.
This quote by Andrew Murray perfectly captures the heart of humility: The greatest test of whether the holiness we profess to seek or to attain to is truth and life will be whether it produces an increasing humility in us. In man, humility is the only thing needed to allow God’s holiness to dwell in him and shine through him. The chief mark of counterfeit holiness is lack of humility. The holiest will be the humblest.
It is when we say, “More of you, God, and less of me,” that the Holy Spirit will fill us with the life of Jesus Christ. When we are empty of ourselves, God has the opportunity to come and display His love, His grace, His joy, and His patience in and through us. He will use us for His glory, and all the times we look the fool, put others ahead of ourselves, and serve unnoticed will be a delight, knowing that we are exalting and worshiping Him with our lives.
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