by David Timms
Johannes Brahms, the nineteenth century German composer and pianist, enjoyed great popularity. On one occasion he met an ardent music lover who asked, “Master, would you please write here a small portion of a masterpiece and sign it so I can have a precious memory of this fortunate encounter?” Brahms took the pencil and paper offered to him, scribbled the initial few bars of The Blue Danube (composed by one of his contemporaries, Johann Strauss) and signed: “Unfortunately not by me, Johannes Brahms.”
Few of us—even when serving others—would deflect the attention and praise to someone else in such a circumstance. Instead, our hearts resist humility and constantly search for glory—our own. We want people to thank us, appreciate us, and honor us. We deserve it. We’re entitled to it. And it feels good. Consequently, almost everything we do has a self-centered element. We potentially gain glory from it.
Our stories may mention others but frequently they’re designed to subtly showcase something about us. We want people to think of us as competent, intelligent, and successful. “Windows Seven was my idea!” And our resumes describe us in ways that few people know us.
The old Mac Davis song hits close to the mark. “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.”
The solution to our self-absorption lies in a commitment to glorify another. Even Jesus said on one occasion, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing” (John 8:54). The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). And to the Colossians he wrote, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17).
True humility points attention away from ourselves and to Christ. Over and over this follows the biblical pattern. Even the eternal song of the elders has this refrain: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive all glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they are created and have their being” (Revelation 4:11).
Out of Nothing
In the sixteenth century the reformer Martin Luther wrote, “God created the world out of nothing, and as long as we are nothing, he can make something out of us.”
Of course, the Donald Trumps of the world teach us that humility is not necessary for power, fame, or success. The crowds like to be wowed by the wonderful and the powerful. They applaud classy performances more than godly character. Indeed, humility bears the odor of weakness to many people.
This creates a dilemma for us. Do we pursue the limelight, or step back from it in our hearts?
The great paradox of Scripture is that the Father needs nothing to create something—a statement that may be taken two ways. First, he does not need any ability or resources of ours to achieve his purposes. Second, he needs our “nothingness,” our self-emptying (Philippians 2:7), to fulfill his desires in and through us. He needs nothing to create something.
Nothing proves more difficult.
Everything within us wants attention, recognition, and affirmation—even as we talk about servanthood. Our pride will not lie down but keeps intruding into our motives, conversations, and actions. We want others to notice us. We like—perhaps even need—the applause and the accolades, whether from friends, family, or fellow-workers. “You’re terrific! You’re doing a great job! You’re special! You’re sacrificial! You’re amazing!”
Yet, to have the heart of a servant means to die to ourselves, to empty ourselves, to abandon all self-promotion, to forsake selfish ambition, to release any sense of entitlement, to glory only in Christ and not at all in ourselves, to trust him to open doors that we want to push through, to elevate others over ourselves, to serve rather than be served, to embrace humility rather than hubris. It’s the way of Jesus. No wonder he described the way as narrow!
Humility—the choice to empty ourselves and let God be all—remains contrary to our culture. Yet, if we believe Jesus, it opens the way to peace, joy, harmony, and abundance. But it takes courage and faith to consistently embrace a life of steady surrender. It’s a pilgrimage to an unknown place for many of us, but an imperative and transformational journey.
In 1983 the Israeli Supreme Court confirmed her as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. In 2003 she received a personal letter of commendation from Pope John Paul II and Poland’s highest civilian decoration, the Order of the White Eagle. In 2007 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She eventually died on May 12, 2008 at 98 years of age, though relatively few of us know her inspiring story.
Born in Poland, Irena Sendler joined the Zegota resistance movement that opposed the Nazis during World War II. Along with some two dozen other Zegota members, Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. She would enter the Ghetto as a Nazi-approved social worker to check for signs of typhus, then conceal small children in boxes, suitcases, and trolleys and smuggle them out of the Ghetto. Outside, she provided the children with false documents and sheltered them in safe places.
Sendler herself was not a Jew.
In 1943, the Gestapo arrested Sendler, tortured her, and sentenced her to death. Members of the Zegota saved her by bribing German guards on the way to her execution. She spent the remainder of the war in hiding.
Remarkably, she made lists of both the real names and the new identities of the children, in the hope that after the war she might be able to reunite them with their families. She hid these lists of names in jars that she buried, though after the war she found that almost all of the parents had perished at the Treblinka extermination camp or gone missing.
This quiet, humble woman sought no glory. She did not consider her efforts to be heroic. Reflecting on her work with and for Jewish children, she once said, “Every child saved with my help . . . is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.”
Her life stands as a stark contrast to the glory-seeking, attention-grabbing, self-asserting ways of our day. She had the humble heart of a servant.
But Irena Sendler had a humble hero who motivated her—Christ himself. As the writer to the Hebrews urges us, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus . . . and consider him . . . so that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:2, 3).
The Chief Virtue
St. Augustine once wrote, “Should you ask me: What is the first thing in religion? I should reply: the first, second, and third thing therein is humility.”
Along similar lines, Andrew Murray, the renowned nineteenth century South African minister and author, wrote, “I am amazed at how little humility is seen as the distinguishing feature of discipleship.”
Most of us think of humility as just another virtue—much like patience, goodness, or kindness. It’s nice and we appreciate it when we see it, but we rarely discuss it and almost never pursue it. Yet, the Bible seems to indicate that humility is the bedrock of discipleship.
Jesus humbled himself by becoming a man and submitting even to death (Philippians 2:5-8). He called his disciples to “deny themselves . . . take up their cross . . . be last of all . . . and be slave of all” (Mark 8, 10). James reminds us that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
It’s an old biblical theme that generates little attention, especially in a culture devoted to achievement, recognition, status, and significance. But if pride is the root of our fallenness (1 John 2:16) then humility paves the way to our restoration.
Andrew Murray concluded, “Humility is the only soil in which virtue takes root; a lack of humility is the explanation of every defect and failure. Humility is not so much a virtue along with the others, but is the root of all.” Every quality and every action is impacted by pride or humility.
It’s possible to serve others (a spouse, a church, an employer, or the needy) and still do so for self-serving purposes. The heart of an authentic servant is humble above all. Humility—no options.
David Timms is a freelance writer in Fullerton, California.
Humility in Action
• In this article the author mentions a hero of humility: Irena Sendler. Consider the people in your life. Who exemplifies the definition of humility? What can you learn from them?
• “The Bible seems to indicate that humility is the bedrock of discipleship.” How can you further develop your journey as a disciple of Jesus by focusing on humility?
• “Everything within us wants attention, recognition, and affirmation.” Challenge #1: Do something this week to serve someone without anyone knowing it was you.
• Challenge #2: Find something to remind you each day to put yourself aside and allow all focus to be on God. (Example: post a Scripture about humility on your mirror at home or your cubicle at work.)