Of all the qualities reflected in the personality of our current president, humility is not one of them. And yet, he did something recently demonstrating he is capable of humility. In a nationally televised speech, he admitted he was changing course from a promise he had made on the campaign trail. Why the change? As he explained, “All my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office. In other words, when you’re president of the United States.”
As the president’s experience demonstrates, humility is one of those qualities that is the result of something else. For the president, it was the result of access to information available only to occupants of the oval office. There is a principle at work here that applies to all of us. The greater your awareness of reality, the greater your humility. The way to fulfill God’s call to humility is not to strive after it for its own sake, but to instead embrace the realities of who God is, who you are, and who others are.
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). Even more foolish than denying God’s existence is to believe in God and yet not fear him. Many are foolishly content to believe in a God they are comfortable with, who exists for their purposes, who winks at their sin, and whose sovereignty ends where theirs begins. Such a small understanding of God leads to a destructive pride as Herod discovered in Acts 12. By not refusing the worship of his patrons, he revealed an ignorance of the Almighty and what belongs to him alone. Because Herod did not have a right view of God, he did not have a right view of himself. Instead, he thought he was worthy of worship. His take on reality was quickly, and painfully, reset as indicated by his gruesome death in verses 22, 23.
Better off are those who fear God, recognizing his majesty and sovereignty. In his presence they can’t help but recognize how small they are. They conclude along with the psalmist, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3, 4).
The more aware we are of our smallness before God, the more we realize we’re not all that. Cultivating an awareness of smallness before God is challenging in a culture where the individual is made to feel like a god. “It’s all about you” is the lie of our age. If it’s all about me, then I am answerable to no one but me. I create and follow and break my own rules. It always comes as a surprise when the realities of how the world really works throw me off my perch. The one who knows who he is and how small he is before God is the one who has the humility to live life according to the laws of the One who created it.
But where do we go to rediscover how small we are and how great God is? A great place to start is outside. That’s where the psalmist went in Psalm 8. He went outside and looked up at the heavens, the moon and the stars. But he also looked at the wonder of creation on display all around him and cried out, “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in the all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1, 9).
While appreciating our smallness before God corrects the lie that the world revolves around us, it can mistakenly lead to the lie that we are without worth or significance. Some might think that’s real humility. It’s not. Challenging that false sense of humility is the Lord’s supper. While reminding us of the greatest expression of humility the world has ever known (Philippians 2:5-11), the Lord’s supper also helps us maintain a proper perspective of ourselves.
There are weeks when I come around the Lord’s table with my head a couple of sizes too big. Maybe that’s because I’ve enjoyed some success in my work, or have experienced consistent victories over troublesome temptations, or have found favor in the eyes of people I admire. But then I take communion and as I’m holding that small cup representing his blood and that small piece of bread representing his body, I am reminded that never do I have it so together that I don’t depend upon Christ’s immense sacrifice. That’s humbling.
But there are other weeks when I come to the Lord’s table full of self-loathing because of things I have done that I shouldn’t have or vice versa. In those moments, I agree with the accuser as he whispers in my ear, “You’re nothing. You’re worthless.” But then the bread and the cup make their way to me and I am reminded that I am so loved that the Creator of the universe died for me. Gratitude for that reality can only result in humility.
A right view of God and a right view of self is not all that results in a spirit of humility; so does having a right view of others. The more I see others in the same light as God sees me, the more it encourages humility in my dealing with the people around me. No longer is a slow cashier an impediment to getting to the next thing on my to-do list. Rather she is a fellow human created in God’s image whom God wants to spend eternity with so much that he sent his Son Jesus to die for her. No longer is my wife a means to serve my ends, but a cherished daughter of the heavenly Father who deserves no less than to be cherished by me too.
This idea that humility is the result of something else, rather than something to be pursued for its own sake, was uncomfortably impressed upon me recently as the result of a change in ministry. Accepting the call to my current ministry meant saying goodbye to a nearly 14-year ministry. That was no easy thing because I love my former church, I had a productive and fruitful ministry there, and, best of all, I enjoyed wonderful relationships with the people.
Though I would never profess from my lips that the church depended upon me, in my heart I found myself hoping it did, at least just a little. While I genuinely want my successor to do well, in my heart I don’t want to be quickly forgotten. And while I pray for the church to experience even greater growth, in my heart I hope it doesn’t grow too fast, at least not so soon after I leave. On the outside, I may have a humble posture, but in my heart stirs a lot of ungodly pride.
As much as I want heart-deep humility, I cannot will it into existence. It only blossoms as I reflect on who God is, who I am, and who others are. For example, the more I remember the church is God’s, not mine, the easier it is to let go of what doesn’t belong to me in the first place. The more I reflect on the reality that my identity does not depend upon how the church remembers me but upon who I am in Christ, the easier it becomes to genuinely rejoice in the good things I hear about the church. The more I think about the souls of those who belong to my former church, like my daughter and her husband, the more I desire for my successor to have an even more fruitful ministry than I did.
Unfortunately, humility is not something that can be achieved before moving on to attain other virtues. Instead, it ebbs and flows with our ongoing awareness of God, self, and others. The more our awareness aligns with reality, the more humility will mark who we are. And when it doesn’t, pride will find a foothold. And, so, just as I pray that our president will allow the realities of the oval office to foster humility in him, I pray that I will allow the reality of who God is, who I am, and who others are to foster true humility in me.
Steve Yeaton recently joined the staff as senior minister of First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana.