Following Jesus will inevitably bring you face to face with one of the most difficult challenges (or opportunities) you and I will ever experience–our need to confront our pride and humble ourselves. Acknowledging ones pride is not only uncomfortable; it’s unpopular. Far more unpopular and uncomfortable is choosing to be humble not just occasionally, but as a way of life. As one who has had lots of pride in my life to confront and overcome, I can say that the path of humility has far more benefits than the easy path of pride and arrogance. The following post from chapter five of my book explores this further (Warning: reading this will likely make you uncomfortable).
The Need for Humility
“As we consider the depths of a life marked by authenticity, there’s another habit that might perhaps be far more important than any of the rest…humility.
It might be argued that humility is not so much a characteristic of authenticity as it comes alongside it and complements it. On the other hand, to live without pretense while following Jesus and his way of life (it might also be argued) is an impossibility without learning and practicing humility. Learning how to be truly honest with yourself and others (including God) will require it.
Humility is often hard to get our heads around. Part of the problem is that because it is so rare, so many of us haven’t had many examples of people in our lives who consistently practice humility, even in our Christian church communities.
What is humility?
One way to talk about humility is by understanding what it is not: “freedom from pride or arrogance.”7 A popular definition is “the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance.”8
We might conclude that a humble person, based on these definitions, is someone who makes it a practice to not dominate (be superior over) others. They are not controlling people as a rule. When praised for their efforts or successes, a humble person is more likely than not to redirect praise somewhere else.
The New Testament authors’ uses of the concept of humility include traces of those meanings, but they certainly go beyond them. Their use of the Greek word often translated as humility and its cognates (humble, humble-minded, and so on) carry the idea of being “lowly in spirit or mind.”9
Jesus described himself as being “gentle and humble of heart” and invited others to “learn from me” this way of life.10 Jesus went on during another occasion to explain how this worked out in his life when he said,
You know how it is in the pagan nations…Think how their so-called rulers act. They lord it over their subjects. The high and mighty ones boss the rest around. But that’s not how it’s going to be with you. Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant. Anyone who wants to be first must be everyone’s slave. Don’t you see? The son of man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life “as a ransom for many.11
According to Jesus, the way humility worked out in his life (as “the son of man”) had everything to do with the way he treated people. Which had everything to do with the kind of leader he was. Other earthly leaders demonstrate their leadership by acting superior and bossing people around, whereas Jesus led people in an entirely different way. He led by serving others. And ultimately, as he said, albeit cryptically, he would serve them not only in life but in death.
He was the anticipated king of the Jews; in fact, the Bible calls him the king of kings.12 But the way Jesus demonstrated his leadership as king of kings was not by bullying or bossing people around. It was not through manipulation, coercion, or through violence. It was through serving people.
Paul (who authored many of the letters included in the New Testament of the Bible) takes this picture and gives further clarification:
Who, though in God’s form, did not regard his equality with God as something he ought to exploit. Instead, he emptied himself, and received the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of humans. And then, having human appearance, he humbled himself, and became obedient even to death. Yes, even the death of the cross…13
According to Paul, Jesus was not merely the best king who had ever existed. He was in fact God,14 which makes his servanthood even more powerful. The God we meet in the face of Jesus entered our world as a human being, and in his humanity he became a servant. This was humility on display. God had become a man and a servant in order to serve the rest of humanity, ultimately by his death on a Roman cross.15
So how does all this relate to you and me?
The interesting thing about that early Christian poem about Jesus is how it was introduced in the few verses in front of it. Before sharing the poem, Paul spends a bit of time providing specific ways how followers of Jesus can and should practice humility toward one another. He writes,
So if our shared life in the king brings you any comfort; if love still has the power to make you cheerful; if we really do have a partnership in the spirit; if your hearts are at all moved with affection and sympathy—then make my joy complete! Bring your thinking into line with one another. Here’s how to do it. Hold on to the same love; bring your innermost lives into harmony; fix your minds on the same object. Never act out of selfish ambition or vanity; instead, regard everybody as your superior. Look after each other’s best interests, not your own. This is how you should think among yourselves—with the mind that you have because you belong to the Messiah, Jesus.16
Consider some of those statements again:
“Never act out of selfish ambition or vanity; instead, regard everybody as your superior. Look after each other’s best interests; not your own.”
Here’s the kicker. As a way of calling to their attention the priority that humility needs to play in their lives, Paul goes on to share the poem about Jesus that we already looked at. In other words, the premise or reason for our living humbly before others is that Jesus lived this way. He was (and is) our source of inspiration, motivation, and strength. His humility calls us out to live humbly.
As we already considered earlier in chapter 4, “Beyond the Self-Made Project,” the servant project has become our new lens for life. It could very well be called the humility project. To be a servant is to be humble. To be humble is to be a servant. Notice too that humility and servanthood are not simply about inner changes that happen inside us (even though they are that too); they involve actively living in the new way of life that Jesus has called us into.
As we said earlier, we are becoming…
“The need for humility” is short section from chapter five “Moving toward authentic Christianity” in Peter’s book Authentic Christianity: Why it matters for followers of Jesus (2018). His next blog “Transparency matters” will continue where this post left off dealing with why transparency matters in developing meaningful relationships.