What Is Humility?

In 1908, the British writer G. K. Chesterton described the embryo of today’s full-grown immature culture called postmodernism. One mark of its “vulgar relativism” (as Michael Novak calls it) is the hijacking of the word “arrogance” to refer to conviction and “humility” to refer to doubt. Chesterton saw it coming:

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert — himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt — the Divine Reason. . . . The new skeptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. . . . There is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it’s practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. . . . The old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which makes him stop working altogether. . . . We are on the road to producing a race of man too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. (Orthodoxy [Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1957], pp. 31–32)

We have seen it most recently in the resentment over Christians expressing the conviction that Jewish people (like everyone else) need to believe in Jesus to be saved. The most common response to this conviction is that Christians are arrogant. Modern-day humility would never cry, “Fire!” since the smoke might be vapor from the clothes dryer.

If humility is not compliance with the relativism of sophomoric skepticism, what is it? This question is important, since the Bible says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5), and “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). God has told us at least five truths about humility.

1. Humility begins with a sense of subordination to God in Christ. “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master” (Matthew 10:24). “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6).

2. Humility does not feel a right to better treatment than Jesus got. “If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household!” (Matthew 10:25). Therefore humility does not return evil for evil. It is not life based on its perceived rights. “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in his steps. . . . While suffering, he uttered no threats, but handed [his cause] over to him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:21–23).

3. Humility asserts truth not to bolster ego with control or with triumphs in debate, but as service to Christ and love to the adversary. “Love rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). “What I [Jesus] tell you in the darkness, speak in the light. . . . Do not fear” (Matthew 10:27–28). “We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’s sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

4. Humility knows it is dependent on grace for all knowing and believing. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). “In humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).

5. Humility knows it is fallible, and so considers criticism and learns from it. But humility also knows that God has made provision for human conviction and that he calls us to persuade others. “We see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). “A wise man is he who listens to counsel” (Proverbs 12:15). “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11).

Humbled under the mighty hand of God,

Pastor John