Why is humility so important to God? I mean, it’s really, really important to him. Listen to the kinds of things Jesus said:
Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave. (Matthew 20:26–27)
Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3–4)
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
Humble slaves rank first in God’s kingdom, only the humble childlike get into the kingdom, and the meek will be given dominion over the world. These are statements are so radical they sound nearly ridiculous.
Did He Just Say That?
I wonder if we’re too familiar with these sayings. I don’t know about you, but I have found it disturbingly easy to dissociate theological truths I intellectually assent to from what I functionally believe (the ways I actually behave). If statements about humility like these don’t throttle us, I doubt we’re really hearing Jesus — given how much we are not like this by nature, given how unappealing serving is when we must actually sacrifice our own pursuits in order to do it, given how little we want to be regarded as childlike when it comes to how others actually think of us, and given how not meek we feel when someone else actually offends us.
Did you catch what’s at stake? If this kind of humility doesn’t characterize us, we “will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). It’s the same sort of statement Jesus made about those who aren’t born again (John 3:3). It’s the same sort of statement Paul made about the sexually immoral, idolaters, the greedy, drunkards, and revilers (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). Do you, by your behavior, put pride in the same category of seriousness as sexual sin? I think God considers pride to be worse. Nowhere in Scripture does God say the most sexually pure are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
What is it about humility that God esteems so much? What’s so great about humility?
An Alien Ethic
That’s a question many critics of Christianity ask. Some view statements like “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26–27) as so alien to human experience that they are completely unrealistic, however altruistic Jesus’s intentions may have been.
Others go much further and call Jesus’s humility ethic evil. Karl Marx considered it an opiate to pacify the proletariat masses so the bourgeoisie could keep their economic grip on the means of production. Friedrich Nietzsche abhorred it as doing nothing but enfeebling the human race, encouraging the whole lot of us to behave precisely in ways that keep us from pursuing the ruthless strength we need to survive in a brutal, uncaring universe.
Indeed, the humility Jesus commends here seems alien, otherworldly. It was alien to Jesus’s disciples when he made the statement to them. James and John were angling for the seats of eternal honor (Matthew 20:20–21), moving their ten comrades to get bent out of shape, since each figured he had a fair claim to those seats (Luke 22:24). This was the greatness they knew. They lived in a world where greatness was defined by social position, where scribes and Pharisees loved their seats of honor (Matthew 23:6) and rulers loved lording (Matthew 20:25). They lived in the world we live in. What world did Jesus live in?
Memories of a Lost World
When Jesus called the disciples to pursue greatness through the humility of serving others, he wasn’t merely calling them to be countercultural; he was calling them to be counter-natural — or better, to be supernatural. None of us is born with this character quality. If Jesus’s humility ethic seems alien, it’s because it is. It is the ethic of a foreign kingdom (Matthew 18:1), a better country (Hebrews 11:16).
Actually, that’s not exactly right. It’s more accurate to say that humility is the ethic of a former kingdom. For the kingdom of heaven was the original administration of earth, and humility was the ethic of Eden. The domain of darkness (Colossians 1:13) is the actual foreign kingdom that staged a coup at the forbidden tree by enticing Adam and Eve to stop trusting fully in God and start leaning on their own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). And the foreign kingdom’s pride ethic prevailed.
But the Bible tells us that humility will once again be the prevailing ethic of the future kingdom, when the evil foreign power is at last overthrown, and every knee bows to the supremely humble King of kings (Philippians 2:5–11). When we finally see him, we will know that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven indeed is the servant of all.
Only the Humble Can See
But I still haven’t answered the question: What’s so great about humility? Why does God rank it as such a high quality of human greatness? I believe it’s because humility is the only state of the soul that allows us to accurately perceive and value truth and glory for what they really are. Only the humble can truly see.
We’ve all heard some version of the adage “pride blinds.” That’s exactly what it does. Pride keeps sinful man from seeing God (Psalm 10:4). Pride keeps us from seeing our approaching fall (Proverbs 16:18). Pride is the light in the eyes of a wicked heart (Proverbs 21:4), and “if then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:23).
But humility puts us in the frame of mind to be able to see. Which is why God “leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Psalm 25:9). Only the humble can be “pure in heart,” and therefore only the humble can “see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Pride sees the self as the supreme value, and views everything else as means to enhance the self. It’s insatiable, and it can be deadly. But in humility, one does “not to think of [one’s self] more highly than [one] ought to think, but . . . think[s] with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3).
The humble person accurately sees God’s place, his own place, and everyone else’s place in the world. The humble person sees himself as a sinner in desperate need of God’s mercy, and having received it through the supremely humble servanthood of God in Christ (Philippians 2:5–8), finds it more blessed to give to others than to receive so that they might maximally enjoy the mercy of God forever too (Acts 20:35). Having this mind, he sees existence, the world, beauty, redemption, and judgment as incomprehensibly bigger than himself and so full of glories that he is overwhelmed and can’t contain it all. His humility allows him to see, and what he sees humbles him.
Eyes Open to Glory
Why did Jesus say only the humble can enter the kingdom? Because only the humble can see the kingdom. Why are the greatest in the kingdom the servants? Because the more humble we are, the more reality we truly see, the more of God’s multifaceted glory we truly see, and therefore the more joy we experience, and therefore the more we want others to experience that joy. What makes humility so great is that it’s God-like.
In calling us to meekness, Jesus is inviting us to abandon the bankruptcy of pride and have the eyes of our hearts enlightened that we may know “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18). He’s inviting us share in the very joy of the Triune God, the most humble Persons in existence.