Is God humble? It seems like such a simple question. It’s not. It’s actually a great question — exactly the kind of question we have come to expect from our perceptive listeners, this time from a listener named Tanner. “Hello, Tony and Pastor John! I was recently thinking about how the pursuit of good character is the pursuit to better imitate the inherent goodness of God. But I hit a mental hurdle when I applied this framework to humility. Throughout your ministry, you have defined our humility as knowledge of our own fallibility. This cannot work for God. So, perhaps God cannot be humble because he’s infallible. Is God humble? Can we imitate him here? Or is humility reserved for creatures?”
Tanner has put his finger on a concern that I have had for a long time — namely, that we might make God-imitation or even Christ-imitation (like the bracelets: “What would Jesus do?”) too central in the way we think about the pursuit of holiness or virtue or love. And the reason I’m concerned is the very problem that Tanner has seen — namely, there is a lot about God we dare not imitate.
Clearly, Paul says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). But Paul knows and we know that we dare not imitate Christ in some of his most glorious pursuits and achievements.
- Don’t imitate Christ in his authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:10).
- Don’t imitate Christ in his right to say, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
- Don’t imitate Christ in his glorious bearing of the sins of his people as “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29).
- Don’t imitate Christ in his claim to have no sin in himself (2 Corinthians 5:21).
- Don’t imitate Christ in his authority to say, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).
And clearly Paul says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1). But Paul knows and we know and Satan knows that the wrong kind of God-imitation is not the height of godliness, but the height of rebellion against God.
What was the essence of Satan’s temptation, which brought down the entire creation into misery? What was it? This is Satan talking in Genesis 3:5: “God knows that when you eat of [the forbidden tree] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” In other words, Satan is tempting us with “Come on, come on — be a perfect imitator of God.”
Do as God Says
So you can see why I’m concerned that we not make God-imitation or Christ-imitation too central in our pursuit of holiness. Let me say this just purely biblically: it is not the dominant way, in the New Testament or the Old Testament, of pursuing godliness. It’s not. To be sure, it is there and it is right: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). But far more prominent in the Bible is this: obey God’s word — not his example, but his word. We are called a hundred times more often in the Bible to bring our loves in conformity to God’s word and to act in a way that accords with the gospel and that flows from faith. These are the great guidelines for behavior and are more prominent than imitation of God or Christ.
If we pay attention to the context of each place where God-imitation or Christ-imitation is referred to, we will be protected from most abuses. For example, Ephesians 5:1–2 says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us.” The context helps. I mean, that puts a point on it and a guidance to it.
When a child imitates Daddy or Mommy, the child has no thought of being Daddy. The child doesn’t say, “I’m going to become Daddy.” He doesn’t want to be Daddy. There are dozens of attributes that Mommy and Daddy have that the child neither wants nor has, but desperately needs them to have. He wants to be dependent on Mommy and Daddy, but he does learn most of what makes him get along in the world by watching Mommy and Daddy. That’s the context. Then Paul points to Christ in Ephesians 5 as the way God loved us.
God’s Most Loving Act
Now, to Tanner’s more specific question: “Perhaps God cannot be humble because he’s infallible. Is God humble? Can we imitate him here? Or is humility reserved for creatures?” Now, that’s a tricky question. It’s tricky because language does surprising things. The problem with saying that God is not humble is that we usually think of the opposite of humility as a kind of insecure braggart or a show-off or a windbag. At the human level, someone who makes it his aim to have his name exalted is morally defective. And yet, throughout the whole Bible, God does that very thing: he seeks to exalt his name so that it is known and loved and praised and honored.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another. (Isaiah 48:11)
If a mere man were to talk like that, we’d call him a megalomaniac. But the solution to that is not to say, “God is humble”; the solution is to say, “God is loving.” When God exalts his name, he’s exalting the most beautiful, the most valuable, reality in the universe — namely, himself — precisely for the enjoyment of his believing creatures. God is in a class by himself. We cannot follow him in this. His most loving act is to exalt himself as the all-satisfying One, for his people’s everlasting pleasure. And he does it at the cost of the life of his Son. Nobody else can love like this. We cannot imitate that: offering ourselves as the all-satisfying treasure in the universe.
What God Could Never Do
We don’t imitate God by exalting ourselves the way God exalts himself. We imitate God rightly by exalting God the way God exalts God — because we’re not God and we can’t be God and we shouldn’t want to be God.
But that means we are humble in precisely this sense (which he cannot be): humility for us, at its heart, is to feel and think and say and act in a way that shows I am not God. I try to get on my knees once a day, just for ten seconds or longer, and say, “I just wanted to remind myself, Lord, I’m not God.” And I’m done. That may seem strange, but there it is. I think the very essence of humility is to speak and act in a way that says, “I’m not God.” That is the heart of humility for created humans. “I’m not God; I’m under God.” First Peter 5:6: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God.”
Humility, for us, at its essence, is what God cannot do. He can’t. He can’t be humble like this; namely, he cannot gladly say, “I’m not God. Hooray!” God can’t say that. It would be the undoing of the universe.
Humility on the Tree
But let’s end like this, because this is what he’s really getting at, and I think it’s the right answer. I was asked this question one time at an ETS meeting after I gave a big talk on God’s pursuit of his own glory. Somebody stood up and said, “So, there’s no humility in God, right?”
Here was more or less of what I said: Perfect humility — that is, perfect, happy eagerness not to be God, but to trust God, depend upon God, treasure God — is required of all human beings. It was required of Adam; he failed. It’s required of us, and we have failed. God loves such humility. It is in his nature to consider humility — human humility — a beautiful thing. It’s in his nature to delight in it. And he means to have it from his people, whom he possesses, and who will possess that kind of humility as his children forever.
So, he does the unthinkable: he takes on human nature. The Son of God becomes the God-man, precisely to do what God as God cannot do: be perfectly humble in his human nature. Christ perfectly trusted his Father, perfectly depended on his Father. And in his dependence, he did what only a perfect human in union with God could do: “Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8)
So, here’s my conclusion: God, considered absolutely as God, cannot be humble — though he can be and is loving. But the God-man, in his perfect humanity, could be humble, and was. And in that sense, has taken the beauty of humility into the Godhead. For Christ, the God-man, will always be God and man forever.