How Does Humility Lead in Conflict?

Why Godly Conviction Is Not Arrogance

Phoenix Seminary | Arizona


I want to say especially to Brian Arnold, the new president of Phoenix Seminary, how thankful I am for his invitation to be a part of this installation service. I regard it as a great privilege because leadership in shaping the shepherds of God’s blood-bought flock will experience either the joy of a crown of righteousness for its faithfulness (2 Timothy 4:8), or a cry of anguish for its failure (Jeremiah 25:34).

Paul said to the shepherds of Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). If shepherding is that serious — because the flock is bought with the blood of God — then how much more serious, more accountable, more liable to judgment for abuses is the shaping of that shepherding by presidents and seminary faculty.

Dangerous and Delightful

Listen to Jeremiah:

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. . . . “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away. . . . Wail, you shepherds, and cry out, and roll in ashes, you lords of the flock, for the days of your slaughter . . . have come.” (Jeremiah 23:1–2; 25:34)

Wow. If shepherding is that dangerous, and shaping the shepherds is even more dangerous, why would I want to be a part of installing a man in such a role? Why would I call it a great privilege?

Because there are not only dangers in shaping shepherds; there are delights. Listen to Hebrews 13:17:

Your leaders [shepherds] . . . are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

A gloomy pastor is not an advantage to his flock. An unhappy minister does not make a healthy church. Joy in the shepherd is essential to health in the sheep.

“An unhappy minister does not make a healthy church. Joy in the shepherd is essential to health in the sheep.”

Therefore, the shaping of the shepherds is a happy affair. Or it fails. A seminary should be a joyful place of study and prayer and worship and love. If that seems incompatible with Jeremiah’s warning, “Wail, you shepherds, for the days of your slaughter have come,” it’s not. Because the only joy in ministry worth having is serious joy — the kind of joy that is so rooted in God that, if you don’t have it, you’re an idolater.

So, all of that, Dr. Arnold, to say thank you. It’s an honor — and, yes, great joy, a serious joy — to be here for this amazing moment.

Misplaced Modesty

What I want to talk about is a question regarding presidential leadership raised by the experience of serious joy. So let me show you the experience and address the question. The experience is found in Acts 5:40–41. The Jewish Sanhedrin is trying to silence the voice of Christian leaders. So is our culture. One does not need to be a prophet to see that in the next thirty years of your leadership there will be powerful forces seeking to silence your voice and the voice of the shepherds you shape. Here’s what happened in Acts:

They beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (Acts 5:40–41)

I call that serious joy. It’s the only kind that matters, because it’s the only kind that magnifies the name of Jesus.

Now here’s the question it raises: If you reject their command not to speak in the name of Jesus, which they all did, the next day (Acts 5:42: “They did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus”), you will be accused of arrogance. Who do you think you are to presume to speak for God in this world? So the question is: Will that accusation silence you and the shepherds you are shaping?

God hates arrogance. He loves humility. Shepherds who speak for God need great clarity here. Because already a hundred years ago, and more so now, the world hijacked the word “arrogance” and equated it with conviction, and hijacked the word “humility” and equated it with uncertainty.

In 1908 the British writer G.K. 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. . . . We are on the road to producing a race of man too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. (Orthodoxy)

So, if humility is not the abandonment of conviction or the embrace of uncertainty, what is it? What is humility when we are called to have such confidence that beatings will not keep us from telling the truth, indeed, such confidence that beatings for the truth will cause someone to write over our lives, “They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41)? That’s my question.

Five Aspects of Genuine Humility

God has told us at least five things about true humility, and that is what I want to leave with you — humility that does not lack conviction and will not be silenced and will rejoice in being shamed for the name of Christ.

1. Humility begins with a sense of subordination to God in Christ.

A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. (Matthew 10:24)

Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God. (1 Peter 5:6)

Do we feel this? Not just know it, but feel it, sense it? God is above. We are beneath. We are not worthy to untie his shoes. The distance between God and us is infinite. His greatness, his power, his wisdom, his justice, his truth, his holiness, his mercy, his grace are as high above ours as the heavens are above the earth.

God is high and I am low. God is powerful and I am weak. God is wise and I am foolish. God is rich and I am poor. God is self-sufficient and I am totally dependent. To know this and to tremble at it — to fear God — is the beginning of wisdom. Or, as Proverbs 11:2 says, “With the humble is wisdom.”

2. Humility does not feel a right to better treatment than Jesus got.

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! (Matthew 10:25)

Therefore, humility does not produce a life based on its perceived rights — a sense of entitlement.

Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. . . . When he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21, 23)

“We are not God. We are sinners. We are finite. We are culturally conditioned.”

Much of our anger and resentment comes from the expectation that we have a right to be treated well. Decades ago, George Otis said, “Jesus never promised his disciples a fair fight.” We should assume that mistreatment is normal. “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).

We do not need to get the last word. We do not need to win the argument. We don’t need to be vindicated in this world (Romans 12:17–19). God will vindicate us in his time. And that frees us from the need to proudly demand our rights in this world. Humility does not feel a right to better treatment than Jesus got.

3. Humility asserts truth, not to bolster the ego with control or with triumphs in debate, but as an honor to Christ and as love to others.

Paul said that love “rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

  • If truth is an instrument of salvation — which it is (“[They] are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” [2 Thessalonians 2:10]) — then to speak it is a part of Christ-exalting love.

  • If truth is an instrument of sanctification — which it is (“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” [John 17:17]) — then to speak it is a part of Christ-exalting love.

  • If truth is an instrument of liberation and joy — which it is (“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” [John 8:32]) — then to speak it is a part of Christ-exalting love.

In other words, speaking the truth, that others need to hear, but may not want to hear, is an honor to Christ and love to others.

4. Humility knows and feels that it is dependent for everything on grace — dependent for all knowing and believing and acting and breathing.

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 16:17)

The most basic knowing of who Christ is, is a gift of God.

By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)

Faith is not finally our own doing. It is the gift of God.

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)

All of our growth in grace, all of our meager successes in sanctification are the work of God in us. And even the simplest plans that we make should be submitted to God, knowing that we will not even live another hour apart from his grace, let alone accomplish our plan.

You ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:15–16)

Therefore I say, humility knows and feels that it is dependent on grace for all knowing and believing and acting and breathing.

5. Humility knows and feels that it is fallible, and so considers criticism, and learns from it; but also knows that God has made provision for unshakable human conviction, and that he calls us to persuade others.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

A wise man listens to advice. (Proverbs 12:15)

We are not God. We are sinners. We are finite. We are culturally conditioned. Therefore, we are fallible, and make many mistakes with our mouths, as James says (3:2). Therefore, we should remain ever teachable. The wisdom from above, James says is “open to reason” (James 3:17). That is, teachable, open to correction, not defensive, not afraid of the ego-cost of having to admit error.

Nevertheless, humility knows that God has made provision for unshakable human conviction, and that he calls us to persuade others.

Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. (2 Corinthians 5:11)

Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Titus 2:15)

You can’t seek to persuade anyone humbly if you have no convictions. You can’t speak humbly with authority if you have no convictions.

“We don’t need to be vindicated in this world. God will vindicate us in his time.”

Remember, relativism that often passes for humility is just as likely to be a cloak for pride as conviction may be. Because if there are no objective truths that you can know, then you are free to be your own god. You can create your own truth. You can be judge and jury in every controversy. Relativism is attractive because it permits you to act like God. It looks humble; it’s not.

But humility submits to objective reality. It can’t play God. It can’t shape reality to suit its preferences. Humility is a servant of truth.

Humility knows that its grasp of reality is fallible, but it also knows that there is such a thing as objective reality, and that God’s grace enables us to see truly (if not perfectly), and to submit to it and proclaim it.

Self-Forgetful Gift

At the bottom of these five traits of humility is this: Humility senses that humility is a gift beyond our reach. If humility is the product of reaching, then we will instinctively feel proud about reaching it.

Humility is the self-forgetful gift that receives all things as gift. Or as Paul says, it’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). It’s the fruit of the gospel — knowing and feeling that we are desperate sinners and that Christ is a great and undeserved Savior.

So, Dr. Arnold, Brian, submit to Christ as supreme; don’t expect better than he got; tell the truth in love for Christ’s sake; receive all of life as grace; be teachable, but not wishy-washy. Be done with all boasting in men, for “all things are yours . . . and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21–23).