Aspiring missionaries are often the kind of Christians who ask questions like “How do I humble myself?” They have read their Bibles, and have sat under faithful preaching, and have noticed that, from beginning to end, God commends humility and condemns pride. For instance,
- “Seek humility” (Zephaniah 2:3).
- “Put on . . . humility” (Colossians 3:12).
- “Have . . . a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).
- “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5).
- “Humble yourselves . . . under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6; James 4:10).
And so the kinds of Christians who tend to make good missionaries genuinely want to be more humble, and they ask questions like, “How do I humble myself?” And when we turn to the places in Scripture that talk about self-humbling, what we find is that the answer itself is humbling.
Let’s look at what may be the two most instructive passages in the Bible about self-humbling. The first is in Exodus; the second, in Philippians.
Will You Refuse to Humble Yourself?
The first mention of humbling in the Bible is in Exodus 10, with Moses standing before Pharoah. Let’s set the scene with Exodus 5:1–2 as Moses first approaches him and speaks on God’s behalf:
Moses says, “Thus says the Lord [Yahweh], the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go. . . .” To which Pharaoh replies, mark this: “Who is [Yahweh], that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know [Yahweh] . . .”
Okay, Pharaoh. You may not yet know Yahweh. But just you wait. You will know him, and perhaps all too well. Note here, as Pharaoh rightly perceives it, this is about obedience: He says, “Who is [Yahweh], that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?”
Then, as you know, ten terrible plagues follow as Yahweh makes himself known as judge to Pharaoh, and as savior to his own people, as he rescues them from Egyptian oppression.
Now, fast forward from Exodus 5 to Exodus 9:17, just before plague number seven. God says to Pharoah, “You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go.” In refusing to obey God’s voice, Pharoah is “exalting self” — which is the opposite of “humbling self.” God then makes that explicit in the next chapter, before the eighth plague. He says again to Pharaoh in Exodus 10:3,
How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?
And this is the first mention of humbling self in the Bible. So, let’s pull together what we’ve seen in Exodus. Though Pharaoh pretends to be divine, the true God and Creator speaks to him as a creature. “Obey my voice. Let my people go.” And God refers to Pharaoh’s refusal as “exalting yourself” and instructs him to “humble yourself” in response to these painful, humbling plagues. That is, obey God. Acknowledge, Pharoah, that you are not God. He is God.
We might say that the basic confession of humility is “You are God, and I am not.” First, God acted; he humbled Pharaoh through plague after plague. Then, the question comes to Pharaoh, Will you humble yourself? Will you pretend that you are God and challenge or ignore Yahweh, or will you admit, “He is God, and I am not,” and obey?
God Acts First
This is the paradigm that then echoes throughout the Scriptures (especially in 2 Chronicles, and in the teaching of Jesus, Matthew 18:4; 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14), and is true for us today. God may not confront us with a knock at the door from a prophet like Moses, but God does confront us. He takes the initiative. His humbling hand descends. A family member, or brother or sister in Christ, confronts us. Or sickness in ourselves or in a loved one. Or death. Or the loss of a job. Or a breakup. Or whatever obstacles you will encounter on the mission field, or on your way to the mission field — and you will encounter them.
God takes the initiative in humbling us, and then the question comes: Now, will you humble yourself and receive what God is doing in your discomfort and pain, or will you push back?
Humility says, “He is God, and I am not.” Uncomfortable and painful as my circumstances are, I receive them as his humbling hand. That doesn’t mean I don’t pray for rescue. In fact, praying for rescue can be precisely the kind of self-humbling we’re taking about.
“The kinds of Christians who tend to make good missionaries genuinely want to be more humble.”
So, How do I humble myself? is a good question for aspiring missionaries to ask. And it has a humbling answer. We don’t just up and humble ourselves when we’re good and ready. We don’t take the initiative. Self-humbling is not an achievement. Rather, our self-humbling begins with God’s initiative. He takes the first step and humbles us. Then the question comes, Will you receive his humbling and humble yourself?
Jesus Humbled Himself
Now, let’s go to Philippians 2 and see it play out, in three great steps, in the greatest missionary who ever lived.
He Became Man
First, before he humbled himself as man, he first had to become man. Which is said to be an emptying of himself.
[being] in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6–7)
His emptying of himself was not an emptying of divine attributes, as if that were possible. It was an emptying of privilege or comfort — the privilege of not becoming man and not being subjected to the finitude and pain of human life, and the difficulties of living in our fallen world. And Jesus’s emptying here, Paul says, was not a losing but a taking: “taking the form of a servant.”
So, first, God the Son becomes man.
Obedient to Death
Then, second, once human, Jesus fulfilled the human calling before God: “he humbled himself.”
being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)
What did Jesus’s self-humbling involve? He humbled himself (1) by becoming obedient. We saw with Pharaoh the issue of human obedience to God’s will. Jesus, as man, obeyed God. As much as his humanity wanted to avoid death, and avoid bearing our sin (having none of his own), and feeling forsaken by his Father, he prayed in the garden, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). And he was obedient, Paul says, (2) “to the point of death.” He endured. He didn’t hit eject when obedience got hard. He obeyed all the way through. And this self-humbling obedience to death went so far as (3) “even death on a cross.”
Exalted for Humility
Now, third and finally,
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name . . . (Philippians 2:9)
As man, Jesus humbled himself in obedience to the divine will, and went to the cross — and God, in his perfect timing, three days later, raised him, and, forty days later, exalted him at his right hand.
Welcome God’s Humbling Hand
Let me close with two final words to you as 18–25 year olds at the CROSS conference:
First, your process from CROSS, to actually getting there — on the ground, into the cross-cultural ministry you aspire to — likely will take longer and be a more trying and patience-testing process than you imagined. God means to humble you along the way. And he means, as you seek to become a missionary — high a calling as it is! — that you learn obedience and humility, that you do not, in pride, jettison the call of Philippians 2:3–4, which verses 6¬–9 uphold, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Finally, my prayer for you is that you prepare ahead of time, daily and weekly, for God’s many humblings, for your good, before they come:
- Humble yourself daily by sitting under (not over) his word and bowing before him in prayer;
- And humble yourself weekly by sitting under faithful preaching and submitting yourself in covenant/committed fellowship in a faithful local church.
“Ask God to work a posture in your soul that is ready to receive, even welcome, God’s humbling hand.”
Ask God to work a posture in your soul — through his word, prayer, and covenant fellowship to his people — that is ready to receive, even welcome God’s humbling hand, painful as it may be when it descends.
Answering his call to invest your life directly in the Great Commission work of crossing oceans and borders and languages and cultures with the gospel won’t mean you avoid his humbling hand. It might mean, in his great mercy, his humbling hand descends in your life all the more. Read missionary biographies. Were they kept from his humbling hand? No, they were not.
Rather, his humbling hand kept them from vanity, from shallowness, from being ineffective, from laboring in vain, from walking away from Jesus, from being choked out by the cares of this life. God’s humbling hand was a painful and merciful means of his grace in sustaining and strengthening the souls of his missionaries, and in working through them to do his humbling and rescuing work in the lives of those they were sent to reach.