Humility is an essential component to the Christian experience. That’s because the gospel cuts us at the knees before it lifts our souls.
Jesus is welcoming to sinners of all kinds. Of all stripes. There is an incredible amount of room at the foot of the cross. He freely welcomes the tax collector, the prostitute, the liar, the traitor, and everyone in between. But coming to Jesus, regardless of which direction you are coming from, requires humility. When we come to Jesus we must come acknowledging our need of Him and His grace. Either we come this way or we cannot come at all.
In order to be saved by the grace of Christ, we must embrace our own powerlessness and need. In other words, only those who are able to humbly see and acknowledge the state of their hearts are ready to receive what Jesus freely offers. If we are in Christ, then, we have at least some semblance of humility in our hearts. But beyond that basis, humility is a tricky thing.
It’s tricky because those who are truly humble do not necessarily recognize themselves to be. In fact, the moment you start to recognize your own humility then you have started to drift into an insidious kind of pride – you are proud of being humble. That kind of humility is just a mask for pride. And there are other attributes we might exhibit that have the outer appearance of humility and yet might also only be a part of our masquerade. Here are three examples:
Humility is not self-loathing. To be humble does not mean to hate oneself. It certainly does not mean to punish oneself or to think oneself worthless. In fact, this kind of self-hatred is not only not humility; it’s also dishonoring to our Creator who made us in His own image:
“For it was you who created my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will praise you
because I have been remarkably and wondrously made” (Psalm 139:13-14).
Self-loathing is a denial of these truths. It’s an inward defiance of the truth that God really did create us as individuals; that He really did form us intentionally; that He did not make mistakes in our physical and mental make up. Hating ourselves is not humility; it is instead a dishonor to the creative work of God.
Similarly, denying that we are good at anything is not humility. When someone gives us a compliment, to look down and deny that we actually did do a good job or really are smart or creative or whatever is not humility.
Sometimes we think accepting a compliment means robbing God of His glory and taking pride in ourselves, but this is not so. If someone compliments one of my children because of something they’ve done, it is not dishonoring to me as their father if they simply say, “Thank you.” It’s actually the opposite. I glory in my children for who they are and who they are becoming because who they are and who they are becoming is also a reflection of me. A compliment to them is a compliment to me. The inability to acknowledge that we have done a good job or are talented at something is not humility; it’s immaturity.
Humility is also not the same thing as mediocrity. Sometimes we think the truly humble are never ambitious, never achieve, and are never successful. That’s not the case. We must be very careful that we aren’t hiding our own laziness behind a false version of humility. Instead, we should be compelled as stewards of all God has made us to be to make the most of what God has made us to be. It is entirely possible, through Christ, to be ambitious without being greedy; to be driven without being consumed; to be successful without ceasing to be content.
What, then, is humility if not these things? It is, by God’s grace, moving forward in thinking of yourself less. That is, humility is growing in self-forgetfulness. This is the power of focus, for when we intentionally fix our eyes on Jesus, then our focus on ourselves becomes less and less. We simply think less about our own preferences; our own needs; our own desires.
Humility is not self-hatred; nor is it an inability to acknowledge things we are good at; and it’s certainly not the same thing as laziness. It is, in the words of John the Baptist, this:
“He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).