There's an idea floating around today that has to sicken the heart of God. It's this idea that true humility means you have to conjure up a kinder, gentler version of yourself so we can all just get along. It's a humility that says you have to straddle the fence, not offend anyone, and "make nice" with everyone. What a phony-baloney load of crap that is! I'm searching the Scriptures, and I can't find anyone like that, at least not anyone who was serving God. Am I to believe that John the Baptist was not humble because he confronted the Pharisees and called them a bunch of snakes? Did Paul lack humility because he appeared to be unkind when he sharply confronted the Judaizers in Galatia and hinted they should all do themselves bodily harm? And in the Old Testament the Prophets of God probably never understood the concept. Where was Elijah's humility when he confronted Ahab and Jezebel, and slew the false prophets of Baal? Surely Elijah wasn't putting forth his best efforts to get along.
Webster's Dictionary is always an interesting place to start when you want to know what something means. I have a copy of Webster's Compact School and Office Dictionary. I like it, the definitions are short and to the point.
"Humility n. the state or quality of being humble"
See what I mean? Short and to the point, just like I said.
"Humble adj. 1. Having or showing awareness of one's defects; not proud; not self-assertive 2. Low in condition or rank; lowly"
Now I have a problem. Webster's Dictionary gives me definitions that don't seem to jive with the Biblical information I have. Should I assume that men in scripture who followed the Lord and served Him faithfully were used even though they seemed to lack this quality? I mean, here we have men questioning other men's motives, resisting authority, being sarcastic and unkind, and even killing people!
Do we have a contradiction? Yes, we do! Where does it come from? I think from the fact that God did not write Webster's Dictionary. Is the definition wrong? No, not technically. At least, not if you're trying to define it from the context of morality or worldly reason.
Let me try to explain what I mean. The definitions above describe a quality that can easily be misunderstood. In our world, apply a little wrong thinking and humility becomes weakness, compromise, accommodation, or peace at any cost, something to be avoided, if you plan to get ahead in the world. The world-view is that humility is a sign of weakness. I suspect it's just the opposite. That's usually the case when you're dealing with the world's opinions.
In religious circles, humility is something the pious try to wear on their shirtsleeves where everyone can see it. They walk around saying things like, "I just want to love everyone", "I just want to serve", or "Let's not be critical, we're all brothers and sisters in the Lord". They always have a kind word. They'd be mortified if they were ever accused of offending anyone. They're usually "called" to promote unity in the church (talk about futile ambition). They also have a false sense of humility.
As is usually the case, we look to Jesus, "the Author and Finisher of our faith". The definitive passage on humility has to be Philippians 2. The full passage runs from verse 1, all the way to verse 16. In the midst of Paul's presentation, he offers Jesus as the supreme example. We'll cut to the chase. This is verse 8:
"And after He had come to earth in human form (as if that weren't enough), He humbled Himself in an even greater way, by carrying His obedience to the Father to the fullest extreme - through His willingness to die on the cross!"
What is Paul saying? And what are we missing? Let's revisit Webster's definition. Is humility the simple understanding that we're not everything God wants us to be? Sure I have defects. Who doesn't? I even know what a few of them are. But does that make me humble? O K, so I won't be self-assertive. Does that make me humble? Some would say it only proves I'm lazy. Can I cultivate the attitude that everyone else is better than I am, or more important? Then will I be humble? I don't think so. If I try to blend into the landscape, not give anyone a problem, not offend any brothers or sisters (even though with most I doubt they are brothers or sisters), and not hand out any grief, then will I be humble? If I quit using sarcasm every time I write one of these papers, will I be humble? I don’t think so.
You know what? Jesus proved His humility by the death He was willing to die. John the Baptist died because of his humility. Paul eventually died because of his humility. Scores of great men in the Bible, and countless others we've never heard about, have died because of their humility. Elijah was spared physical death (even though it's clear he didn't escape self-death), but not because he lacked humility - he had a boatload of the stuff! In the case of Elijah, you just have to accept the sovereignty of God. God does what He wants to do. Nothing is for sure. But, in this world, there's a good chance this is true - Christ-like humility will get you in trouble, not keep you out of it.
So, what is it? How can we define humility? It is simply the willingness to be obedient to the will of the Father, regardless of personal cost. And understand this, your humility will never depend on what men think of you, or what they say about you. That is irrelevant. Your humility will always be founded on what God thinks of you. Period! Humility has nothing to do with men's opinions. And it’s not based on their selfish sentiments. That's why Webster's definition is wrong.
Does God put a requirement on us that says if you're going to be humble, you can never offend? John the Baptist lost his head, spoke the truth, offended a woman, and lost his head (no, that's not a typo, you read it right). When the Pharisees heard about it, they probably had a drink to celebrate, because poor John had offended most of them too! But, in reality he was only standing for what was right. That's what God called him to do. His obedience cost him everything, except early entrance into the presence of God (not a bad deal, when you think about it). When Paul met the Lord on the road to Damascus, he said, "Lord, what do You want me to do?" This began Paul's life of humility, suffering and personal deprivation. Did he make enemies? Did he offend? Did he see the need to confront? Yes, to all that and more. But, was he humble? Of course he was. It was his humility that caused all those things to happen!
Jesus must be our example. He was direct, confronting, divisive, sarcastic, evasive, critical, assertive, uncompromising, and bold. He was soft, loving, compassionate, merciful, and unassuming. He could be patient, then, seemingly impatient. At times He was relaxed, other times He was agitated. He sometimes marveled at the good qualities He saw in people, but mostly he was disappointed. He could accept people who were unacceptable, or go into an angry rage. He was the Son of Man and showed many sides of His humanness. From the world's point of view, He could be very un-humble. But aside from all that, He was totally focused on the Will of the Father, fiercely loyal to the Him, and blindly obedient. And that was His humility!
Oh, that I could be that humble! Humility takes real courage. As I've already mentioned, it requires loyalty, perseverance, and blind obedience to God. Humility is not for wimps. The namby-pamby need not apply. Compromise is not a characteristic of the truly humble. If you castrate yourself straddling the fence, I doubt God will ever commend you for your humility, it would be a contrary to His Truth. Those who fear the opinions of men, instead of the opinion of God will never even come close to it. In fact, those who exhibit true humility towards God will always run afoul of men's opinions. God will see to it. God has convinced me that He, in fact, uses true humility in His servants to upset and confound the world and bring glory to Himself. After all, the world is opposed to God. And when you put all religious pretense and deception aside, true humility becomes the dividing line that separates the servants of God and the enemies of the cross. There is a natural tension there, and true humility is what God uses to make the sparks fly.
Now, there will be those who think I've presented a somewhat unbalanced view of humility. And if you think that, you may very well be right (see, I’m trying to show my softer side). But I wanted to emphasize the point that humility, in fact, has two sides. And both are valid. Mr. Webster is, at least, partially correct. Humility can be defined as non-assertive, not proud, low in condition or rank. But humility can also be seen in acts of confrontation, defiance or even violence. What's the difference? It's simply this. We can easily see both sides in Jesus. There is no real contradiction. Jesus came to do the will of His Father. He had no agenda or ambitions of His own. On a personal level, Jesus was gentle, unassuming and compassionate. But, when He was engaged in carrying out the instructions of the Father, He could be as bold, unyielding and fierce, as He needed to be. Either way, His humility remained intact.
Do you see the difference? I'll make the application. I have no right to confront, criticize or otherwise abuse people because of any personal opinion or agenda I may have. In fact, I have no right to any opinion or agenda of my own. I've been bought with a precious price. And if the cross has any reality at all in my life, I should have at least some understanding of that. I also know that there are those who oppose the purposes of God. And I know that God will, from time to time, use me and others like me, to stir them up. I've never enjoyed confrontation. Tension has never been one of my favorite feelings. But I know what it feels like when God puts that fire in my belly and I have to be obedient. It would be much easier to just avoid the situation, or just be nice.
Humility doesn't come easy. You'll never be truly humble if you think you are. You'll never be humble because others say you are. I don't know how long it takes to become humble. And I don't know what God will require of us as He forms this humility in us. I can tell you where I believe the process starts. It starts in following the instructions of Jesus found in Mark 8:34. Here's a paraphrase.
"Then Jesus turned to the crowd that had been following Him and said, If you intend to go the same way I'm going (the way to the Father), you'll have let go of your own self-interests every day and submit your life completely to God. You'll have to take up your cross every day as well, so you can die to self - your flesh has to go. And you'll have to follow Me continually. I'll have to show you the way, you'll never find it on your own."
True humility comes when you're dead to self and alive to God. It manifests when your own self-interests are gone, and you're focused only on the purposes of God. Like Jesus, we prove our humility through our willingness to die. Humility will probably take us places we don't want to go, to do things we don't want to do. But, we'll go. And, we'll be obedient. If we know in our heart and in our spirit that God has raised us up, trained us and hardened us, not for our purposes, but for His. And we won't abuse people just because we want to or because we can. The very idea will be repugnant. And, we'll be obedient to a Holy God, regardless of the cost.
There are people out there who are determined to do what they want to do with their lives, with their money, with their relationships, with everything that constitutes their existence. They give lip service to God, show some interest in the things of God, and fit Him in wherever it's convenient. But, they betray God and themselves continually by their lukewarm lives. They have no intention of ever submitting to Him, no intention of forcing themselves to sacrifice their precious lifestyles to follow God, and no intention of dying to self. They want to believe that it's OK. I'm reminded of the verse in Revelation 20:12 that tells us that the day will come when the books are opened and we'll be judged according to what has been recorded in the books. When my name comes up, I hope it says something about my willingness to be obedient.