A Bowed Posture:

Taking a Look at Humility

Edited by Drew Friesen

By Marcus McClain

    11 min. Read Time

Published January 1st, 2021

“I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think”

– Paul of Tarsus[1] 

“[A really humble man] will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” 

– C. S. Lewis[2] 

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. Humility is thinking more of others.” 

– Rick Warren[3] 

            Paul, C. S. Lewis, and Pastor Rick Warren agree humility is about putting others before oneself. In this article we will look at what exactly a virtue is and how to practice it in a way that is grounded in the good news of the Kingdom and Jesus’s atonement of our sin. Next, we will examine the original languages of the Scriptures to form a contemporary and biblical definition of the word humility. With the definition in hand, we will discuss the significance of humility before concluding with thoughts on how to live humbly. 

            So, what exactly is a virtue? According to the dictionary, virtue is moral excellence.[4] This means that within Christian doctrine and theology, humility is morally excellent and those who practice it are practicing moral excellence. While the world’s belief in moral excellence is changing (and belief in objective morality in general is waning), Christians should stand resolute in the worth of practicing moral excellence by allowing the Spirit of Christ to lead us into that excellence as the pillar of cloud and fire led the children of Israel into the Promised Land. Virtues are important because the world is growing more cold, corrupted, loveless, and dark. If Christ’s followers would be the salt and light that the Messiah has called us to be, we must not let the world corrode our belief in moral excellence and goodness. 

            Believing in virtues and their importance does not mean we make a list of things we think are good or find some list of virtues and make sure we “do one” each day like some kind of morality agenda. Trees and vines do not make a list of fruits and then work to produce them each day to fulfill some fruit quota. Rather, fruit-bearing trees and vines naturally bear their fruit. The fruits bud and blossom from the life within the tree as it matures and is cultivated. If a Christ-follower is to live a humble life, which is expected of us, it can only truly arise from the life of the God-Man within us as we mature and cultivate our relationship with Him. 

            In the First Testament, the Hebrew word anah which is translated as “humble,” is a verb that means “to be bowed down.” It is something one might do actively, or it can be done to someone by another or by circumstances. The noun form does not appear as many times in the First Testament, but the word anvah (or anavah) means gentle.[5] What we see from the Hebrew is that humility is not simply an absence of bragging or boasting, but a positive attitude of walking gently in this world and actively living in a bowed position before others. 

            As we turn to the New Testament, written in Greek, we find that the word often translated humble (not as a verb but as an adjective to describe a person) is the word tapeinos. Tapeinos, like its Hebrew cousin, describes a person who lies low or is lowly in spirit. This lowliness is an inner lowliness that throws away self-sufficiency and self-dependence to allow another (assumed to be YHWH in the scriptures) to sustain us. The noun form offers nothing new to the definition but reminds us that to be humble is not a one-and-done action, but instead, is meant to be a way to think, speak and live throughout the course of one’s life. 

            Taking both languages into consideration, we might define humility as: a quality of mind and spirit expressed in modest thoughts, others-focused speech, a demure and reverent attitude towards others, and a stout reliance upon God and not upon self. It is likely that with only the definition, we have already taken some hard-to-swallow pills. What is the moral excellence in humility and why is it mandated by God that people live with such an attitude and disposition? The answer is simple: YHWH Himself is humble and His people are His image-bearers. Let us take these each in turn. 

            The Judeo-Christian God, the Creator of all that is seen and unseen, the Emperor of the universe and beyond, the only One who is the beginning and the end and deserves the worship, adoration, and obedience of every being in the universe is, in fact, humble. I do not know you, so I am not sure how that sentence strikes you, but it floors me. How can the only being in the universe who deserves to be conceited, arrogant and vain, not be? Instead, there is no one who is more low-lying and others-focused than God. 

            In the First Testament, we see God bring all things into existence with care and, I would argue, reverence. He did so with the desire for His creation to be sustained, loved, appreciated and to experience delight. As ridiculous as it might sound, the One who would gain nothing from sex (and indeed, cannot have sex) created it to be enjoyed between one man and one woman exclusively in the covenant of marriage. He created trees that were desirable to look at and gave Adam a suitable partner because He saw he was alone.[6] As early as the creation account, we find a God who is outwardly focused, and He does not change.[7]

            When we step into the pages of the New Testament, the Lord Jesus Christ very nearly starts His ministry with the announcement that He is humble. He says, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:29 NASB, emphasis added). While we have been taught that those who call themselves humble are probably the furthest from it, Paul espouses how Jesus of Nazareth was indeed a man of humility. 

            In Philippians 2, Paul says “with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…” (Phil. 2:3b-5). Paul says an attitude of humility which considers others as more important than oneself and looks out for others’ interests, is the exact attitude that Jesus had. This was clearly demonstrated when He “emptied” Himself of the advantage of being YHWH, took on the nature of humanity, and obeyed God the Father to the point of being crucified to atone for the sins of all those who trust (Phil. 2:6-8). Paul did not mention that the night before He was crucified, Jesus acted as a slave and washed the dusty and sweaty feet of the one who would give Him over to His executioners, the feet of the one who deny knowing Him and the feet of those who would run when He got arrested. Jesus, and by implication the Father and the Spirit, is humble—why would we be anything else? 

            Because we are humans, we are created to reflect the nature and character of God; exposing and highlighting who He is and what He is like as we interact with ourselves, with others, and with the earth and its comprising plant and animal life. Since this is the case (whether we like it or not), it means all humans are to live in and with humility. To be proud, arrogant, or a braggart is to be unlike God and more like His enemy. 

            Christians should not be ignorant of God’s humility or humanity’s identity as image bearers. Christians should, therefore, be the model of humility today, and for the most part, the Church does reflect the humble nature of her Bridegroom and God. However, each of us must look ourselves in the mirror and bow down before God to ask Him if we indeed live in humility. As I have observed American Evangelicalism, many descriptors have come to mind but humility is not generally one of them. We need humility—it is part and parcel of what it means to be human and it is something the Holy Spirit desires to fold into our hearts that it might play out in our day-to-day lives. 

            As we consider giving ourselves to the discipline and virtue of humility, we must be sure to do so with a perspective that is informed by the good news of Jesus and His Kingdom. Humility is the fruit (or product) of a dynamic relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul tells the Galatians, “But the fruit of the Spirit is…gentleness” (Gal. 5:22,23). The proof and evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us and of our following and submitting to Him, is humility. Unfortunately, this is not something we can escape or get away from—to be a Christian is to be humble.

            Fruit is produced in our lives by our remaining in Christ. As Jesus told His disciples during His final hours with them, “Remain in Me, and I in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself but must remain in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; the one who remains in Me, and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:4-5). Again, the effort is not in being humble necessarily, but in denying ourselves to follow Jesus and losing our lives for the sake of finding life in Jesus Christ alone. This is of utmost importance because if one determines to “be humble” and tries to live in humility by their own willpower and strength, it will be a façade—a counterfeit humility that is, in fact, driven by self-determination, results in self-righteousness and is ultimately self-centered, things that are the exact opposite of biblical humility. Todd Wilson puts it this way: “Humility is hard—not like calculus, more like sacrifice. It pains the soul. No one grows in humility quickly or easily, nor do we gain it naturally. Humility cuts against the grain of human nature, and that always hurts.”[8] 

            In conclusion, humility is a morally excellent attitude that is meant to be one’s way of life. Humility is a quality of mind and spirit expressed in modest thoughts, others-focused speech, a demure and reverent attitude towards others, and a stout reliance upon God and not upon self. We are to be humble because our God is humble, and we are His image bearers. However, rather than making us a checklist we must complete or calling for us to make our own lists, YHWH merely calls us to surrender to Him, let His humility flow from His nature into our own, and then from our souls out into the world. It is my prayer that we would all heed the Lord’s call to come to Him and learn from Him, taking His yoke and burden upon our own shoulders for His glory, our sanctification, and the good of the world.

________________________

Footnotes:

            [1] Romans 12:3a. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.  

            [2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan Pub. Co., 1952), 117. 

            [3] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 148. 

            [4] This definition can be accessed online at https://www.dictionary.com/browse/virtue?s=t. Accessed Dec. 29, 2020.

            [5] The definitions for these words can be found online at https://biblehub.com/hebrew/6031.htm; and https://biblehub.com/hebrew/6037.htm, respectively. Accessed Dec. 29, 2020.

            [6]See: Genesis 2:9, 18.

            [7]See: Malachi 3:6.

            [8] Todd Wilson, Real Christian: Bearing the Marks of Authentic Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 55.

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