You've heard of the humble carpenter of Nazareth. And you've also heard of people who live in monasteries and profess to specialize in humility. But just what is true humility - and, more important, how can you personally acquire it? Christ said that it will be the "poor in spirit" who inherit God's Kingdom (Matt. 5:3). He also said: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (verse 5).
We see from these two important verses found in the well-known Beatitudes that meekness and humility are major requirements for Christians. The teaching of Jesus Christ as expounded and explained in Christ's sermon on the mount in Matthew 5, 6 and 7 lists these essentials first!
But there is a general lack of understanding as to what true humility really is. There is a kind of Christian posturing labeled "humility" that is rather prevalent today, but it is not really true humility at all.
What Humility Is Not. Some people think that to be humble is to have a lack of drive or zeal. Some believe that only the poor are humble. Such poor people are sometimes proud of their poverty and lack of industry. But this is not true humility.
There is another kind of false humility which is really "pseudo-spirituality." It is sometimes accompanied by an affected or quavering voice and religious-appearing manner. Such trappings also have nothing to do with true humility.
A person unfamiliar with the Bible may not comprehend what real humility is. Such an individual may look upon those who are apparently pious, sanctimonious or religious as being humble. In Colossians 2, there are several verses which warn against this kind of false humility. Such people who have it are said to be "vainly puffed up" (verse 18), which is the exact opposite of true humility.
People with this kind of pseudo-humility may observe certain prohibitions or practice asceticism (verse 21). These practices are based on the ideas and concepts of men rather than the commandments of Almighty God. But none of these outward indications are evidence of true humility.
What Is True Humility? True godly humility is a product of the working of the Holy Spirit in one's life. It results from a close relationship with the Almighty Creator God.
Christ taught about one facet of humility using a child as an example. He said: " Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven " (Matt. 18:4). Jesus showed that we need to have the demeanor and frame of mind as found in a properly reared infant. That is, a childlike attitude without pretentions: guileless, teachable, responsive and eager to learn.
David referred to this characteristic of little children when he said: "Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child" (Ps. 131:2). A young child that has been lovingly cared for will be without guile and have an open-eyed willingness to learn.
But humility goes deeper than this. Genuine humility is a proper evaluation of one's self, compared to God and Christ. The word "humility" comes from the Latin word humilis. From this same word we derive our English word "humus" or earth. When we see ourselves in proper perspective, we will see that we are mortal, made of dust. We should come to recognize that we are now imperfect, weak, earthy. We have great potential — we can become sons of God — but for now we are prone to error and weakness. We are but one breath or one heartbeat away from death.
God "knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more" (Ps. 103:14-15). But we humans tend to become self-centered in our orientation and to forget how fragile and short-lived our existence is. We need to realize our mortality very deeply. From God's point of view, all peoples are but dust. We need to understand, then, how weak and insignificant all of us are compared to the greatness of God.
Worm's-Eye View. We ought to compare our lives with the perfect life of Jesus Christ. David had this "worm's-eye view" of himself (Ps. 22:6). If we see ourselves from this perspective, we won't have an inflated opinion of ourselves.
One of the main problems in viewing ourselves honestly is that we like to compare ourselves with others, and in the evaluation the other person usually comes out second best. The Bible warns us about comparing ourselves with others and says that such people who do so "are not wise" (II Cor. 10:12).
The Bible also tells us that we are not to think of ourselves more highly than we should (Rom. 12:3). Rather, we should esteem others better than ourselves, putting their welfare ahead of our own (Phil. 2:3). If we really do these things, we will have no reason to feel exalted and self-important.
Moses summed up how God tested ancient Israel (and how He is working with true Christians today): "And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord" (Deut. 8:2-3),
One of the main reasons that God put the fledgling nation of Israel through all these tests and trials was to find out whether or not they would obey Him in all circumstances, When He let them go hungry for awhile, and then fed them with manna, He taught them that there is more to life than just physical sustenance and that even physical sustenance comes from God. They were to learn to acknowledge God as the source of all life lest they come to consider themselves self-sufficient, not heeding God's providence.
Moses also warned in this same chapter that when physical goods are plentiful and all of our needs are taken care of, then we should be careful to remember who gave us this prosperity. When we forget God and His blessings — when our hearts are lifted up (verse 14) — we no longer will have proper humility.
Each of us must develop true humility. But will our humility come the hard way as a result of God causing or permitting traumatic circumstances to come our way? Or can we learn from the mistakes of those who have finally, through many trials and difficulties, developed this essential trait?
God can bring us down by serious illness, severe trials, persecution or grinding poverty. That is the hard way to learn humility. An easier way is to come to that same attitude by seeing, hearing and learning from the experiences of others.
Traumatic Experiences. Moses was a man that Scripture tells us was "very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth" (Num. 12:3). How did Moses become so meek and humble?
He had been reared in the household of Pharaoh, receiving a royal upbringing and the best education the land of Egypt offered. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, after growing into manhood he had a prominent and successful position as a general in the Egyptian army.
Moses may well have been filled with vanity and self-importance during this period of his life. In due time, he became concerned about his brethren and murdered an Egyptian who was oppressing one of the Israelites. Moses was found out in his crime and was forced to flee into the desert, where he lived in exile for 40 years. He no doubt had plenty of time to reminisce about his past great accomplishments and to regret his mistakes.
At age 80 he saw the burning bush in the wilderness and, possibly for the first time in his life, had a personal encounter with the Almighty God. Time, circumstance and experience wrought a profound effect. The cumulative impact of his trials, tests and experiences, culminating in his meeting with Almighty God, matured him and produced genuine humility.
Oftentimes, people who have lived long and have benefited from their experiences become more mature, more mellow. They have a better perspective of life and what it is all about, which results in a deeper humility.
Job was another man of antiquity who at one time had great power, authority and influence. But all of this was taken away suddenly. He endured great suffering and agony for many months. Finally, after God talked to him personally, he also came to have this rare attitude of true humility. After this contact with the true Creator God, he said.: "Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6). He, too, came to properly evaluate his own place in the universe.
Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, was one of the most powerful rulers of ancient times. He was proud, arrogant and ruthless. But God brought him down to a condition which few men have ever experienced. He lost his sanity and became like a wild animal for seven long years.
When his wits returned and he was able once again to assume personal control of the great Babylonian Empire, he said this about his debasing and humiliating experience: "Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase" (Dan. 4:37). Nebuchadnezzar had also finally been able to properly evaluate himself, a thing he could not do before he had been struck down. After a lifetime of pride and arrogance, he now had some humility.
There are many other examples in the Bible of people who were vain and puffed up, but who went through experiences that finally humbled them.
Read and Learn? In a sense, humility can't be learned entirely from a book. It is something God develops in us through day-to-day experiences which exercise and develop His Holy Spirit. But by being receptive to God's Spirit and ever mindful of biblical examples, we can avoid having to learn humility by the school of very hard knocks. Will it be necessary for God to teach us through traumatic experiences, the hard way? Or can we learn an easier way: from the mistakes of others, from the multitude of scriptures on this subject and the guidance of His Spirit in our minds day by day?
If we want to be in God's Kingdom, we need to acquire true humility. Only those who are teachable, who have this personal realization of their own worth compared to God's greatness, will inherit God's Kingdom that is soon going to be established on this earth.