The Virtue of Humility

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phi. 2:3-4)

       In Scripture, the humble are sometimes described as those who live in impoverished or difficult conditions (Deut. 15:7; 1 Sam. 2:7; 2 Sam. 22:28; Jam. 1:9); however, the inward virtue of humility does not automatically belong to those who are poor or suffer life’s hardships.  Humility is a lowliness of mind, an inward quietness before the Lord that reflects a poverty of spirit.  The humble know they need God and seek Him for wisdom, guidance and strength.  Humility is not a natural quality, nor does it come easily, but it is what the Lord requires of His people (Mic. 6:8; Eph. 4:1-2; Phi. 2:3-4).  The humble live with a constant sense of their weaknesses and inabilities to cope with life apart from God, and are keenly aware of their sinful nature and propensity to turn away from the Lord and befriend the world.  Humility is not a sense of worthlessness, but unworthiness of the Lord’s love and blessings.  The humble realize they deserve nothing good in this life, and any blessing they receive is from God’s grace. 

Humility in the spiritual sense is an inwrought grace of the soul that allows one to think of himself no more highly than he ought to think (Eph. 4:1–2; Col. 3:12–13; cf. Rom. 12:3)…It requires us to feel that in God’s sight we have no merit and to in honor prefer others to ourselves (Rom. 12:10; cf. Prov. 15:33). It does not demand undue self-depreciation but rather lowliness of self-estimation and freedom from vanity. The Gk. term praotēs, “gentleness” (rendered “meekness” in KJV) expresses a spirit of willingness and obedience and a lack of resistance to God’s dealings with us. But humility must also be expressed towards those who wrong us, in order that their insults and wrongdoing might be used by God for our benefit (see Acts 20:18–21). It is enjoined of God (Ps. 25:9; Col. 3:12; James 4:6, 10) and is essential to discipleship under Christ (Matt. 18:3–4).[1]

       The Glory of HumilityHumility should not be thought of as passivity or weakness.  On the contrary, the humble person pursues righteousness and justice (Mic. 6:8) and can be very bold and outspoken.  Moses was very humble when doing the Lord’s will and standing confidently against Pharaoh to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian bondage (Exodus chapters 3-12).  Jesus was humble when driving the money changers from the temple (Matt. 21:12-13), or rebuking the Jewish leaders for their arrogance and hypocrisy (Matt. 23:13-33).  Humility is not thinking less of self, but more of others.  Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (Phi. 2:3).  True Christian humility is voluntary—or self-imposed—as the believer surrenders his personal desires in loving service to others for their spiritual and material benefit.  It has the notion of child-like dependence, as Jesus taught His disciples (Matt. 18:3-4).  The greatest display of humility is found in God the Son who left His glory in heaven (Phi. 2:5-8; cf. John 17:5), became a man (John 1:1, 14; Heb. 10:5), became a servant (Mark 10:45; John 13:1-17), and ultimately “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phi. 2:8).  The glory of humility is seen at the cross (John 12:23, 32-33), where Jesus gave His life as an atoning substitutionary sacrifice for others (Rom. 5:6-10; 1 Cor. 15:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:18). 

       Humility is the basis for teachability, as David writes, “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore He instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in justice, and He teaches the humble His way” (Ps. 25:8-9).  We sin when we ignore God and try to live independently of Him.  Sometimes God uses difficult circumstances to humble us and bring us to the place of perpetual dependence on Him, even though it is our nature to fight against being in the helpless place (read Dan. 4:28-37; 2 Cor. 12:7-10).  Being in the difficult situation—the place of suffering—is sometimes exactly where God wants us, and “the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position” (Jam. 1:9). 

       Scripture provides a true estimation of reality, allowing us to see God, the world, and ourselves from the divine perspective.  The Bible teaches that we come from God and that we have worth because we are made in His image (Gen. 1:26-27).  We live and breathe and eat and enjoy life because God provides for us every moment of every day (Matt. 6:25-32).  God seeks out the humble, for he says in Isaiah, “to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isa. 66:2).  And Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  “Jesus does not demand visible self-abasement (cf. Mt. 6:16 ff.; Mk. 2:18–19) but a total trust in God that expects everything from him and nothing from self.”[2]  This is strength through weakness, victory through humility, realizing “the battle is the LORD’S” (1 Sam. 17:47; cf. 2 Chron. 14:11; 20:15).  Scripture reveals the victories of life are not by self-effort, for the Lord declares, ‘“Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts”’ (Zech. 4:6), and, “He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power” (Isa. 40:29).  Ultimately, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18).

       The prideful person rejects God and His revelation and seeks to operate independently of the Lord.  The believer needs to be aware of pride, for “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Prov. 16:18).  Arrogant people rarely see their own faults, but almost always focus on the faults of others.  Solomon writes about prideful men and states, “When pride comes, then comes dishonor, but with the humble is wisdom” (Prov. 11:2), and, “A man’s pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor” (Prov. 29:23).  It is the humble person who finds success in life; not necessarily a worldly success, but a divine success, in which the believer lives by faith and pleases the Lord (Heb. 11:6).

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

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[1] Merrill Frederick Unger, “Humility” The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).

[2] Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985), 1155.