What is humility?

Thinking about humility, especially given the warning that God gives to King Belshazzar in Daniel chapter 5.

But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. (Dan 5:2-23)

If we are to learn the lesson of humility before God, what does that involve? Here are some not quite complete thoughts on the subject.

Humility is recognising our rightful place. If we think about it, pride (the opposite of humility) is about having to be better or cleverer or faster than other. CS Lewis summed it up:

Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking, there would be nothing to be proud about.

…so pride puffs up the individual to have to remain one step ahead of everyone else. By contrast, humility is recognising the place we actually hold, and being secure in that. And the first step of recognising our rightful place and hence dealing with our pride is to recognise God for who he is.

We could sum up a humble attitude in a life of constant seeking of God – a constant willingness to know him better, to put all things under his control and to want to go where he leads and do what he is calling us to do. This seeking of God is continual. We can never presume to have found him completely but we an always strive to know him more and delve deeper into who he is and through that he will reveal who we are to be and how we are to live. I suppose, once we stop seeking, we are standing still, and maybe standing still results in going backwards?

This is all very well, but it remains in the abstract. What does this humility actually look like as we live our lives?

I suppose a good place to start might be with the Golden Rule outlined by Jesus – Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. (Jesus took these from Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18). This begins with a recognition of who God is: the source of all things, sustainer of all things and the authority above all people and nations. But as the creator and sustainer our attention should also be placed outwards, towards all his creation. In placing our trust firmly at God’s feet and always looking to the needs of others we will demonstrate a humility and respect for God and all people he created.

Again, what does it look like? I’m reminded of the passage from Philippians 2 – Paul is writing to the church encouraging them to stand firm and be united. His advice is to:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)

Look to others first. He then goes on to cite the example of Jesus, who really did have power and authority. If anyone had the right to act with such authority and control things then it was him, being God himself. But he gave up this right in obedience to the Father. He humbled himself and gave up his life and the Father exalted him because of that humility. We’re back to the golden rule.

I guess concrete examples of what this humility looks like will vary with every situation. But we’ll recognise it when we see it. In fact, stories of self-sacrifice which echo the example of Jesus are prized in our culture above others. Just look at many many movies and news articles… But perhaps that is the subject for another posting.


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