Unlocking Humility

A Vital Christian Grace

“Serving the LORD with all humility of mind” (Acts 20:19).

By Stephen Jeuck

Unlocking Humility

Humility is regarded by God as an indispensable quality of character required of every footstep follower of Christ, if they are to prove faithful to their vow of consecration. The Apostle Peter wrote, “Be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:5, 6).

According to Thayer’s Greek Definitions, the word humility as used in the above passage can be defined in several ways. Two of these capture the essence of humility as we view our personal standing before the Lord: “a sense of one’s own littleness;” and “lowliness of mind.” Although such a sober estimate of ourselves serves well as a foundation for humility, like all the other character qualities which we are to develop, humility also must extend outwardly in the form of words and conduct. How can we unlock the humility which serves as the basis of our relationship with our Heavenly Father? How can we put it into outward practice by our words and actions?

The Apostle Paul provides certain keys to unlocking humility in his epistle to Philippi. In setting the stage for this, he writes: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:1,2, ESV). We note in these verses an “if, then” statement. If, in our relationship to Christ, there is any encouragement, comfort from love, participation in the Spirit, affection and sympathy, then certain things should follow to complete our joy. These are, Paul says, being of the same mind, having the same love, and being in full accord and of one mind.

All would surely answer yes to this “if” statement. This being the case, we are exhorted “then” to engage, by means of our conduct, in attaining a unity of mind and of love extending beyond our personal standing before God, to include our relationship to our families, our brethren, and even our fellowman.

Ambition

The apostle then tells us how to carry this out. In doing so, he provides us keys to unlocking humility through our words, actions, and conduct toward others. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3,4 ESV).

The word “ambition” here is defined in Thayer’s as “electioneering,” “courting distinction,” and “putting oneself forward.” In Jesus’ day, perhaps no group exemplified this trait more than the Scribes and Pharisees. “All their works,” Jesus said, “they do for to be seen of men” (Matthew 23:5). Even the disciples fell victim to this spirit on occasion. Luke records: “There was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest” (Luke 22:24). Even worse, the disciples did this in the upper room the night before Jesus died, and shortly after he instituted the Memorial. Rather than showing their love and concern for the Master, the disciples were “electioneering” and “courting distinction.”

Conceit

To the church at Philippi, Paul also wrote that we should do nothing from conceit. “Conceit,” according to Thayer’s, denotes “empty glory,” and “groundless, empty pride.” This can be subtle. We may think that because we are prospective sons of God, we have something to be proud of, or that our service to him is of some special quality, even above and beyond what the Lord might expect. This can be dangerous.

Recall the actions of King Saul battling the Amalekites, 1 Samuel 15:3-26. Saul preserved alive Agag, the Amalekite king, and the best animals of the Amalekites for sacrifice. This was the type of conceit Paul describes. It was empty glory, groundless and empty pride. It was empty because Saul had blatantly disobeyed God’s instructions, which were explicit that all of the Amalekites, and all of their animals, should be killed (1 Samuel 15:3).1


(1) An editor notes that 1 Samuel 15:12 also indicates Saul’s pride. It is not apparent in King James. The NIV says, “Samuel … went to meet Saul, but he was told, ‘Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal.”

In verse 22 of this account, Samuel explained Saul’s failure: “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” With the child of God, also, obedience is better than any sacrifice or service we can render. Humbly following our Lord’s instructions is the only way for our work on his behalf, or on behalf of our brethren, to be acceptable.

Humility

Paul’s words in Philippians 2:3,4 instruct us, rather than having selfish ambition or conceit — courting distinction or having groundless pride — we should “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (ESV). Humility, Paul asserts, is the underlying concept. But to put humility into practical use, he states that we should make a habit of regarding others as more significant than ourselves. This is a key to unlocking humility in daily practice.

The Scribes and Pharisees did not do this. They were self-centered and looked down on others. The disciples in the upper room similarly failed to do this. Though they later learned differently, under the enlightening power of the holy Spirit, at the time they sought to claim the greatest position alongside Jesus. Saul also knowingly disobeyed God’s instructions, and thought that he would be rewarded for it.

Counting Others More Significant

Paul says to count others — your brethren, your neighbors, your family, and most of all, God — more significant than yourselves. That is humility in action. What is the best way to count others more significant than ourselves? Jesus and Paul led by example. They served others and humbly served God.

Jesus in the upper room provided this lesson when he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). Feet washing was normally the work of a servant. But Jesus, though their Master and Lord, counted his disciples more significant than himself. Thus, he humbly and willingly performed a wonderful act of service for them. Then he said, “I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him” (John 13:15,16).

In the first chapter of Philippians, Paul spoke of a mental struggle he faced. On the one hand, he desired to be with the Lord, “to die is gain.” However, he recognized that “to abide in the flesh is more needful” for the brethren, even if it meant more sacrifice and suffering on his part. (Philippians 1:21-26). Paul counted his brethren more significant than himself.

High Standards

These are high standards. We must ask ourselves, Am I counting others more significant than myself? Am I humbly serving them without desire for personal glory? When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, it was a private affair. There were no crowds, no outward show or glory — just humble, quiet service. That is the standard set before us. It is one of the keys to unlocking the practice of humility.

Philippians 2:4 adds: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (ESV). This is similar to his admonition in verse 3, but here Paul speaks of our mental focus when considering our interests and those of others.

We are reminded of Lot and his mental focus when he and Abram separated. Abram said to his nephew Lot: “Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left. And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar” (Genesis 13:9,10 ESV).

Lot’s focus was on himself rather than Abram, his uncle, so he immediately took advantage of the offer. All he could mentally envision was the fertile plain of the Jordan valley, so he selected that land in which to settle. Lot focused on himself rather than Abram. He also considered his temporal interests rather than his spiritual needs. Where he chose to live included a very sinful place. Thus, what he thought was in his best interest was actually in his worst interest, so much so, that his decision resulted in great loss to him.

Through subsequent events, Lot lost his two sons-in-law and also his wife. His two surviving daughters eventually deceived him, bearing children by him, who became the Moabites and Ammonites, two nations that later became two of Israel’s bitter enemies. All of this happened because Lot focused on self rather than others, and instead of the Lord.

Temporal and Spiritual

Paul, when speaking to the Philippian brethren, does not say to ignore our own interests. They are to be reasonably met. Our own interests, both temporal and spiritual, include others. Temporally, we are to look to the interests of our family, our employer, the laws of the land, and be good citizens and neighbors. Spiritually, we must look to interests of our brethren, our ecclesia, and the brotherhood — cooperating in the harvest work, and in spreading the message of the Gospel of the kingdom.

In short, we should have mutual care and concern for both our interests and the interests of others. Where our brethren are concerned, this should emphasize the mutual edification of the body of Christ. All of the Lord’s consecrated have responded to the one call, are striving for the same goal, running the same race, imbibing the same holy Spirit, and fighting the fallen flesh and the spirit of the world. Properly looking at both our spiritual interests, and those of our fellow body members, mutually helping and assisting one another, is an important key to unlocking humility.

Our Ultimate Example

Following his words in Philippians 2:1-4, Paul reminds us that Jesus is our ultimate example and key to unlocking humility. May these words echo in us as we consider actions and conduct associated with putting humility into action. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (verses 5-11 ESV).

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