From: The Glorious Pursuit
Humility is the bloom and the beauty of holiness.
Unless we make the increase of humility our study, we may find that we have been delighting in beautiful thoughts and feelings, in solemn acts of consecration and faith, while the only sure mark of the presence of God – the disappearance of self – was all the time wanting.
Following the stunning victory at Yorktown, the American colonies seemed determined to clutch defeat out of the jaws of victory. Many assumed the Revolutionary War was over, but since George Washington was well aware that the British forces on North American soil still outnumbered the Continental Army, the American soldiers weren’t let go. The soldiers weren’t well paid or well taken care of, and given plenty of time to sit, they started to fret. Washington soon realized that the biggest threat to morale was idleness.
To make matters worse, the Continental Congress cut expenses by reducing the number of regiments and reneging on back pay. The fury this aroused became truly perilous. Even high-ranking officers spoke of taking the law into their own hands. It was obvious that they’d risked their lives…only to be sent home in poverty as soon as they weren’t needed.
As usually happens in revolutions, top leadership in the army realized that with a weak, fledgling central government, they held the real power. There was only one man standing in their way: George Washington.
In what historian James Thomas Flexner calls “probably the most important single gathering ever held in the United States,” Washington had to face the wrath of his own officers. The contentious meeting took place on March 15, 1783. Washington spoke of his selfless service, his love for his country and his soldiers, and his confidence that in the end, the government would act appropriately. He begged his men not to destroy their own new nation.
But when his prepared speech was finished. Washington saw that these war-toughened officers were unmoved. His heart must have gone cold, realizing that anarchy was about to swallow the nascent states.
Perhaps fearful of sitting down and letting the unpersuaded mob go free, according to Flexner, Washington reached for a “reassuring” letter from a congressman. Could a statesman’s words reach them where a general’s had failed? Flexner recounts:
“Washington pulled the paper from his pocket, and then something seemed to go wrong. The General seemed confused; he stared at the paper helplessly. The officers leaned forward, their hearts contracting with anxiety. Washington pulled from his pocket something only his intimates had ever seen him wear: a pair of eyeglasses. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.’
“This homely act and simple statement did what all Washington’s arguments had failed to do. The hardened soldiers wept. Washington had saved the United States from tyranny and civil discord.”
Later, Thomas Jefferson would reflect on this incident and comment: “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been.”
In Jefferson’s own words, virtue saved the United States. A display of humility accomplished what words could not. Where Washington’s rhetoric was found wanting, his weak eyes proved decisive, and men’s hearts were won.
There is power in humility, power when we shun the arrogance of the world and meet one another in an entirely new dimension.
On my wedding day, I thought I should do my best to look “extra nice,” but after thirty minutes of preparation, I didn’t know what else to do. I had shaved, showered, combed my hair, even trimmed by fingernails. Yet I knew that Lisa had allotted the entire morning to “get ready.” Stumped as to what should be my next hygienic move, I simply resolved to sit down and try not to wrinkle my tux.
And then when I saw my bride, dressed in her flowing gown, her teeth a dazzling white, well…I still didn’t know all that she had done for the past four hours, but I sure liked the result.
In the same way, Peter calls us to dress ourselves spiritually. He urges us, “Clothe yourselves with humility.” Taking on this character trait of Christ is how we become beautiful to God. And it is how God begins to become a beautiful presence in our lives.
Re-outfitting your inner man with humility is an ongoing process, but there are a few tried-and-true practices which Christians have used to train themselves in this attitude of Christ:
1. Change your focus
According to the scriptures, humility is born in the soul that is overwhelmed by the experience and knowledge of God. This is the first step to practicing humility – switching our focus from ourselves to the grandeur of God’s greatness.
Edwards distinguishes between what he calls “legal humiliation” and “evangelical humiliation.” Legal humiliation leads us to a sense of smallness and self-abasement – what my friend John suffered from – but evangelical humiliation leads us to become overwhelmed by God’s holy beauty. Many of us have not escaped legalistic humiliation.
The scourge of legalistic humiliation is that it still focuses on the self; instead of bragging, the person caught in legalistic humility is obsessed with failure and shortcomings. But that’s still a self-centered view, and it no more mirrors the spirit of Christ than does someone clothed in arrogance. Evangelical humiliation leads us to leave our strengths and weaknesses in the hands of God. Remember – humility is not a positive or negative view of self as much as it is a forgetfulness of self.
The surest road to humility is a constant remembrance of God. Scripturally, pride is connected with God-forgetfulness: “They became proud; then they forgot me.” When we don’t take time to dwell on the power, beauty, holiness, awesomeness, and majesty of God, humility becomes a stranger, and pride becomes a raging force.
If you want to practice humility, learn how to remember God. Memorize some verses that remind you of his beauty; sing a a hymn instead of turning on the radio as you drive down the road. When you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, meditate on Christ washing the feet of his disciples or submitting his body to the cross. Look up to the mountains or out to the heavens and think about the power of a Creator who could make such sights. Whatever it takes, create habits, rituals, and practices to intentionally remember God.
2. Adopt a posture of receiving
When I think of Christ, I think of him as a pretty capable guy, but listen to his self-testimony: “The Son can do nothing by himself.” “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me.” “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.” If Jesus had this attitude, how much more should we!
Adopting an attitude of receiving has been an incredibly liberating experience for me. Any number of times I’ve felt that I was in over my head, that I was being called to do something for which I had neither the ability nor the spirit. Instead of pretending otherwise, I simply confessed the truth to God: “I don’t know what to do; I’m not up to this, and I need your help.” Without fail, he stepped in and met my lack with his provision.
It’s okay to say, “God, I feel too weak and confused to be a good parent in this situation. I don’t know what to do, and I need your guidance.” “Father, I’ve really blown this relationship. Can you help me set it right?” “Lord, I’m afraid to pray. It’s so difficult. Will you help me?”
When I feel I have to prove myself to God, I have stepped outside of my rest in him. Practically, this means that sometimes I can’t immediately discipline my children or try to immediately reconcile a relationship. I might have to think about it, pray about it, maybe talk to others about it. I have to admit, “I need a better sense of direction; I can’t act right now.”
3. Expect growth through experience
The third element that builds humility is personal experience. James Ryle wrote, “The older you grow, and the more you see, the less reason you will find for being proud. Ignorance and inexperience are the pedestal of pride; once let the pedestal be removed, and pride will soon come tumbling down.”
Humility comes as we grow in experience, not just head knowledge. Not long ago, one of my commitments was at a conference that featured Dr. Jack Hayford as the keynote speaker. I listened as Dr. Hayford opened the talk with a couple of jokes. I’ve gained quite a bit of insight from this man’s teaching and was surprised at what I considered a slow opening. Secretly, I had the audacity to compare it with my own opening earlier in the day. My talk fared better, of course.
Then Dr. Hayford delivered one of the most insightful, liberating, and powerful sermons I have ever heard. When he was done, I looked at the people sitting around me, and all our mouths were dropped open in astonishment. I’m not exaggerating this – he had touched our souls for God that deeply.
That evening, going back to my hotel room, I didn’t have to work at humility. It was all around me. Above all, Dr. Hayford’s wisdom, gained by a life of submission to God, reminded me I have a lot of growing to do.
4. Adopt a self-emptying spirit
On the heels of this, I need to say that time alone doesn’t guarantee maturity. Neither does raw experience. Both can lead to arrogance rather than humility. What nurtures a humble heart is time and experience with God while adopting a self-emptying spirit.
This spirit begins in prayer. Pause for a moment and think about what characterized your most recent prayers. Did you approach God in humility? Is it possible that there may have been some pride, a lack of awareness concerning the holy nature of God and your own humble estate?
Jeanne Guyon provides a very practical primer on experiencing humility in prayer: “As you come to him, come as a weak child, one who is all soiled and badly bruised – a child that has been hurt from falling again and again. Come to the Lord as one who has no strength of his own; come to him as one who has no power to cleanse himself. Humbly lay your pitiful condition before your Father’s gaze.”
Listen carefully to your own prayers. Do you approach God with secret annoyance – as if he’s apathetic while you are the one who is truly concerned? Do you believe that God is less compassionate than you are? Listen to the spirit behind the prayers.
When we pray out of our spiritual poverty, we are adding our voice to a mighty chorus that has been prayed for centuries. The most mature souls have sought God with this spirit. The deepest writers, beginning with Isaiah, have understood the depths of our weakness: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
Adopting a self-emptying spirit means admitting that there is no way, absolutely none, that we can ever display humility unless God takes pity on us and imparts his own Spirit to transform us from within.
5. Practice humility toward others
Next – here’s the truly difficult part – we learn to practice humility by displaying it before others with selfless living. Murray writes, “The insignificances of daily life are the tests of eternity because they prove what spirit really possesses us. It is in our most unguarded moments that we really show and see what we are. To know how the humble man behaves, you must follow him in the common course of daily life.”
Very recently, my family spent the night at a friend’s house to celebrate New Year’s Eve. I flew into town that day from the Midwest, so my “body clock” was already two hours ahead of everyone else’s. When midnight rolled around, I was exhausted.
In the middle of the night, our friend came into our room and whispered, “Lisa!”
I was awake and guessed what was coming.
“Graham’s feeling sick. He needs you.”
Lisa started stirring. And I had a decision to make. I could pretend I was asleep. After all, the woman was addressing my wife, not me. Besides, I had been up for almost twenty hours. It would be so easy just to close my eyes, but…was that the response of a servant?
“I’ll take care of it,” I said.
It was such an insignificant occurrence that I’m almost embarrassed to mention it. But humility is learned through such small decisions. I know I will never become humble, as a permanent state, but I need to learn to practice humility, and that can only be done through the routine, small acts of life in which I put others first.
6. Develop a healthy self-doubt
A healthy self-doubt is a wonderful thing. We should not set out to destroy a reasonable self-confidence, leading us to become insecure and indecisive. But practicing humility means we become open to considering the fact that there is almost always another angle we’re missing.
In a dispute, for instance, humility can teach us not to assume that the other person is wrong just because he disagrees with us. And in fact, whether he is right or wrong is only one issue. Do we value him enough to listen to him, his doubts, questions, and misinformation, so we can gently correct his view? Do we slow down, let passions subside, and then try to see the situation from his perspective? Or do we demolish his opinion?
A healthy self-doubt redirects our judgments. We stop labeling, start listening, and take others into account. What if a mother started evaluating her own life as meticulously as she has fallen into evaluating her daughter’s? What if a dissatisfied man focused on how he was failing as a husband instead of how his spouse was failing as a wife? What if a teenager quit complaining about how his parents have messed him up and started asking himself how he has neglected the command to honor them? What if a pastor focused on how he could serve his small church instead of how his church could fulfill his ambitions?
These are the prophetic calls of humility. They disarm our pride, redirect our focus, and lead us into selfless service to others.
Since practicing humility in relationships is such a crucial yet difficult discipline, let’s take some time to look at this more closely.
The Mother of Love
Shortly after seminary, I was hired into a Christian ministry and soon came to verbal blows with an old college acquaintance who was then my immediate superior. I saw all his faults and resented his success. I didn’t covet his success – I had no interest in doing what he was doing – but it bothered me that someone with such faults should be allowed such a platform. I became obsessed with his failings, and he understandably became very wary of me. When somebody is judging you, it’s difficult not to see him as a threat.
I thought it was my duty to bring my observations to the overall leader. My judgments weren’t without some basis, and eventually the leader had to make a choice. In the end, he kept me on and my former superior was let go.
The relationship was almost irretrievably broken. Because many of my observations were correct and were backed up by others, I was smug in my self-righteousness and blinded to my pride for many years. Instead of stepping back and letting things move at their own pace, I proudly took everything into my own hands and destroyed a relationship.
While pride is the father of hate and dissension, humility is the mother of love and unity. Without humility, we become thoroughly disagreeable and demanding characters. John of the Cross tells us, “From this humility stems love of neighbor, for we will esteem them and not judge them.”
Estrangement, hate, anger, bitterness, and resentment, the killers of human relationships, are born in judgment. That’s why John says humility is essential for us to love our neighbor. Where I’ve failed in humility, I’ve also failed in love.
My most meaningful relationships are ones with mutual respect. Think about somebody with whom you just cannot get along. If you’re honest, somewhere down the line you’ve judged him. You haven’t esteemed him very highly; in fact, you have elevated yourself over him. Maybe he was wrong, but were you absolutely right? You may have different faults, but you have faults nonetheless.
If ever there was proof of declining humility within the church and society, it’s seen in the nature of our relationships and how we approach them. Years ago, I finally realized that marriage is for holiness more than happiness. For me, marriage creates the best environment in which I can serve God and grow in the character of Christ, and that’s the greatest thing I should expect from it.
Once I understood this, the nature of marriage underwent a distinctly radical shift in my mind. When I was married for happiness, and I went through the inevitable seasons of unhappiness (or just the routines of life), I assumed my lack of happiness meant Lisa wasn’t measuring up. I judged her failings, and she judged mine.
When I realized I was married for holiness, I never measured up, and I became more than satisfied with my wife as I focused on what I needed to change. My growth was not dependent on Lisa changing, but on my change in attitude and perspective.
What is divorce but millions of spouses saying, “You’re not good enough for me”? This lack of humility is destroying our families and lives.
The beauty of humility is that we become empowered to respect others. Relationships are based on entering into other people’s lives, but when we’re so focused on ourselves, it is impossible to empty ourselves enough to care about someone else. “The humble man looks upon every child of God – even the feeblest and unworthiest – and honors him and prefers him in honor as the son of a King.”
God wants to give us our lives, families, and relationships back, and he wants to do it through planting humility in our hearts. In place of an ugly, controlling spirit, God can give us a generous and humble heart – a beautiful spirit.