There was a chorus we used to sing around church campfires or in small study and worship groups. The words could even be sung in a “round” if the leader was daring. The words encouraged us to “Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord; and He will lift you up.”
We have been counting the time between Easter and Pentecost by thinking about spiritual characteristics, and it couldn’t be more appropriate to take some time to explore the habit of humility. Is there a more fitting example of humility than the lesson Jesus modeled for the disciples than His display of being a servant with a towel in the upper room. Real humility is the true strength of those who lead.
We often misunderstand the idea of humility. Many define it as “thinking less of ourselves than we think of others.” That definition falls short because it places the emphasis upon self – which humility would never do. Notice Paul’s words changes the order: “in humility count others more significant” (Philippians 2:3 ESV). The focus is not on self but on others.
Humility is a characteristic that allows people to see and accept others as their equal, or graciously understand them as superior. Humility is needed to be a leader because it builds faith and trust in others. It believes that others can do the work they have the potential to do. C. S. Lewis is credited with saying, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
Humility allows the real leader to let someone else “do it their way” instead of critically trying to control the method and the outcome. The humble leader is not concerned about personal control, but about the performance of the business. There is courage and confidence that comes from a job well done.
Let’s look at a couple of concepts about humility. First, humility recognizes and accepts reality. It is open to hear the truth and to learn from it. A humble person learns for a lifetime. Overcoming and conquering circumstances requires listening and learning. Humility grasps that actions speak louder than words. The reality is we aren’t the creator of very many things.
Isn’t that what Job learned? “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand” (Job 38:4 NIV). The Psalmist reminds us to “Give thanks to the Lord of lords,” to Him who alone does great wonders, to Him who by understanding made the heavens, and to Him who spread out the earth above the waters (Psalm 136:3, 4a, 5a, 6a ESV). To whom shall we liken God?
When the disciples argued about who was the greatest, Jesus turned their thinking around. If you want to be first, be last. In the example, Jesus modeled a second lesson about humility. Humility knows that God cares for us more than we care for ourselves. Be humble, and be lifted.
In the passage that Paul writes to the Philippians about Jesus’ humbling Himself to come to the cross, Paul also encourages the Christians there to “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit” (Philippians 2:3a ESV). Doesn’t that eliminate most of what we do? He goes on to write “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 2:3b-4 ESV).
Most of what we do is because we are afraid no one notices us. Ultimately, we are worried that no one really cares. Too often we think that way because it is hard for us to care. Is it any wonder why Jesus tells us to love God first, and to then love others as we love ourselves?
The message we sang in the chorus is simple. You can afford to be humble because God will lift you up.
There is a third lesson that has been made clear because of the concerns that have come through this recent pandemic. On a trip to the store, I passed (within a six-foot radius of course) a friend that I had known for 40 years. I spoke first and called her by name, but she didn’t recognize me at first, even with the sound of my voice.
I have changed a bit since the last time that she had seen me. My hair has over two months of growth and a good six weeks of curls, a result of growth over a certain length. The hair covering makes less of my face visible. But now I was also wearing a mask. I peeled the elastic off my ears, and revealed a smile that covered my face from elastic band to elastic band. I was now recognizable.
The mask covering my face was now a visible one. But we spend most of our lives wearing masks that aren’t visible, don’t we? We cover up the faults and mistakes that we make so that others won’t see. We hide our sins and our struggles because we want people to think we have our act together. We spend a great deal of time thinking about how others see and perceive us. It’s like we always clean the house when company is coming over. We want them to think that it’s always clean.
The final lesson for our thoughts is humility comes from taking off our masks. Chuck Swindoll is a beloved American pastor. His “Insights for Living” radio broadcast has been a staple in Christian media for decades. He has authored more than 70 books. In one of his first books written almost 50 years ago, “Dropping Your Guard,” he reflects on three important truths in his ministry. First, there are unhealthy consequences of isolationism; next, we gain essential benefits from relationships; last, there is an absolute necessity for us to be assimilated into a group.
The pandemic is making these points physically an issue today, but the truth is the masks we put up have made problems for us since before the book was written. I pretend to be something that I am not. That isn’t real. It takes humility to remove my masks, to drop my guard so that others can see who I really am. The process speaks to vulnerability and authenticity.
Jesus showed us His true self. “And [Jesus] took off His coat and picked up a cloth” (John 13:4 New Life Version).