Former Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir once admonished someone, Stop trying to be humble, you’re not that good.” It is true that efforts to show humility often have the opposite effect. I recently read a book that perfectly demonstrated this phenomenon. The author began by putting himself forward as the best example of his own ideas. Then, seemingly to appear humble, he repeatedly deprecated himself—which kept him at the center of attention. It was anything but humble.
A false understanding of humility, along with a startling absence of the real thing, pervades our society. This is due, in part, from a paralysis in our culture’s understanding of truth. Humility is based on a realistic perception of one’s self in relation to the truth about who God is and what He has done for us. But society does not allow for the existence of “the truth about who God is” much less the gospel of what He has done for us. Anyone who claims to make true statements about God is perceived as arrogant and intolerant. Therefore one can’t possibly express conviction and confidence in truth and be considered humble. It follows that uncertainty and doubt appear more humble—but it is a hollow humility, empty of understanding and therefore without substance.
Many Christians have a growing sense of hand-wringing uncertainty over how to express our convictions without engendering accusations of arrogance. Well, what if that is not possible? Michael Horton has written, “While in the past, humility was the opposite of pride, in modernity it has become the opposite of conviction.…”1
Anyone who has stood for the truth knows Horton is right on the mark. This twisted notion of humility has hamstrung many in the Church but it need not do so—if we will only realize that being humble is more important than the appearance of humility. It is pride that makes us insist upon being considered humble. A person of true humility is willing to be thought arrogant for the sake of the gospel and for those who need to hear it.
This month we celebrate powerful events of astounding humility that produced strong conviction and acts of outstanding courage. December 25 marks the celebration of Christmas as well as the first day of Hanukkah.
The story of Hanukkah is not often associated with humility, though it should be. In the last few centuries before Christ’s coming, the underpinnings of Jewish society were terribly weakened through moral and spiritual compromise. Many Jewish people were Hellenized, abandoning God and Torah in favor of the “sophistication” of Athens and the entertainment and culture of the “gymnasium.” Then came the invasion of the Syrians who made biblical faith illegal and rewarded those Jews who embraced Greek religious practices and moral values.
The tide turned when a confrontation occurred between Syria’s soldiers and a family of Jews in the tiny village of Modin. In righteous indignation, the Jewish family rose up against these Hellenistic ways. These Maccabees, as they came to be known, risked everything—life and limb, home and family, for the sake of God and His Word. Ultimately God gave them victory over the Syrians. Hanukkah commemorates that victory. How can rebellion be an act of humility? When it comes from genuine submission to the will and Word of God. I am not trying to develop a Messianic Jewish spin on the “just war” theory. I only want to say that it is not arrogant for believers in Jesus to stand firmly for truth in the midst of a society that is increasingly hostile to God’s Kingdom.
Some Christians are embarrassed by what they perceive as the arrogance of those who are forcefully standing for their convictions. Perhaps their concerns are more about style than substance, but it seems to me that a false sense of humility will sideline Christian conviction at a time when it is most needed.
Commitment to humility requires that, as we assert our convictions, we also reflect the character of the One who set the example in His Incarnation: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7).
It is easy to associate the Incarnation with humility because of the circumstances of Christ’s birth. He was born in a dirty, smelly manger, a feed trough for barnyard animals. He was born to a poor family from an oppressed people in a backwater part of the world. But these were just the “tip of the iceberg” of a much greater and deeper display of humility. In a demonstration of divine power and strength, the Son of God took on the weakness of human flesh. It was a humble invasion that changed the course of human history. It was D- Day in God’s military strategy to defeat Satan and rescue us prisoners of war.
Imagine the strength of conviction it took for Jesus to commit Himself to such a course of action. That is what Jesus did when He humbled Himself. Paul tells us that humility should likewise be in us as it was in Christ Jesus. The Incarnation was hardly a weak or indecisive move on God’s part. It takes courage to be humble. Genuine humility calls on us to risk our own safety and self-protection in the interest of others and of God’s will. Humility is not the absence of conviction but the strength of faith to believe God and risk all for His name. Humility is a call to arms in God’s redemptive purposes. It is not about our rightness, but Jesus’ righteousness and His Lordship in our lives. Humility is faithfulness to God’s truth and to the life He calls us to live for His glory.
At this Christmas season it is most appropriate for us to rededicate ourselves to being part of God’s invasion task force. Like Christ we must be willing to humble ourselves, be willing to sacrifice convenience and comfort, and be willing to risk our own reputation for His. What steps, what risks will we take to bring His message of love to those around us, to accomplish God’s purposes of redemption in their lives? I am reminded of the words of that famous Christmas carol, “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” Can faithfulness to and humility before God be triumphant? It was the triumph of joyful, godly humility that led Yeshua (Jesus) to become man so long ago. It is our joyful response to His example that still calls the faithful today, “Come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.”
- Michael, Horton, “Settlers, Pilgrims, and Wanderers,” Modern Reformation 14:4 (July/August 2005), p. 23.