Humility: What is it? Why is it important? How do we practice it?
By Andrea Woodworth
Humility is one of the five Core Values of the CBM Internship Program. Out of all the biblical principles we could focus on, why humility? Well, for one thing, the internship is specifically designed to get young people out of their comfort zone and introduce them to what full-time ministry is really like. It’s hard to come to a place of learning if you already think you know everything. It’s no coincidence that in many scripture passages humility and wisdom go hand-in-hand. Here are a few of those passages from the book of Proverbs:
“Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” (Proverbs 11:2)
“Fear of the Lord teaches wisdom; humility precedes honor.” (Proverbs 15:33)
“Haughtiness goes before destruction; humility precedes honor. Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish.” (Proverbs 18:12-13)
So, it sounds like humility is the first step to wisdom and honor. But what exactly is it? Here are some definitions and descriptions to help us. According to dictionary.com, humility is a noun, defined as “the quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.” Some synonyms (words that have a similar meaning) are lowliness, meekness, submissiveness and it’s antonym (or opposite) is pride. So, if humility means to be humble, let’s look at that word for a moment. It can be an adjective meaning “not proud or haughty; can imply lower social or economic status; meek or gentle.” It can also be a noun meaning, “to not think too highly of oneself; to bring low or prostrate.” In the Bible, the word translated as humble was the Hebrew word ‘anaw which meant “A condition of sincere and straightforward behavior with a lack of arrogance and pride” (Tyndale Illustrated Study Bible, New Living Translation). It sounds like a big part of humility is our attitude, regardless of our circumstances, and how we view ourselves compared to the people around us.
In many ways humility is defined by what it is not–prideful. Going back to dictionary.com, we see that pride is defined as “1. A high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc…3. A becoming or dignified sense of what is due to oneself or one’s position or character; self-respect; self-esteem. 4. Pleasure or satisfaction taken in something done by or belonging to oneself or believed to reflect credit upon oneself.” Some synonyms include conceit, self-esteem, egotism, vanity, vainglory. These don’t all sound bad. You can take pride in a job well done. But is there someone who deserves the credit even more than you? At what point does pride become sin? Going back to the Hebrew, zadon is the word translated into English as pride, and it means “the state or condition of having an inflated attitude of oneself. It is over-confidence to the point of moral failure” (Tyndale). So, if pride is being over-confident in one’s own abilities, does that mean that humility is not having confidence in ourselves? Well, not exactly. I believe it actually means we are to be confident in Someone Else’s abilities, far above our own. I’m talking about the Creator of the universe! While we each have special talents and gifts that we should use confidently, our confidence should not be in those abilities but in the One who created them and gave them to us.
So, now that we know what humility is, why is it important? Well, first of all, God commanded it! The oft quoted Micah 5:8 clearly states: “No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” In Colossians 3:10-4:1 the apostle Paul explains that, as a Christian, you are a new creation! In the body of Christ there are no special classes or castes or ranks or races. We are all equal under God. Christ’s unifying love is what matters. God chose us to be holy so we are to put off our old, dirty, torn, ragged clothing and put on His holy clothing. One of the items of clothing that we are called to put on is humility. We are called to be humble and submissive, regardless of our position. We are representing Christ not just to the world but to fellow believers. Your words and actions can encourage or discourage other believers. We are not working for earthly rewards but a heavenly one! (See also Ephesians 4:1-4)
Another reason to practice humility is because pride makes you look foolish! Those who are prideful are often trying to make themselves look better than others, better than they really are, but they end up revealing just the opposite! Romans 12 is one of my favorite chapters because it gives such practical advice on putting spiritual concepts into action. Verses 3-5 & 10 directly apply to the concept of humility. There will always be someone better than you and someone worse than you, so we need to be honest in our self-evaluation and the way we present ourselves to others. Our strengths will be someone else’s weaknesses but it also works the other way around. God made us all different so we could be a complete body. Rather than all the hands sticking together in one group and the hearts in another clique, we need to spread out and work with people who are different from us! And then there’s verse 16: “Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!” I love how Paul doesn’t beat around the bush but comes directly to the point and calls people out. No one likes a know-it-all! So don’t be one! He does it again in Galatians 6:3, “If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.” I love it! There’s been a few times in my life I’d have loved to just look a particular person straight in the eyes and say, “You are not that important.”
A few more reasons humility is important are because it is required to be a godly leader, it guards from a deadly fall, and it brings us closer to Christ. In 1 Peter 5:3-10, the leaders of the church are called to lead by example instead of lording it over their followers. The younger ones in the faith were called to dress in humility. All were called to “humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor” (v 7). I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that, right after the verses about humility, there is a caution to watch out for the devil prowling like a lion looking for someone to devour. When we are prideful and try to prove that we can do it on our own we become very easy pickings for Satan to turn us away from God, blinding us from our dependence on the Lord. Verse 10 reminds us that we are called to share in Christ’s glory but that includes sharing in His suffering, reflecting back to the events found in Matthew 20:20-28. There we learn that James and John had the audacity to ask Jesus (Well, actually they had their mother ask, so maybe they weren’t as bold as they thought they were) if they could have the honor of sitting next to Him when His Kingdom arrived. Out of all of the prophets in the Old Testament and their fellow followers of Christ, they thought they deserved that special privilege. Christ responded that whoever joined Him in the Kingdom would have to go through the same bitter suffering that He Himself would go through.
In 1 Peter 3:8-11 we see, again, God’s command to be humble, but we also see that humility brings with it rewards and benefits. “That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing” (v. 9). Practicing humility brings about certain results, just as pride brings about the opposite results. We see this in the Proverbs passages quoted earlier, as well as Proverbs 29:23 “Pride ends in humiliation, while humility brings honor.” One of the results of humility is that we will reap a harvest of righteousness, according to James 3:13-18. The same passage illustrates that humbleness is a part of our testimony to the world around us, proof that we are following God. Another reward is that the humble will inherit the whole earth (Matthew 5:3-10).
Humiliation has the idea, not of self-imposed humbleness, but of an outside force. Someone else is shaming you; just as honor has the idea, not of self-imposed importance but another person giving you respect. God ultimately decides who will be humiliated and honored. In the end, God is the only one who is truly worthy of honor. Any good deeds we try to credit to ourselves are only reflections of His work in our lives. “For the Scriptures say, ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,’every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will declare allegiance to God’” (Romans 14:11). You will eventually be humbled, so you might as well start practicing now!
How do we learn and practice humility?
With God’s help! Psalm 25:8-9 says, “The Lord is good and does what is right; he shows the proper path to those who go astray. He leads the humble in doing right, teaching them his way.” The Greek word hagiasmos is often translated as “sanctification–dedication to God, both in faithfulness to Him and in active service. There is a sense of process toward godliness, with hagiasmos being the goal and the result, which is possible through the work of Jesus and his Spirit” (Tyndale). Put your confidence in God alone (James 4:7-17). Don’t make your own plans and invite God along for the ride (Proverbs 3:5-8). Pride and ambition are heavy burdens. Perfection is not attainable on our own (and not on this side of heaven). Only by learning from Christ will our load be lightened (Matthew 11:28-30). If we draw close to Christ, His Spirit will “rub off” on us. Jesus was the ultimate, perfect example of humility, through the Holy Spirit. (Philippians 2:1-11, Hebrews 12:1-3)
Humility is not putting ourselves down but putting God in His rightful place (1 Chronicles 29:10-15). The Hebrew word Elyon means “most high” or “having supremely high elevation or status. It is used as a descriptive title for God, with a focus on his very high status as supreme overall” (Tyndale). Think of it as similar to the word “super.” Some can be, not just a star, but a superstar; not just a model but a supermodel! I dislike the phrase GOAT–Greatest of all Time. How do you know there won’t be someone greater in the future? Humans have been constantly outdoing each other, setting new records. But we know that God, El Elyon is SuperGod. He truly is the Greatest of All Time. There is no one who comes close, regardless of time. He created time itself!
Beware of false humility. Everything about you was created by God for His purpose. You are God’s masterpiece (Psalm 139:13-18). All glory belongs to Him! True humility is not about you and your ability or worthiness at all. It is about God and all He has done and is doing for us. (Isaiah 64:6; Ephesians 2:1-10; Isaiah 6:1-7; Isaiah 57:15). Nothing happens without God’s permission. If he wants to promote you, He will do it without your help. Your job is to be faithful and let the Holy Spirit guide your thoughts and behavior.
Finally, the best weapon against pride (self-worship) is to worship the True God! Don’t just praise Him for what He’s done for you but for who He is. His attributes never change. Some great passages to get you started are Job 38 (specifically verses 4-7, 12, 24-25 & 36) and Isaiah 40 (verses 6-8, 12-15, 25-31). Reading through these passages can’t help but to leave you in awe of God’s power, majesty, and wisdom.
Andrea Woodworth is the bookkeeper at Children’s Bible Ministries Headquarters in Townsend, TN. She attended Bryan College in Dayton, TN and John Brown University in Siloam Springs, AR, graduating with a B.S. in Broadcasting. She is active in her local church and is passionate about helping others in their spiritual walk.