Humility is not something we can achieve. We might consider it quintessentially American to think we could. You can do it. Be proactive. Take the first step. Grab the bull by the horns and be humble.
In other words, humble yourself by your own bootstraps.
But if we come to the Scriptures with such a mindset, we find ourselves in a different world. Genuine humility, as with true faith, is not self-help or a life hack, but a response to divine initiative and help.
Make no mistake, we do have a part to play in humility. It is not only an effect but a command. In particular, two apostles tell us to humble ourselves. And both do so in strikingly similar ways, adding the promise that God will exalt us on the other side:
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:10)
Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you. (1 Peter 5:6)
“When trials come, will we bow up with pride, or bow down in humility?”
So far as we can tell, James and Peter haven’t been inspired by each other on this point, but by the Old Testament. In the immediate context of instructing us to humble ourselves, both quote the Greek translation of Proverbs 3:34 (“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). But before we run off to create our own program for self-humbling, we should consider the context in both passages.
For our purposes here, observe that both calls to self-humbling come in response to trials. James refers to quarrels and fights within the church:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. (James 4:1–2)
Conflict among those claiming the name of Christ humbles the church. It serves as a test of pride, and humility. James reminds them not only that they are “sinners” and “double-minded” but he also reminds them of Proverbs 3:34. He charges the church to submit to God, resist the devil, and draw near to God (James 4:7–8). In other words, “Humble yourselves before the Lord.” The church is being humbled from within. Now, how will they respond to God’s humbling purposes in this conflict? Will they humble themselves?
So also in 1 Peter, the church is under pressure. Society is mouthing its insults and maligning these early Christians. They are beginning to suffer socially and emotionally, if not yet physically. They are under threat, and tempted to be anxious. And at this moment of humbling, Peter turns to Proverbs 3:34, and exhorts them, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5).
“Humility, like faith, is not an achievement.”
Here the church’s humbling is coming from without. Now, how will they respond to God’s humbling purposes in these insults? Will they humble themselves? Will they bow up, reacting with pride and self-exaltation, or will they bow down, humbling themselves before the gracious hand and perfect timing of their Lord?
Over and over again in the Bible, self-humbling is not something we initiate but something we receive, even embrace — even welcome — when God sends his humbling, however direct or indirect his means. The invitation to humble ourselves does not come in a vacuum but through our first being humbled.
Humility, like faith — and as a manifestation of faith — is not an achievement. Humility is not fundamentally a human initiative, but a proper, God-given response in us to God himself and his glory and purposes.
We don’t teach ourselves to be humble. There’s no five-step plan for becoming more humble in the next week, or month. Within measure, we might take certain kinds of initiatives to cultivate a posture of humility in ourselves (more on those in a later article), but the main test (and opportunity) comes when we are confronted, unsettled, and accosted, in the moments when our semblances of control vanish and we’re taken off guard by life in a fallen world — and the question comes to us:
How will you respond to these humbling circumstances? Will you humble yourself?
For Christians, self-humbling is mainly responsive. It is not something we just up and do. We don’t initiate humility, and we don’t get the credit for it. It’s no less active, and no less difficult, but it is responsive to who God is, what he has said to us in his word, and what he is doing in the world, specifically as it comes to bear in all its inconvenience and pain and disappointment in our own lives. Self-humbling is, in essence, gladly receiving God’s person, words, and acts when it is not easy and comfortable.
First comes the disruptive words or circumstances, in God’s hand and plan, that humble us — as it happened for King Hezekiah seven centuries before Christ. God healed him from his deathbed, and yet the king “did not make return according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud.” God then acted against Hezekiah’s pride. He humbled him. In whatever form it took, we’re told that “wrath came upon him and Judah and Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 32:25).
“Genuine humility is not self-help or a life hack, but a response to divine initiative and help.”
Then comes the question that presses against our souls, as it did for the king: Will I receive God’s humbling or resist it? Will I try to explain it away or kick against it, or will it serve to produce in me genuine repentance? And if I do not humble myself, then, further divine humbling will follow in time. God’s initial humbling leads unavoidably to some further humbling. The question is whether it will be our self-humbling or further (and often more severe) humbling from him.
For Hezekiah, he acknowledged the divine wrath as opposition to his own pride, and he “humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the Lord did not come upon them in the days of Hezekiah” (2 Chronicles 32:26).
To be sure, we are not left without some postures we can cultivate and means to pursue. Daily humbling ourselves under the authority of God’s word, and humbling ourselves by obeying his words, and humbling ourselves by coming desperately to him in prayer, and humbling ourselves in fasting — these all have their place in our overall response as creatures to our Creator. But first and foremost, we need to know humbling ourselves is responsive to God.
He is the one who created our world from nothing by the power of his word (Hebrews 11:3). He is the one who formed the first man from the ground (Genesis 2:7) and the first woman from his side (Genesis 2:21–22). He is the one who chose to reveal himself to us, to speak words into our world through his prophets and apostles, to make known himself and his Son and his plan for our redemption. And he is the one who, through the gentleness and merciful severity of his providence, humbles his church again and again, from without and from within, and in his humbling brings us to the fork in the road: Now, how will you respond to my humbling purposes in this trial? Will you humble yourself?
When the next humbling trial comes, will you bow up with pride, or bow down in humility? God has a particular promise for you in these moments. The God of all power will exalt the humble in his perfect timing.