The Surprising Power of Humility
Topic: Sermon Passage: Philippians 2:3–2:11, 1 Peter 5:5–5:9, James 4:6–4:7
The Surprising Power of Humility.
In this series, Upside Down World, we’ve been looking at how the gospel has the power the turn the world upside down. And in his book, Mere Christianity, CS Lewis has a chapter called, The Great Sin. And he starts by saying, ‘I now come to that part of Christian morals where they differ most sharply from all other morals.’ In other words, ‘this subject I’m going to deal with is the one where Christianity is most counter-cultural, the one where it most turns the world upside down.’ What do you think that subject is? Sex and sexual ethics? Love of money? Pursuit of power? The dignity of human life?
No, the Great Sin, Lewis says, is Pride. And if you want to know how totally different Christianity is from the way of the world then just consider pride and its opposite Christian virtue, humility.
The Problem of Pride
Now, when you meet someone, and start chatting to them, and it becomes pretty obvious, pretty quickly that they’re proud, how do you react? CS Lewis says that ‘everyone in the world loathes [pride] when he sees it in someone else…. There is no fault that makes a man more unpopular.’
And there’s a reason for that, isn’t there? Because pride is competitive. It feeds off comparing ourselves to others. Pride is about feeling like you’re the best. That you have what others don’t have. That others have to bow to you, listen to you, respect you for who you are, or what you know, or what you’ve achieved. And that makes you feel good about yourself. Pride is about you being on top. So we don’t like pride in others because of the way it sees and treats others. Because the proud person feels him or herself to be superior,
And we don’t like it because pride is self-focused. It’s the eyes of our ego turned in on ourselves. So no one else can thrive in the shadow of a proud person. They take up all the sun. And as a result, the proud person can never take joy in, or help, the progress or success of another. The proud person sees someone else being successful and they need to put them down, or question the achievement, or damage their reputation, or work even harder at out-succeeding them, or in some way connect it to themselves, so that they come out on top. It’s why CS Lewis calls pride, ‘A spiritual cancer. It eats up every possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.’
You see, sure the proud person can enjoy the adulation or attention of others, but not for the other’s sake, but because it’s directed at them. And so the person in the grip of pride can never love in a selfless way, they can never be truly happy in another, or even content, because the moment something or someone comes round the corner that threatens their top spot, they’ve got to set to work again.
And yet, despite the fact that we hate pride in others, and despite the fact that it robs us of true love and contentment, pride marks our current culture. There’s the promotion of self on social media, that draws others’ attention to ‘me’. There are the fragile egos that demand ‘safe spaces’ because they can’t bear to be challenged or made to feel uncomfortable by a world-view that differs from their own, because they want a world where their views are always on top.
There is the way we evaluate someone’s worth or success. I mean, when we think of a hero, or a great leader, or someone to look up to, what do we tend to think of? Often, it’s someone who’s achieved, who’s gone from small to great, who’s conquered some mountain, overcome some adversity. Someone who tells you, you can go from the bottom to the top too.
We even have Pride marches. And when you demand that others tell you how wonderful you, or your lifestyle is; when you need to be told ‘we celebrate you, we think you’re great’ and people are vilified if they don’t, then the underlying problem really is pride. And pride longs for power - that ability to make others sing to your tune, the ability to make others do and say what you want.
And yet, however much we dislike it in others, or decry its negative impact on culture and lives, Lewis says, ‘this is the one vice of which no man in the world is free’, including you and me. Meet someone who tells you they’re not proud, or hear yourself saying ‘I’m not proud’, and you begin to see just how deep its roots go. To quote Lewis again, ‘If you think you are not conceited it means you are very conceited indeed.’
Now, scientists are currently trying to find a reliable antibody test to tell you whether you’ve had coronavirus or not. Well, there’s a quick and easy antibody test for pride, isn’t there? Just ask yourself, how much do I like it when people ignore me? Or brush off my opinions as if they don’t matter? Or tell me what to do when I’m not asking them? Or give me the cold shoulder? Or treat me like a child? We all struggle with pride, unless we are too proud to admit it.
And because that’s the case, Christianity really does have the power to turn the world, and our lives, upside down.
The Example of Christ
Last Sunday we celebrated Christ’s resurrection. Well, listen to what Paul says: Jesus ‘was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.’ (Rom 1:4) Now, why did Jesus need to be declared, proved, to be the Son of God? Because of the manner of his death, which was anything but the death of a hero.
JB Lightfoot, the 19th century NT scholar, wrote of that passage that Johann read to us from Philippians, ‘the cross involved not just intense suffering, but intense shame.’ Crucifixion wasn’t just a form of execution - it was about shaming and humiliating the victim. It was about showing to everyone that they were beyond contempt.
Cicero, the Roman statesman, said: “To bind a Roman citizen is a crime; to flog him is an abomination; to slay him is almost an act of murder; to crucify him is - what? There is no fitting word that could possibly describe so horrible a deed.”
And Paul, as a Roman citizen, knew he could never be crucified, that it was too shameful, too unspeakable a death to be inflicted upon him or any citizen. And Philippi, who Paul was writing to, was a Roman colony, its residents were all Roman citizens, so they would also have known that only the lowest of the low could be crucified.
Crucifixion wasn’t a heroic or noble death, something to take pride in - it was the opposite. In fact, when Paul writes that Jesus was ‘in the form of God’, and then that he died the ‘death on a cross’, neither Paul or the Philippians could imagine two more diametrically imposed statements. To be God and to undergo the shameful execution of a rebellious slave are universes apart.
But that’s Paul’s point. Christ who was ‘in the form of God’, ‘emptied himself’ and took ‘the form of a slave’, and died the death of a slave. So why would you worship such a man?
Because if the way of the world is self-absorption, and wanting to be the one who comes out on top, the resurrection proved that Jesus, the one who humbled himself to the very lowest place was the Son of God and he died the death of a rebellious slave to rescue every proud rebel.
And Paul goes on to say how God has now exalted him. That as low as his humiliation, so high is his exaltation. Verse 9-10, ‘Therefore God has highly exalted him…That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.’
When Jesus told the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, he ends the story by saying that it’s not the proud, deeply religious man, the man who can’t see his own pride, who goes home justified, it’s the man who knows he’s a sinner. And then Jesus says, ‘For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’ (Luke 18:14)
And that’s the divine principle; that’s the principle of Christianity, embedded in the death and resurrection of Christ, that God lifts up the humble, not the proud.
In 1 Peter 5:5-6, Peter quotes Proverbs 3:34, ‘Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble”. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.’
Pride thrives on thinking you know more, have achieved more, possess more - that you’re on top. But humility knows that God is infinitely greater than you, and that, in comparison, you’re nothing at all. And when Peter talks about ‘the mighty hand of God’, he’s using the phrase repeatedly used to describe God’s power in rescuing his people from slavery in the Exodus. The proud person thinks, they’re a self-made man, they’re the answer to the problem, they can save themselves. The humble know they need God to step in for them. They know they cannot save themselves and instead depend on God’d grace.
But James also quotes this proverb. Look at James 4:6, ‘But he [God] gives more grace. Therefore it says “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God.’ And then, v10, ‘Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.’
God always has more grace to give, James says. His resources of grace are like a Central Bank that never goes bust - it keeps on giving out. But who does he give that overflowing grace to? To the proud? No, to the humble.
In 2 Kings 5 there’s the story of Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army. And he was ‘a great man… in high favour… a mighty man of valour, but he was a leper.’ And so his Jewish servant girl persuaded him to make the trip to Israel to ask Elisha the prophet for healing. And Naaman goes with 340 kilos of silver, and 66 kilos of gold, plus 10 sets of clothes - obviously the latest Syrian designer fashion - and a letter from the king of Syria.
And Naaman’s thinking that this wealth, and letter, testifying to what a great person he is, with friends in high places, can buy his healing. That it can open doors for him. That he can earn it, pay for it, deserve it.
But when he gets to Elisha, Elisha doesn’t even come to the door to greet him. Instead he tells him through a servant to go wash 7 times in the Jordan river and then he’ll be healed. How does Naaman respond? He’s enraged. He refuses. Why? Because he’s proud. Because there are far better rivers he could wash in. But if he’d been asked to do some great heroic act, or hand over all this wealth, he would have done it, and been proud to do it. But humble himself… admit he brings nothing to the table, that he needs to grace, that was too much for a proud man.
Now, fortunately, Naaman’s servants persuade him, and he does humble himself, and he is healed, and even converted through this. But the point is clear. Like Naaman, the proud have a hard time receiving grace. Because we think position and power and money and who you know are the way to the top.
But the truly humble person knows there is only One at the top, and in comparison to Him, we’re nothing. The proud person thinks the winner takes all. That the way up is up. The humble person knows that Christ is the only champion and that he humbled himself and then was exalted; that the way down is the way up. The proud person trusts in himself and his abilities. The humble person trusts in God and God’s mighty hand. And as Wayne Grudem says, ‘the proud seek glory for themselves; the humble seek God’s glory.’
You see, true humility is not some kind of self-hating degradation. The truly humble person will be one of the most happy and secure people you know. Because true humility is not looking at itself at all, it’s not self-obsessed, or fretting over how you’re doing. It’s looking at the one far greater than us, who went to the lowest place for us, because he loves us, and it’s from him that we get our true worth and value.
At the end of his chapter on pride, CS Lewis writes: ‘Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call humble nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility; he would not be thinking about himself at all.’
You see, at the heart of humility is a self-forgetfulness. Spend your life thinking about your problems, or your dreams, or your wants; fill your field of vision with you, and you’ll never know real joy, or deep friendships, or love-filled relationships, because it’s all about you. You’ll be proud and you’ll need others to feed and bolster that pride. And so you’ll only know a pale imitation of those things. But look to the One greater than you, who humbled himself to the lowest point to rescue you, and is now exalted far above you, and you’ll grow in self-forgetfulness, because you’ll know life is not about you.
And, as Charles Spurgeon said, ‘there will be three effects of nearness to Jesus - humility, happiness and holiness.’ Because one of the remarkable things the Bible tells us about this self-forgetfulness, is the impact it can have on our and others’ lives.
The Power of Humility
And because God gives grace to the humble that grace is going to show itself in at least three ways.
Firstly, in service of others. Before Paul tells the Philippians about the humility and then the exaltation of Jesus, look what he says: ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, 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’ (Phil 2:3-4). So, if pride marks the world and our current culture, humility and service of others should mark our Christian culture, because it looks beyond self-interest. And one present day example of that, is that it’s humility that can fuel the self-denial required to modify your behaviour at the moment, for the good of others. The proud person will say, these rules are for everyone else. The humble person will say, I will sacrifice my desires for the good of others.
You know, when Peter says ‘clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility’ (1 Peter 5:5) he uses an unusual verb. And one possibility is that it referred to putting on a servant’s apron. The world clothes itself in what I want, what’s best for me. Christianity is about putting on the apron of self-sacrificial service - because that’s what Jesus did.
But, secondly, humility is the antidote to anxiety. Look what Peter says next: ‘Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.’ (1 Peter 5:6-7).
The anxious life is a self-obsessed life, because it stews on the issues of my life. And often the things we’re anxious about are the things we’re proud of, or want to be proud of - how will this work out for me? What will people think of me? What will my future look like? An anxious life is looking in on itself. And as it does, it looks away from God. And we think we either have to save ourselves, and sort out our own problems, or that the threats or circumstances we face are too big for God - which is another way of saying our opinion of God counts for more than his. And both of those are subtle types of pride.
But the truly humble person knows that while the circumstances or threats they face may be great and they are weak, God is so much greater, and his love for them is so much greater and his hand to rescue them is mighty. And that brings peace.
But thirdly, and finally, humility serves as a protective wall against the enemy. One of the striking things about Peter and James quoting Proverbs 3:34, is that they both apply the divine principle of humility to our battle against the enemy. 1 Peter 5: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble… be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion… Resist him.’ James 4: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourself therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.’
In John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, Satan makes it clear that he and those with him would rather “Reign in hell than serve in heaven.” But if it’s pride that made the devil the devil, humility is the means of resisting him. Because, while evil refuses to submit to God, the truly humble person does, to his will and to his ways, and so you won’t cave in to temptation. But you’ll also find yourself a target in the firing line. A proud person may think they can fight against evil, but they’ll do so in their own strength, which is pride, and it’s pride that lies at the root of evil. But the humble will resist in the strength of God.
You see, true humility does not make you timid, or insecure, it makes you bold. Bold to resist evil in all its forms, in the strength God gives you.
So if the world is marked by pride, the Christian life is marked by humility. Christ humbled himself and is now exalted, and as a result there is limitless grace for us to serve others, and resist the devil, and we won’t be anxious as we do. And that will turn the world upside down.