“Biblical Humility – It’s Not Thinking Less of Oneself,
But Rather Thinking of Oneself Less”
Rev. James Rausch
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus addresses our human tendency towards pride, conceit, and self-aggrandizement. One clear teaching of Jesus that is directed at all of his followers is the need to embrace humility as a lifestyle choice. Just as the Bible promises that the truth shall set us free, humility is opening the door to the truth about ourselves and the truth about God.
True humility requires discipline – the word disciple is closely related to the word discipline – and true humility is an acquired taste. Like certain vegetables, many people don’t like it at all in the beginning. But strangely we adjust and what was once repulsive becomes quite agreeable.
So, you get that the pastor today is going to urge you to be grow in humility. I want to help you grow as disciples, and the discipline of humility is fundamental to our becoming more like Jesus. A few weeks ago, I went up to Don Monson after worship to tell him I admired his humility. I told him that he was the humblest person in the congregation, and I awarded him a pin. He wore the pin on his shirt to church the next week, so I had to take it away.
Many of us learn things more easily through music. It started with our A, B, C’s. I have yet to make good on my promise to demonstrate how I memorized the Hebrew alphabet for all time by putting it to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” And I’m so glad Hyunmi is back safe from her trip to see family and friends in Korea. It’s important for her to be here so I can help fill in the gaps in her musical training. No doubt she’s not yet been exposed to some of the great compositions that you and I have long appreciated. So we’ll educate her today. And Erik, who’s just too young to have encountered some of the greats that most of us learned of long ago.
In 1980, a song came along that became a favorite of my father’s. He played it over and over, and when it wasn’t playing, he would sing it to anyone who would listen. It was a classic work by that country music maestro, Mac Davis. I’ll bet most of you haven’t heard this song since the eighties. And after I sing it, I’ll bet most of you will have wished that it could have stayed that way.
“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror, ‘cause I get better lookin’ each day. To know me is to love me. I must be a heck of a man. Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, but I’m doin’ the best that I can.” Of course, this song is a caricature of our tendency to lack humility. But it’s true that it can be hard to be humble. Recently, after scoring a win at a local bingo shindig, your pastor put on a display that some say was slightly lacking in humility. I did file for a waiver with God over that spontaneous display of joy. The decision on my waiver is still pending. If it doesn’t come through, it may be that I will have to repent of my outburst.
Someone once said, “If I could buy that man for what he is worth and sell him for what he thinks he is worth I could make a fortune!” I don’t know who said that, but she was probably married to the one she was talking about.
Before Jesus came to live and walk among us, the prevailing attitude in the world held that the worst thing that could be said about a person was that he was humble. That was considered to be a quality of a slave. Christ came teaching a new concept. The way up is down. To be exalted, humans must humble themselves. He illustrated this principle throughout His life and ministry.
The Bible teaches us everywhere to seek humility in this life. But we have a problem understanding what humility is. Many take it to the point of being self-deprecating, cutting themselves down. But True humility is not looking down on yourself but looking up to Christ.
Jesus humbled himself, becoming human to suffer the worst temptations, sorrows, pains, and insecurities that human existence can face, and it is a time for us to think what it means to humble ourselves. Jesus humbled himself, becoming human to suffer the worst temptations, sorrows, pains, and insecurities that human existence can face, and it is a time for us to think what it means to humble ourselves.
I marvel at how hard it must have been for the Son of God to empty himself and become like one of us. Yet he willingly put aside his Godly powers and knowledge to be born as humbly as a human could be born, and to walk as humbly as a human could. You know what it means that he emptied himself? He had to figure out who he was and what his role was in God’s plan, just as we do. And think for a moment about the Lord’s supper as it is shown to us in Luke 22. Here is Jesus offering his life and love as a servant to those who he knew were betraying him, and those he knew would deny him. And what was the response of the disciples to this immensely loving and self-giving act? It says, “A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” They received communion, and promptly got into a fight.
Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men order their people around, but among you, those who are the greatest should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” When we think of God’s great power to create and do, isn’t it amazing that the key to sharing that power in our lives is in our weakness?
In 2 Corinthians 12, after Paul prayed repeatedly for God to remove what he called “a thorn in his flesh.” God didn’t remove the thorn, but instead said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” “So,” Paul wrote, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. “
F. B. Meyer said, “I used to think that God’s gifts were on shelves one above the other and that the taller we grew in Christian character the more easily we could reach them. I now find that God’s gifts are on shelves one beneath the other and that it is not a question of growing taller but of stooping lower.”
An admirer once asked Leonard Bernstein, celebrated orchestra conductor, what was the hardest instrument to play. He replied without hesitation: “Second violin. I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second fiddle with as much enthusiasm or second French horn or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”
When Paul addressed a divided church, he said in Philippians 2:3-4 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Someone once said, it’s a good idea to begin at the bottom in everything except in learning to swim. When I started out in television in the late 80’s, I was happy to have a job, but I was a bit underwhelmed by the starting pay. I was thinking my college degree would get me more than five dollars an hour, especially since my friend was making more at Burger King. But they said you have to pay your dues. Put in your time at the bottom and work your way up. So, for several years, that’s what I tried to do. And I worked my way to a position as creative director at a small ad agency, and then I worked my way to the position of production manager at the TV station where it all started. But what I came to realize was that I wasn’t working my way up, I was working my way down. Down into a place and a mindset that was inconsistent with the values I that had been taught to me by parents, church and my community. Of the 80+ car dealers I wrote and produced commercials for, I have to admit that I would only have considered buying a car from two of them. If God gave me writing gifts and creativity, it increasingly became clear that I could find a better use for those gifts.
Many TV commercials make things sound better than they are. I’m sure you’re not surprised. In college we learned about resumes and interviews. It was sort of like producing commercials about yourself. “Sell your strengths,” we were told. But somehow that became another way of saying, deny your weaknesses – hide them. What if we wrote resumes that really told the truth without hiding anything – who would hire us? Who would accept us? God can use people like that. Actually, the church can use people like that, too we, just haven’t been quite as good as God at making people feel safe enough to know they can be honest about themselves here and still be accepted. But the ground is level at the foot of the cross, and there no one is above another.
So how do we live in humility? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “humility is the foundation of all prayer.” Prayer is the springboard to a joyful life. When we pray, do we speak from a humble and contrite heart? It is when we integrate a spirituality of humility that we acknowledge our own inadequate mortal devices that have no capacity to lead us to pray as we ought. It is in this state that we are ready to receive freely in abundance His gifts to us.
The word, “humility,” comes from the Latin word “humus.” That translates as “ground” or “earth.” It is also the root of the words, “human” and “humanity.” In fact, in biblical Hebrew, the word “Adam,” means the same think. Humans are creatures of the earth, literally. We come from the dust, and to dust we shall return, says the Bible. Coming to grips with that requires humility. And humility is coming to grips with that. Yet this isn’t morbid or depressing. Accepting our limitations is freeing and healthy. And as many times as I have said the words, “Dust to dust,” at graveside services, every time those words have been followed by the impossibly wonderful promise that even at the grave we make our song: “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”
Humus. Ground. Humility. Humanity. The Masai tribe in West Africa have an unusual way of saying thank-you. Translators tell us that when the Masai express thanks, they bow, put their foreheads on the ground and say, “My head is in the dirt.” When members of another African tribe want to express gratitude, they sit for a long time in front of the hut of the person who did the favor and literally say, “I sit on the ground before you.” These Africans understand well what thanksgiving is and why it is difficult for us: at its core, thanksgiving is an act of humility.
The 15th century theologian, Thomas a’Kempis said, “Always take the lowest place, and the highest will be given to you, for high structures require a solid foundation. The greatest, in the judgment of God, are the least in their own opinion; the more worthy they are, the more humility will be seen in them.”
Remember, the branches that bear the most fruit hang the lowest.
Martin Luther observed that God creates ex nihilo – out of nothing. Therefore, until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.
So, let’s acknowledge today and always that humility is a key factor in discipleship and becoming fully human. And note that nothing about the Bible’s lesson on humility include self-loathing, shame, or guilt.
In the context of humility, the objective is to not necessarily to think less of yourself. Rather, to think of yourself less.