In the first two essays in this “Back to Basics” series for the Disciplined Order (much of which is based on Dr. Albert Day’s classic book, Discipline and Discovery), I set forth “The Cause of our Lifestyle.” The primary “cause” or reason established in the first essay was our great need for it. In the second essay I turned to the way that we overcome our failures and noted two complementary aspects of the DOC lifestyle. On the one hand we must depend totally on God to make it happen; and on the other hand, self-discipline on our part is necessary. But the key element from our side is the virtue of obedience, the first of eight set forth by Dr. Day.
In the third essay we began to consider the calling of our lifestyle. Under the heading of calling of our lifestyle, are several practical virtues that call us to specific, outward lifestyle decisions. The first of these was simplicity. If we live a life of simplicity in word and deed, we avoid a whole host of problems. In the fourth essay, we took up the virtue of frugality. Frugality is the act of economizing in the expenditure of resources. To be frugal is to be economical, to be sparing. We noted that “stewardship” is a closely related term that frequently is used in religious circles. A person who is properly frugal will be a good steward, or manager, of the resources under his or her care. In the fifth essay we turned to then virtue of generosity, because frugality can slip into stinginess, penny-pinching, or miserliness without generosity’s offsetting values.
In this essay we move from the calling of our lifestyle to its character. The remaining four virtues that Dr. Day sets forth in Discipline and Discovery are humility, truthfulness, purity and charity. Charity of course is the King James word for love. Dr. Day preferred it, because he was convinced that our culture had destroyed the meaning of the English word “love.”
It is easy to see how these disciplines deal with character. If we are truly humble, truthful, pure and loving we will be what Jesus said we must be: “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect” (at least insofar as sinful human beings can be perfect). Let’s look at the first of these four characteristics of the Christian lifestyle, humility.
I looked up the word in the dictionary and discovered that “humility” means “the quality or state of being humble.” Don’t you hate definitions like that! So I looked up “humble,” and did better. It means, “not proud or haughty: not arrogant or assertive.” “Not proud or haughty.” The dictionary could have added, not self-righteous.
Albert Day gives a great little illustration of pride in the form of good old American boastfulness. He tells of a little town in Oklahoma, where at one time a very tiny laundry stood near the main highway with a great big sign. The big sign declared defiantly: “This is the Biggest Laundry of Its Size in the World” (D&D, p. 55).
The easiest way to get at the meaning of humility is to say what it is not. I want to suggest four things humility is not.
First, Humility is not proud or self-righteous. Jesus illustrated both self-righteousness and humility with his Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). You remember the story. A Pharisee and a tax collector both went to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” He goes on, in effect bragging to God: “I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of all my income.”
The tax collector, on the other hand, wouldn’t even lift his eyes toward God. And he certainly wasn’t concerned with the Pharisee. As he beat his breast, he prayed: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
What a contrast! The Pharisee not only believed himself righteous; he declared his righteousness to God by contrasting himself to unrighteous people like the tax collector. As someone once said, “The appealing thing about self-righteousness is, there is something so right about it.” But the tax collector had quite the opposite attitude from the Pharisee. He had no self-righteousness. Indeed he was quite aware of his unrighteousness. And it was unnecessary for the Pharisee to bring it to his attention.
Jesus concluded, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The tax collector’s attitude was one of real humility. And Jesus declared him the one justified. Truly, humility is neither proud nor self-righteous.
Second, humility is not weakness. The distinction of humility from pride and self-righteousness just discussed is a rather obvious meaning of humility. But there are other aspects that are not as obvious. For example, humility must never be confused with weakness. When we use the word “humble” in our culture, we frequently use it in expressions like “eat humble pie,” or in a way in which the intended meaning is to “crawl” in subjection before someone, or to “lick the dust.” Those are not biblical usages. Those are images of weakness, and biblical humility never is weak.
Jesus certainly was humble. But he hardly was weak. He never denied his divine authority, but he likewise never flaunted it. On the contrary he always conducted himself with humility, even when he was exercising divine power. But never once did he exhibit weakness.
One story that illustrates his strength, as opposed to weakness, is his cleansing of the temple (Mark 11:15-17; Matt. 21:12-13; cf. John 2:13-16). In the face of certain strong official reaction that would help precipitate his death, Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers, and drove them (along with those who were buying and selling in the temple precincts) out of the temple. While doing it he declared, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers”
Even more telling was Jesus’ handling of his personal persecutions leading up to his death. Although he submitted to the interrogations, mocking, and torture, he did so with courage, without a sign of weakness. Jesus was humble before the high priest and his other Jewish accusers, but never weak. He continued that humility when he appeared before the Roman proconsul, Pontius Pilate. But once again he maintained a consistent strength. Yes, the Lord Jesus is a great example of one who was humble, but not weak.
Humility is neither self-righteousness nor weakness. Third, humility is not a lack of self-esteem. Persons who have a poor self-image, and who despise themselves because of it, are not humble. They are sick.
Now many of us wrestle with low self-esteem; and I am not suggesting that all of us who do are pathological. But whether our self-esteem problems are minor or major is not the important thing for our purposes. The point I am making is that low self-esteem is not an aspect of biblical humility. Self-deprecation is no closer to true humility than self-righteousness.
Fourth, humility is not a denial of one’s gifts and graces. Humble persons do not deny their excellence or abilities. It is extremely important for us to recognize and employ our gifts, especially those given by the Holy Spirit. The secret is to see ourselves and our giftedness in relation to a vision of God’s excellence and power. In light of the divine excellence, our own always looks meager (D&D, p. 57).
The account of Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17) sets the humility of Jesus in strong contrast with the lack of it in the disciples. Luke tells us that a dispute arose among the disciples at the last supper over which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24-27). In other words, they were consumed by pride rather than humility. And it was in this context that Jesus washed the disciple’s feet. He took the role of a host (or the host’s slave) and humbly washed the disciples’ feet. Then he announced, “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves” (Luke 22:26).
So how do we see this vision of God’s great excellence and power? By Bible study and prayer. We must study the life and ministry of Jesus to gain an understanding of him. And we must enter into fellowship with him by means of prayer in order to become like him.
Turning to the positive side, to what humility is, the truly humble person is one who has dismissed the self from the center of life, one who is more interested in accomplishing the will of God than his or her own ambitions. In Day’s words:
He wants God as a thirsty man wants water or a hungry man, bread. He wants God’s will done, as a sick man wants the will of the physician whom he trusts. He wants God’s kingdom to come, as a crusader wants, more then life itself, the triumph of his cause.
In summary, humble persons are as righteous as possible, without being self-righteous. They are strong, without being self-willed. They recognize their limitations, without being self-deprecating. And they acknowledge their gifts and abilities, without self-aggrandizement.