Humility: A Better Future

The reward for humility and fear of the LORD
is riches and honor and life.
—Proverbs 22:4

Preaching a sermon on humility is awkward, because I am not humble. How can I preach a sermon on humility? Only by admitting up front that I am proud. But I’d like to be humble, because Jesus is. You want to be humble too. So okay. Let’s learn together from him. Everything he commands he also gives.

The theme of humility is pervasive throughout the book of Proverbs. This book never stops begging us to have a teachable spirit. How can we grow into wisdom unless we’re teachable? How can we change unless we’re open to change? That’s humility. We did not walk into church today to airbrush our impressive appearances or to fine-tune our already-established obedience. We walked into church today saying to Christ, “We want newness of life, and we are coming to you for it. We are open to you. Show us your glory. Take us further with you than we’ve ever gone before, further than we’ve ever dreamed of going.” That radical openness is humility, and he promises to honor that humility.

The Bible is so clear. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14). “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). “Exalt that which is low, and bring low that which is exalted” (Ezekiel 21:26). “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low” (Isaiah 40:4). It’s all over the Bible. It is basic to the ways of God that pride humiliates us and humility honors us. Even we understand that. When we see a person who is full of himself and drawing attention to himself, what do we feel inside? Don’t we want to cut him down to size, at least a little? And when we see someone else who is humble and lifting others up and doing a great job without expecting any thanks, don’t we want to see him get some credit? He who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted – even for us, but far more with God. We walk into a better future not through self-exaltation but through humility before Christ. It’s why C. J. Mahaney’s book on humility says that pride is our own greatest enemy and humility is our own greatest friend. God blesses the humble, because God himself is humble.

What is humility?

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
—Proverbs 1:7

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
—Proverbs 9:10

The reward for humility and fear of the LORD
is riches and honor and life.
—Proverbs 22:4

The fear of the Lord is not the spirit of our times. Self-esteem is the spirit of our times. I did a search at for books on self-esteem, and I got 14,879 hits. The conventional wisdom is that self-regard is how we become well adjusted and successful. But if you lack self-esteem, you’re on the road to underachieving and maybe even a life of crime. That’s what we’re told. But it isn’t true. In her New York Times article, “The Trouble with Self-Esteem,” Lauren Slater quotes a researcher who studied criminals and concluded this: “The fact is, we’ve put antisocial men through every self-esteem test we have, and there’s no evidence for the old psychodynamic concept that they secretly feel bad about themselves. These men are racist or violent because they don’t feel bad enough about themselves.”[2] The Bible is not saying there is no place for a sense of personal worth. But it doesn’t come first. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. He comes first – not Self but Christ. He is our most urgent need and the key to our future. That’s what the Bible is saying. It’s an adjustment. Yesterday Bob Kauflin tweeted this: “My sin is that my heart is pleased or troubled as things please or trouble me, without my having a regard to Christ.” A radical reorientation! When we start feeling the difference between self-esteem and Christ-esteem, that’s when the idol of Self is losing its grip and Christ is saving us. It is the beginning of a whole new life.

But if we’re humble at all, we have to wonder, and we do wonder, “Am I humble enough? Do I fear the Lord enough? Look at my lust for being noticed, my self-pity, all the rest. If only I did fear the Lord!” Aren’t we all thinking that right now? But here’s the good news. We don’t come to Christ because we’re humble. We come to Christ because we’re not, and he receives us and loves us and helps us. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but the grace of the Lord is the beginning of the fear of the Lord. Jesus said in his parable of the wedding feast, “See, I have prepared my dinner, . . . and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast” (Matthew 22:4). He didn’t say we are ready; he said the feast is ready, so come. Don’t worry if you’re humble enough. You’re not. Neither am I. But all of us can go to Christ right now, constantly, moment by moment, because he promises everyone who comes riches and honor and life. Let your heart be melted by the grace of Christ. That is humility – all the humility you need for him.

Why does humility matter?

Blessed is the one who fears the LORD always,
but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.
—Proverbs 28:14

The Hebrew word for fear in this proverb is different from the word in “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” This word in 28:14 is more intense. It means to tremble, to shiver, to shake. The B-line shows us that fearing the Lord is the opposite of a hard heart. It’s the opposite of a flippant, blasé, unserious heart. But the irony here is the word “blessed,” which is a happy word. It means “Congratulations!” The word “blessed” is a biblical high-five. Do you see the surprise? The surprise is that meltdown before God is like a dam breaking with overflowing happiness. Emotional meltdown before God, when we see him as he really is and ourselves as we really are – it sweeps away our internal barriers, the defensiveness that keeps God at a manageable distance and makes us so sad. But then the gospel washes and floods us in divine forgiveness. It is so happy to get past our image-management and tremble before God.

The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom,
and humility comes before honor.
—Proverbs 15:33

Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty;
but humility comes before honor.
—Proverbs 18:12

One’s pride will bring him low,
but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.
—Proverbs 29:23

These three proverbs summarize the message of the whole Bible: humility before honor, the cross before the crown. It is the message of the Bible and the pattern of our own lives. First we take the courses and submit to the exams and all the rest, and then we graduate. It’s how life works, and it requires humility. Even God accepted it. The apostle Peter read back through the entire Old Testament, then he looked at the life of Jesus, and he saw this pattern: suffering, then glory (1 Peter 1:10-12). That outlook became the template with which Peter saw everything in life. His entire first letter is embedded in this expectation: first humility, then honor.

We would rather skip the suffering and the humility and get right to the honor. So, why should we accept the arrangement God has established? Because it works. It really is the only pathway to honor. Our hearts long for what Peter calls “praise and glory and honor” (1 Peter 1:7). The apostle Paul validates our desire for “glory and honor and immortality” (Romans 2:7). Everybody wants to write the next mega-hit. Everybody wants a place in the Hollywood Walk of Fame or the Guinness Book of World Records or something. Nobody wants to be a zero. For a person created in the image of God to be a zero is unbearable. And God himself wants to honor us. Here’s the climax of the gospel: “. . . them he glorified” (Romans 8:30). That is not pride. It is the grace of God. He is not out to make you mediocre; he is out to make you glorious. Here’s the surprising way he gets us there: “He who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.” This fraudulent world runs on swagger. And it doesn’t look like that is ever going to change. But it will, because God is faithful. Your life might not look like much right now. But if you are trusting God for your significance, keep your eyes out ahead at the promises of God. Even one of our own prophets has said,

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.
—Proverbs 16:18

Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool,
but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.
—Proverbs 28:26

There are those who are clean in their own eyes
but are not washed of their filth.
—Proverbs 30:12

All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes,
but the LORD weighs the spirit.
—Proverbs 16:2

There is a way that seems right to a man.
but its end is the way to death.
—Proverbs 14:12

The Hebrew words translated “pride” and “haughty” in Proverbs 16:18 both have to do with height, with being lifted up. The Bible says, in the book of Daniel, that the Most High God – that is his title – gave King Nebuchadnezzar glory and majesty. The Bible had no problem with that man holding world domination. But then it says, “When his heart was lifted up . . . so that he dealt proudly, he was brought down” (Daniel 5:20). The word translated “destruction” means a breaking, like a bone being shattered. It is painful. It hurts when our dreams are broken and our self-images are shattered. But God is in it. So it’s a healing blow. Here is a prayer God will never refuse: “Lord, keep me in your humility. Keep me down low before you, where I belong.” Humility is the safest place for every one of us. I find it good for me sometimes, when I pray, to get down on my face. Not even on my knees. Down on my face, as low as I can get. It’s contrary to my pride, but it’s where I belong before the Most High God. And it’s the place of blessing.

We need to be deliberate about this, because we don’t see our pride: “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes.” Pride feels normal. We trust in our own minds. We naturally feel innocent. We feel more sinned against than sinning, like King Lear. But what matters is not how we feel but where we’re going: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” The scariest thing about us is our glib self-assurance. We are not alarmed by ourselves. The onramps to the interstate of death have no warnings, no signs, no flashing red lights. We need God to tell us.

I had lunch with a research psychiatrist at a major university. We were talking about the human brain. He said our brains are basically simple, even primitive. Our brains sense positives and tell us to move toward the positives. And our brains sense negatives and tell us to move away from the negatives. But as fallen beings, our wires get crossed. Our very brains lie to us. Our brains sincerely experience negatives as positives, and we want to move toward them. And our brains sincerely experience positives as negatives, and we want to move away from them. One researcher arrives at this assessment:

Your unscrupulous brain is entirely undeserving of your confidence. It has some shifty habits that leave the truth distorted and disguised. Your brain is vainglorious. It’s emotional and immoral. It deludes you. It is pigheaded, secretive and weak-willed. Oh, and it’s also a bigot…. Yes, thanks to the masquerading of an untrustworthy brain with a mind of its own, much of what you think you know is not quite as it seems.

Paul called it “the flesh” (Romans 8:7), the very stuff we’re made of. And how do we escape the pull of that? It’s why we need to follow the Bible more than our own internal thought world. The Bible is a more reliable guide away from death and toward life than our own intuitions. The Bible warns us away from death that feels like life and toward life that sometimes feels like death. Which do you trust more – your hunches or the Bible? Humility before the Bible is a matter of life and death. That’s why humility matters.

How does humility behave?

Whoever despises the word brings destruction on himself,
but he who reveres the commandment will be rewarded.
—Proverbs 13:13

The ear that listens to life-giving reproof
will dwell among the wise.
—Proverbs 15:31

Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.
—Proverbs 28:13

The three key words are “reveres,” “listens” and “confesses.” That’s how humility behaves: it reveres, listens and confesses, in that order. First, humility reveres the Word of God, but pride despises it. Wherever you turn in the Bible, remind yourself, “God has a blessing for me here.” Never dismiss a single verse. Even if you don’t understand it, you can still say, “I don’t understand this yet, but I will not despise it. I will not dismiss it as irrelevant. This book is Jesus speaking to me, every word of it. I will swallow the Word whole, including the hard parts, out of reverence for him.” He will reward that humility with more understanding.

Secondly, humility listens to life-giving reproof. We have no obligation to pay attention to abuse. But wise reproof is life-giving. What is reproof? It’s correction. We don’t like being corrected. But we need our feathers ruffled. It gives life. When was the last time you said to someone you trust, “Help me see myself. How can I improve?” If you’re not in any relationship where you trust anyone enough to open up like that and then really listen, there is a reason. The reason is not that you can’t find someone good enough for you; the reason is your pride. But humbly listening to trusted correction is how we enter the community of the wise.

Thirdly, humility confesses and forsakes sin. We would rather save face. But it is so freeing to confess our sins, especially to one another! When we confess and forsake our sins, we obtain mercy. The word translated “mercy” is related to the Hebrew word for a mother’s womb. Why? Because God has a soft spot in his heart for sinners who open up and come clean. God envelops us in his tenderness and warmth, when we confess and forsake our sins. Let’s never confess one another’s sins and create a shaming environment. Let’s confess our own sins. Let’s never think as a church, “Thank God we’re not like those other churches” (see Luke 18:11). What arrogance! Let’s confess our own sins. The most significant thing I have ever read, outside the Bible, comes from Jonathan Edwards’ “Thoughts on the Revival”:

Spiritual pride tends to speak of other persons’ sins with bitterness or with laughter and an air of contempt. But pure Christian humility rather tends either to be silent about these problems or to speak of them with grief and pity. Spiritual pride is very apt to suspect others, but a humble Christian is most guarded about himself. He is as suspicious of nothing in the world as he is of his own heart. The proud person is apt to find fault with other believers, that they are low in grace, and to be quick to note their deficiencies. But the humble Christian has so much to do at home and sees so much evil in his own heart and is so concerned about it that he is not apt to be very busy with other hearts. He is apt to esteem others better than himself.

Do you know who ends up in hell? Everyone who sincerely believes they deserve heaven. Do you know who ends up in heaven? Everyone who sincerely believes he deserves hell but is saying to Jesus, “Be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Where can we find humility?

Christ Jesus was in the form of God, but did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. —Philippians 2:6-11

C. S. Lewis wrote that pride is “the complete anti-God state of mind,” and here we see why. Humility began in heaven. We didn’t invent it. The Son of God revealed it. We lift ourselves up. The Son of God stepped down. We make ourselves big deals. The Son of God made himself nothing. We measure out our obedience one inch at a time, to keep control. The Son of God became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, for you and me.

This humble God loves us proud sinners. He even wants to share his glory with us, and on terms of sheer grace. The only price we pay is the loss of ego. What a liberation!

What new step of self-humbling is God calling you to take, as you follow his Son? Whatever it is, he will honor you as you follow him. After humility, there is honor. After the cross comes a crown. Risk your everything on God’s faithful promise. He will be true to you.