By John Piper
What is humility and its opposite, pride?
In 1908, the British writer G. K. Chesterton described the embryo of today’s full-grown relativistic culture.
One mark of that culture is the hijacking of the word arrogance to refer to conviction, and the word humility to refer to uncertainty.
Chesterton saw it coming:
“What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason. … We are on the road to producing a race of man too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”
So, if humility is not the abandonment of conviction or the embrace of agnosticism and relativism, what is it? God has told us at least six things about humility.
1. Humility begins with a sense of subordination to God in Christ.
“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matthew 10:24). “Humble yourselves . . . under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6).
There is the fact: God is above. We are beneath. We are not worthy to untie His shoes. The distance between God and us is infinite. His greatness, His power, His wisdom, His justice, His truth, His holiness, His mercy and grace are as high above ours as the heavens are above the earth.
Besides the fact that God is above and we are beneath, there is the heartfelt sense of the fact. Besides truth there is the sinking in and the feeling of the truth. That is as crucial here as knowing the truth.
Do we feel this distance between God above and us beneath? Are we really humbled by it, or do we paradoxically even take pride in knowing that we have seen that it exists. Oh, how subtle is the creeping contamination of pride!
2. Humility does not feel a right to better treatment than Jesus got.
“If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:25).
Therefore humility does not return evil for evil. Humility does not build a life based on its perceived rights.
“Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, for you to follow in His steps. . . . While suffering, He uttered no threats, but handed [His cause] over to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:21–23 jp).
Much of our anger and resentment in relationships comes from the expectation that we have a right to be treated well. But, as George Otis once said to a gathering in Manila, “Jesus never promised His disciples a fair fight.”
We must assume mistreatment and not be indignant when we get it. This is what humility would look like. Peter (1 Peter 2:21–23) and Paul (Romans 12:19) give us great moral assistance in this difficult task by reminding us that God will settle all accounts justly and that temporary injustice will not be swept under the rug of the universe.
It will be dealt with—on the cross or in hell. We need not avenge ourselves. We can leave it to God.
3. Humility asserts truth not to bolster the ego with control or with triumphs in debate, but as service to Christ and love to the adversary.
“Love . . . rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6 NKJV). “What I [Jesus] tell you in the darkness, speak in the light. . . . Do not fear” (Matthew 10:27–28 NASB). “We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5 NASB).
If truth is precious, to speak it is a necessary part of love. And if truth is an instrument for salvation and sanctification and preservation and freedom and joy, then speaking the truth is an essential part of love.
“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). “[People] perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10 NASB).
Therefore, speaking the truth is service to Christ and love to others, even if they consider themselves your adversaries. This is clearest in the case of evangelism where you are accused of arrogance for telling the gospel to Muslims or Jews or Buddhists.
For example, I wrote an editorial for the Minneapolis Star Tribune (October 2, 1999) arguing that it was a loving thing for Christians to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ to Jewish people because “whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12).
Several clergy wrote to the paper and said, “Unfortunately, arrogant is the right word to describe any attempts at proselytizing—in this case the effort of Christians to ‘win over’ their Jewish brothers and sisters. Thoughtful Christians will disassociate themselves from any such effort.”
We must help one another stand against this kind of intimidation. In the name of humility, it attempts to call into question the heart of the gospel—that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation.
We must remind each other that to tell this gospel is not arrogant but loving.
4. Humility knows it is dependent on grace for all knowing, believing, living, and acting.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
“What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
“Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creation. . . . Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:18, 21).
Perhaps the clearest connection in the Bible between embracing the sovereignty of God and escaping from arrogance is found in James 4:13–16.
Here James says that what we believe about the overarching providence of God in the nitty-gritty of our daily planning governs whether we are “arrogant.”
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.”—James 4:13–16, NASB
Therefore, humility does the opposite. It submits moment by moment to the sovereign rule of God over our daily lives and rests quietly in the tough and tender decrees of God’s loving wisdom.
5. Humility knows it is fallible and so considers criticism and learns from it, but it also knows that God has made provision for unshakable human conviction and that He calls us to persuade others.
“We see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12 NASB).
“A wise man is he who listens to counsel” (Proverbs 12:15). “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Corinthians 5:11).
“These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:15 NASB).
We do not know everything. And what we know, we do not know with perfect balance and comprehensive completeness.
But God has revealed Himself in Christ and in His Word. He means for us to humble ourselves under the objectivity of this revelation and embrace with conviction what He has said.
By the blood of the Lamb and by the word of our testimony, we may conquer the devil, if we love not our lives even unto death (Revelation 12:11).
6. True humility senses that humility is a gift beyond our reach.
If humility is the product of reaching, then we will instinctively feel proud about our successful reach. Humility is the gift that receives all things as gift. It is the fruit not of our achievement but of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
It is the fruit of the gospel, knowing and feeling that we are desperate sinners and that Christ is a great and undeserved Savior.
JOHN PIPER (@JohnPiper) is the founder and teacher of Desiring God and the chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary. Excerpted and adapted with permission from Brothers, We Are Not Professionals by John Piper. Copyright 2013, B&H Publishing Group.