Jesus is the reason to stop concentrating on ourselves.
Innumerable Christmas devotionals
point out the humble circumstances of Jesus' birth—among shepherds, in
a crude stable, with a feed trough for a bassinet. When Jesus himself
tried to summarize why people should take up the yoke of following him,
he said it was because he was meek and humble (Matt. 11:29).
Seldom, however, do we explore the full implications of how Jesus'
radical humility shapes the way we live our lives every day.
Humility is crucial for Christians. We can only receive Christ through meekness and humility (Matt. 5:3, 5; 18:3-4). Jesus humbled himself and was exalted by God (Phil. 2:8-9); therefore joy and power through humility is the very dynamic of the Christian life (Luke 14:11; 18:14; 1 Pet. 5:5).
The teaching seems simple and obvious. The problem is
that it takes great humility to understand humility, and even more to
resist the pride that comes so naturally with even a discussion of the
We are on slippery ground because humility cannot be
attained directly. Once we become aware of the poison of pride, we
begin to notice it all around us. We hear it in the sarcastic, snarky
voices in newspaper columns and weblogs. We see it in civic, cultural,
and business leaders who never admit weakness or failure. We see it in
our neighbors and some friends with their jealousy, self-pity, and
And so we vow not to talk or act like that. If we then
notice "a humble turn of mind" in ourselves, we immediately become
smug—but that is pride in our humility. If we catch ourselves doing that
we will be particularly impressed with how nuanced and subtle we have
become. Humility is so shy. If you begin talking about it, it leaves.
To even ask the question, "Am I humble?" is to not be so. Examining
your own heart, even for pride, often leads to being proud about your
diligence and circumspection.
Christian humility is not thinking less of yourself; it
is thinking of yourself less, as C. S. Lewis so memorably said. It is
to be no longer always noticing yourself and how you are doing and how
you are being treated. It is "blessed self-forgetfulness."
Humility is a byproduct of belief in the gospel of
Christ. In the gospel, we have a confidence not based in our
performance but in the love of God in Christ (Rom. 3:22-24).
This frees us from having to always be looking at ourselves. Our sin
was so great, nothing less than the death of Jesus could save us. He had to die for us. But his love for us was so great, Jesus was glad to die for us.
Grace, Not Goodness
We are on slippery ground when we discuss humility,
because religion and morality inhibit humility. It is common in the
evangelical community to talk about one's worldview—a set of basic
beliefs and commitments that shape the way we live in every particular.
Others prefer the term "narrative identity." This is a set of answers
to the questions, "Who am I? What is my life all about? What am I here
for? What are the main barriers keeping me from fulfillment? How can I
deal with those barriers?"
There are two basic narrative identities at work among
professing Christians. The first is what I will call the
moral-performance narrative identity. These are people who in their
heart of hearts say, I obey; therefore I am accepted by God. The second is what I will call the grace narrative identity. This basic operating principle is, I am accepted by God through Christ; therefore I obey.
People living their lives on the basis of these two
different principles may superficially look alike. They may sit right
beside one another in the church pew, both striving to obey the law of
God, to pray, to give money generously, to be good family members. But
they are doing so out of radically different motives, in radically
different spirits, resulting in radically different personal characters.
When persons living in the moral-performance narrative
are criticized, they are furious or devastated because they cannot
tolerate threats to their self-image of being a "good person."
But in the gospel our identity is not built on such an
image, and we have the emotional ballast to handle criticism without
attacking back. When people living in the moral-performance narrative
base their self-worth on being hard working or theologically sound,
then they must look down on those whom they perceive to be lazy or theologically weak.
But those who understand the gospel cannot possibly
look down on anyone, since they were saved by sheer grace, not by their
perfect doctrine or strong moral character.
The Stench of Moralism
Another mark of the moral-performance narrative is a
constant need to find fault, win arguments, and prove that all
opponents are not just mistaken but dishonest sellouts. However, when
the gospel is deeply grasped, our need to win arguments is removed, and
our language becomes gracious. We don't have to ridicule our opponents,
but instead we can engage them respectfully.
People who live in the moral-performance narrative use
sarcastic, self-righteous putdown humor, or have no sense of humor at
all. Lewis speaks of "the unsmiling concentration upon Self, which is
the mark of hell." The gospel, however, creates a gentle sense of
irony. We find a lot to laugh at, starting with our own weaknesses.
They don't threaten us anymore because our ultimate worth is not based
on our record or performance.
Martin Luther had the basic insight that moralism is
the default mode of the human heart. Even Christians who believe the
gospel of grace on one level can continue to operate as if they have
been saved by their works. In "The Great Sin" in Mere Christianity,
Lewis writes, "If we find that our religious life is making us feel
that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I
think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the
Gracious, self-forgetful humility should be one of the
primary things that distinguishes Christian believers from the many
other types of moral, decent people in the world. But I think it is
fair to say that humility, which is a key differentiating mark of the
Christian, is largely missing in the church. Nonbelievers, detecting
the stench of sanctimony, turn away.
Some will say, "Phariseeism and moralism are not our
culture's big problems right now. Our problems are license and
antinomianism. There is no need to talk about grace all the time to
postmodern people." But postmodern people have been rejecting
Christianity for years, thinking that it was indistinguishable from
moralism. Only if you show them there's a difference—that what they
rejected wasn't real Christianity—will they even begin to listen again.
Get Your Fresh Humility Here
This is the place where the author is supposed to come up with practical solutions. I don't have any. Here's why.
First, the problem is too big for practical solutions.
The wing of the evangelical church that is most concerned about the
loss of truth and about compromise is actually infamous in our culture
for its self-righteousness and pride. However, there are many in our
circles who, in reaction to what they perceive as arrogance, are
backing away from many of the classic Protestant doctrines (such as
Forensic Justification and Substitutionary Atonement) that are crucial
and irreplaceable — as well as the best possible resources for humility.
Second, directly talking about practical ways to become
humble, either as individuals or as communities, will always backfire.
I have said that major wings of the evangelical church are wrong. So
who is left? Me? Am I beginning to think only we few, we happy few,
have achieved the balance that the church so needs? I think I hear
Wormwood whispering in my ear, "Yes, only you can really see things
I do hope to clarify, or I wouldn't have written on the
topic at all. But there is no way to begin telling people how to become
humble without destroying what fragments of humility they may already
Third, humility is only achieved as a byproduct of
understanding, believing, and marveling in the gospel of grace. But the
gospel doesn't change us in a mechanical way. Recently I heard a
sociologist say that for the most part, the frameworks of meaning by
which we navigate our lives are so deeply embedded in us that they
operate "pre-reflectively." They don't exist only as a list of
propositions, but also as themes, motives, and attitudes. When we
listen to the gospel preached or meditate on it in the Scriptures, we
are driving it so deeply into our hearts, imaginations, and thinking
that we begin to instinctively "live out" the gospel.
So let us preach grace till humility just starts to grow in us.
Tim Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, and author of
The Reason for God.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today.
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