Character Traits of the Spiritual Life: Humility

  Character Traits of the Spiritual Life:



Richard Hollerman 

It has been said that humility is “recognizing and acknowledging my total dependence upon the Lord and seeking His will for every decision.”  It is “realizing that we ourselves are nothing, but we are everything in Christ.”[i][i]  In the Greek world, the word tapeinos was considered a shameful state and was considered an attitude of contempt.  “To be low on the social scale, to know poverty, or to be socially powerless was seen as shameful.”[ii][ii]  The way of Christ saw it much differently.  The noun tapeinos means “low-lying” and the verb tapeinoo means “to make low.”[iii][iii]  Should we ever deliberately seek to be low lying and how should we view those who are made low?

Our Lord Jesus sets the tone of our attitude.  He says, “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:12; cf. Luke 14:11; 18:14).  James says the same: “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).  “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you” (v. 10).  We must humble ourselves before God and this will enable us to be humble before others.  Peter emphasizes the same virtue, connecting our humility before other believers with our humility before God: “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.  Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (1 Peter 5:5-6).

We can see that God values our humility, but he despises any pride in our heart.  This is even found in the Old Testament.  Proverbs conveys this quality of humility: “Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD; assuredly, he will not be unpunished” (16:5).  Pride can lead to our ruin: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (v. 18).  Pride defiles the heart (Mark 7:22-23) and is worthy of death (Romans 1:30, 32).  Micah 6:8 says, “He [God] has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

What we need is a proper assessment of ourselves.  It has been said, “Thinking too little of yourself is false humility and is just as wrong as thinking too much of yourself.”[iv][iv]  Therefore, Paul writes, “I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3).  We need to see ourselves as God sees us.  We also need to humble ourselves before those who are lowly, rejected, and despised.  Paul admonishes us, “Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly.  Do not be wise in your own estimation” (Romans 12:16).

Another point worth noting is that we have nothing to boast about, for all of our worth comes from the Lord.  Paul asks, “Who regards you as superior?  What do you have that you did not receive?  And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).  This is why it is an abomination for one to take pride in his intelligence, his grades, his performance, his physical abilities, his appearance, and every other possession that we think we see.  God is the Giver and we cannot boast in our abilities and possessions, for they are gifts from His bounty.  This is pride—and we are to be humble in our view of such things.  “The fear of the Lord is the awareness that we are continually in the presence of the Lord.  Thus, humility and the fear of the Lord are interdependent.”[v][v]

Dwight Moody spoke of the experience of Moses.  He said that “Moses spent forty years in the king’s palace thinking that he was somebody; then he lived forty years in the wilderness finding out that without God he was a nobody; finally he spent forty more years discovering how a nobody with God can be a somebody.”[vi][vi]  Until we are humbled and realize that we are nothing without the Lord, we cannot be where God can use us for His glory.

How can we humble ourselves?  These are a few suggestions that may be offered: (1) Welcome critics—bless those who curse you. (2) Volunteer for menial tasks. (3) Ask others about blind spots. (4) Express gratefulness. (5) Listen to others instead of talking about  yourself. (6) Kneel in prayer. (7) Let authorities make final decisions. (8) Ask forgiveness for wrongs you have done. (9) Praise and honor others. (10) Take time for prayer and fasting. (11) Give sacrificially. (12) Give testimony of God’s grace. (13) Deflect praise. (14) Be a servant.[vii][vii]

Let’s ask several questions that will reveal something of our humility or pride:

  • Do you allow others to take a higher position than you?
  • Are you willing to take criticism without reaction?
  • Do you ever boast about your position, appearance, possessions, and accomplishments?
  • Do you take pride in what you can do?
  • Are you honest about your failings and deficiencies?
  • Do you try to look better than others by your clothes?
  • Do you look down at others who are beneath you?
  • Do you seek forgiveness of others when you recognize that you have sinned against them?

As in so many other virtues, a chief motivation for us to be humble is to follow the example of Jesus.  He said, “I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29).  He willingly placed Himself under God His Father and was submissive to Him in all ways.  Further, Jesus went so far as to humble Himself before His disciples when He washed their feet in the upper room (John 13:3-17).  Our Lord said, “I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27).  Paul connects our need for humility with Christ’s demonstration of this virtue.  He puts it this way:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves. . . . Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant [slave], and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:3, 5-8).

The point that the apostle makes is this: We are to be humble ourselves since Christ Jesus demonstrated absolute humility by emptying Himself and humbling Himself to the point of death on a cross.  Because of this, it is reasonable that we must be “humble in spirit” (1 Peter 3:8) and should walk with “all humility” (Ephesians 4:1-2; cf. Colossians 3:12).  The only way to be saved is to have an attitude of repentance and humility.  Jesus explained, “Unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4).  Will we pursue this childlike humility?


[i][i] Ibid., pp. 113-114.

[ii][ii] Richards, Expository Dictionary.

[iii][iii] W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary.

[iv][iv] The Power of True Success, p. 113.

[v][v] The Power of True Success, p. 115.

[vi][vi] Kyle and Todd, A Treasury of Bible Illustrations, p. 216.

[vii][vii] Ibid., p. 116.


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