Can a Hermit Be Humble?

Dwight’s rules about Christian virtues:

  1. Be humble about your own virtues.
  2. This starts with being humble about your humility.
  3. Etc.

Paul’s first words as he summarizes his ministry to the Ephesian elders:

“You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I cam into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility…” (Acts 20:18-19 NIV)

What gives? Here are some observations:

  1. There is a time to urge others to imitate our own Christ-imitation. Paul did it regularly and is clearly doing it in this passage.
  2. Perhaps…. perhaps the word humility here would be better translated as humiliation. Or, better (after I check the NT usage of this Greek term), perhaps as willingness to experience humiliation.

This translation suggestion fits with Paul’s next words: “and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents.” Paul’s ministry involved much public humiliation, especially in a shame-and-honor culture where public expressions of respect were much more important than in our own culture. This When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity Buy on Amazon suggestion also fits with what I think Jesus was saying when he urged his listeners to humble themselves as little children (Matt. 18:4). In that case, I doubt that Jesus was pointing to an inner attribute of humility that children may or may not possess. I’m not sure that children in the ancient world were admired as models of virtue as they sometimes are today. Rather, I think Jesus was referring to the humble social status of children in the ancient world; we should be willing to be treated as nobodies, just as children were treated. (A fascinating book by O.M. Bakke led me to this conclusion: When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity.)

Humility, I suggest, is more about relating to others (outer) than about personal feelings (inner). Humility, like love, only occurs in relationship. It is hard for a hermit to experience humility.

The word translated humility in Acts 20:19 often occurs in the NT alongside other distinctly relational (rather than merely personal) virtues: gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love (Eph. 4:2); considering others more important than yourselves (Phil. 2:3); and compassion, kindness, gentleness, patience (Col. 3:12). Peter shows this relational aspect of humility most clearly: “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Pet. 5:5).

Sometimes the same Greek word is used negatively, of self-abasement or asceticism. In these contexts (Col. 2:18, 23), the relational aspect is significantly missing. This is a false humility that remains insular and ingrown, preoccupied with personal visionary experiences and self-imposed religious piety, distancing itself both from Christ the head and from his body, the Church. True humility is preoccupied with serving others, rather than with personal virtue, piety, or appearance.

So, what about when I am asked to speak in church? Or serve as a friend’s wedding coordinator? Or to serve as church song leader? Or fill some other role of public leadership? How should I respond?

True humility, it seems to me, will see these invitations as opportunities to serve, not opportunities for self-exaltation. Thus, true humility will be eager to say, “Yes, I’m willing to do that”–without immediately needing to list reasons why someone else should do it instead, without worrying about personal humiliation in case of failure, and without worrying whether such willingness might be thought arrogant by others. Paul, after all, proved his humility to the Ephesian elders by describing how hard he worked in his public ministry of preaching and teaching! He proved his humility by public action, not merely by attitude or by attempts to avoid being noticed.

So when I am asked to fill some public role, I want to reach out in service and relationship rather than withdraw as a pious hermit. And if there is unseen service for me to do, I want to do that, too. To the extent that I am imitating Christ, I urge you to imitate me!

Do you have insights about living together humbly in Christ’s Church? Serve us by sharing them in the comments section below.


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8 thoughts on “Can a Hermit Be Humble?”

  1. “Humility, like love, only occurs in relationship. It is hard for a hermit to experience humility.” This is a fascinating and powerful observation. I heard a speaker (Darrell Hershberger) say recently that “Humility is inherently social.” Thank you for your words!

  2. Great post – I think over time it becomes increasingly apparent to those around us whether or not we have this sense of humility towards service/giftings/etc. The presence, or lack thereof, of true humility will have a huge impact on the effectiveness of our attempts to serve.

    A few questions:
    1. How does this apply to volunteering for positions that involve serving publicly? Assuming that there was a need for volunteers in the first place.
    2. How should this inform our responses to positive (or negative) comments from others regarding our abilities, their enjoyment of a talk we delivered, etc.

    1. Good thoughts, Jordan–and good questions. I think the fact that humility is (a) about relationships and (b) focused on serving will make a big difference in how we think about volunteering and about how we respond to praise. If our focus is not on ourselves but on meeting the needs of others, then we should feel free to volunteer when there is a real need. It won’t make a difference either way whether it’s public speaking or cleaning toilets–the only criteria will be that someone needs to be served, so we are willing. And again, in responding to praise (or criticism), if our heart concern is wanting to serve others, we won’t inflate or deflate no matter what the response.

      Another question is how to have this eager/humble/servant attitude without starting to believe that we are indispensable. I suppose the answer there is (again like Paul) to continually see ourselves as junior partners co-laboring with Christ, who is doing the heavy lifting. In all it is his strength at work, for his glory.

  3. Great post, Dwight! I find that humility is something that needs to be continuously self-evaluated. Without knowing it, I can start living for the praise of others, whether it be through their actual praise or through me fitting into what I think they want. Remaining God-centered and others-focus goes against every fleshly habit in relating to others.

    1. I like your thoughts and identify with the ongoing need for self-evaluation. Your words make me think… I think humility is an overflow from a heart full of love. I suspect that if we focus on growing in love, humility will follow. The two are intimately connected, for example, in Philippians 2, in the description of Christ’s descent.

  4. VERY good insights! Humility being relational, so clear but so often not practiced. Our interpersonal or social humility can only be real if our humility in our relationship with God is working properly.
    Considering humility in the service of the church, we do well to remember that if God has given and gifted us for His service, as Ephesians 4:1-16, it is for the well-being and the ‘improvement’ of the Body to the glory of God. Hard to take sometimes, but a gifting is never about ‘ME’.

    1. “A gifting is never about ‘ME’.” Exactly. Somewhere King David had a similar insight. (I forget the reference.) He recognized that God had made him king for the sake of the nation of Israel, for their well-being.

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