Dwight’s rules about Christian virtues:
- Be humble about your own virtues.
- This starts with being humble about your humility.
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:
- 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.
- 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 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.