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Both humility and pride are difficult to define. But define them we must, as nothing is more deadly to Christian spirituality than pride and nothing more needed than humility. Continue reading . . . 

Both humility and pride are difficult to define. But define them we must, as nothing is more deadly to Christian spirituality than pride and nothing more needed than humility. We know this from numerous biblical texts, one of which is James 4:6-7. There we are told that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble and for that reason we should “submit” to him. We are told, similarly, to “humble” ourselves “before the Lord, and he will exalt” us (v. 10).

Perhaps the best way to get hold of what James means by telling us to “humble” ourselves is by thinking about the nature of pride. I’ll be brief. Simply put: pride is when all of life is all about self! Here are a few ways in which this sin is expressed.

(1) The proud person is self-satisfied.
(2) The proud person is self-sufficient.
(3) The proud person is self-congratulatory. Pride takes credit for what only God can do.
(4) The proud person is self-referential. That is to say, the proud person loves being praised, loves it when the attention is pointed in his/her direction, loves to be the topic of everyone’s conversation. Be very careful and cautious around people who make much of their humility! Such folk loudly proclaim their lowliness and then expect others to praise them for it! They are quick to make known their failures and their humility but react with strong protest if someone in private should suggest that their claims to humility are feigned and superficial.
(5) The proud person is self-reliant. Pride cannot trust God. Trust feels too weak. It feels too dependent. It redirects too much attention away from oneself and to the strength and wisdom of another. Trusting God is the heartbeat of humility, the opposite of pride.
(6) The proud person is self-defensive, especially when it is suggested he might be proud! When persecuted or crossed or slandered or attacked, the proud person is angrily defensive of his actions and largely oblivious to all personal failures.
(7) The proud person is self-righteous.

So when we ask, “What does James mean by humility”, the easy answer would be to embrace the opposite of each of the seven characteristics of pride. Yes, by all means do that! But let me put a bit more substance into the concept of humility. Again, let me mention 7 features of true humility.

(1) An essential element in humility is the willingness to allow others to say about me in public the very things I readily acknowledge before God in private.

(2) The key to humility is a sincere and passionate acknowledgement of and submission to the sovereign grace of God. In 1 Corinthians 4:7, Paul writes: “For who sees anything different in you? 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?” Humility should always be in direct proportion to one’s grasp of grace. Pride is the fruit of the lie that what I have I didn’t receive. Humility is the fruit of the truth that everything is of God (see also John 3:22-30, esp. vv. 27 and 30).

(3) Perhaps most of all, humility is being like Jesus: “I am gentle and lowly [or humble] in heart” (Mt. 11:29; Phil. 2:5-11). The measure of Christ’s humility was his “compassion” (Col. 3:12a). Proud people don’t love the unlovely very well. The measure of your humility is the degree to which you happily embrace the unembraceable, touch the untouchable, and love the unlovable. Humility is measured by how you treat those who can do nothing to advance your cause.

(4) The truly humble person is devastated by the smallest expression of depravity but nearly oblivious to great progress in goodness and obedience. The truly humble person is always looking not at what he/she has attained, even if it be by divine grace, but at the goal for which his/her soul is striving. The truly humble person does not evaluate himself by what he has already achieved, but by what he is still aiming for. Therefore his holiness and maturity will always appear small because it is compared with where he’s going, not where he’s been.

(5) The truly humble person does indeed make great progress in the knowledge of God, but with that spiritual growth comes an increase in our knowledge of our sin and how vast is the discrepancy between what we know and what we ought to know, between what we love and ought to love. The point is that as we grow in grace and knowledge and love of God it simply serves to shine an even brighter light on our corruption and failure to properly honor God. When the humble person does recognize progress and purity in his life, he’s truly stunned by it.

(6) The truly humble person will never consider any act to be beneath his dignity. Even if the act brings him lower than he has ever experienced before, he will always regard it as higher than he deserves.

(7) True humility is never noisy, especially about itself. If you are inclined to say, "No one is as sinful and depraved as I am," be careful that you don't think yourself better than others on this very account. Be careful lest you develop a high opinion of your humility. In essence, if you find yourself thinking often of your humility, it is likely that you have little of it.

Such is pride. Such is humility. But why should we care? We should care because as James said 4:6, “God opposes the proud.” We should care because he also said that God “gives grace to the humble.” We should care because he tells us James 4:10 that if we do turn away from pride and humble ourselves before the Lord, “he will exalt” us.

James is talking about what will happen on the day of final judgment when the humble will be rewarded and the proud will be put down. The truly humble will receive praise and honor from the only One who matters!

Humility can be very costly in the present. Humility requires that you openly and honestly acknowledge your mistakes, your shortcomings, and your sins. It means being willing to do tasks that others regard as beneath them. It means serving without expectation of acknowledgment or praise or reward or even being noticed. It means living in such a way that you are always exposed to the possibility of being looked down upon. As someone has said, “the truly humble person always runs the risk of losing face.”


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