There is a story about Sir David Edgeworth, the Australian geologist and explorer, who accompanied Ernest Shackleton on his expedition to the South Pole at the turn of the century. During the South Pole expedition, Sir Edgeworth's assistant, Douglas Mawson, was working in his tent one day when he heard a muffled cry from outside.
"Are you very busy?" called the voice, which Mawson recognized as that of Sir Edgeworth.
"Yes I am," he replied. "What's the matter?"
"Are you really very busy?"
"Yes," snapped Mawson, losing his patience. "What is it you want?"
After a moment's silence, Sir David replied apologetically, "Well, I'm down a crevasse, and I don't think I can hang on much longer."1
A humble attitude. Is it really important? Albert Schweitzer was visiting a certain city, and some people were awaiting him at the train station. But he was not to be found among the first-class passengers. So they waited while the second-class passengers disembarked. Still no Schweitzer. Finally, they saw him coming out of the third-class compartment, carrying his own suitcase.
"Why on earth do you travel third-class?" they asked him.
"Because there is no fourth-class!" he replied.2
What's the big deal about humility? Well, one of the most fundamental aspects of salvation in Christ, of being a Christian, is the change that takes place in one's attitude. And an important trait of that changed attitude is humble thinking or a voluntary humility. It is the absence of bragging or pride or superiority. It is the foundation of the Christian's life to not value himself or herself above others. Humility means to never think we are superior to or more righteous than others.
In Romans 11, Paul talks about the Jews being broken off because of unbelief and the Gentiles finding salvation because they believed. Join me in looking at several verses in Romans 11 where there are several important clues to the author's instruction for how to lead a Christian life.
Romans 11:17-18: And if some of the branches were broken off (he's talking about the Jews), and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. Also, look at verses 20-22 with me. Romans 11:20-22 ... Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. And then verse 25: Romans 11:25, For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.
Paul is simply cautioning his Gentile Christians from becoming proud that they have salvation and the Jews do not. You've probably noticed that sometimes the perception of being right makes us hard to live with. It's true. As Peter Marshall once prayed, "Lord, when we are wrong, make us willing to change. And when we are right, make us easy to live with."
Going on to Romans 12, we see that it is just a continuation of Paul's instructions to
these new Christians, many of them Gentiles. Romans 12:1-2, I beseech you
therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living
sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be
conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you
may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. What we
have here in Romans 12 is Paul's counsel to Christians who could at some point stop
trusting in God's kindness. Don't let that happen, he says. The idea that he is trying to
get across is, Continue in the grace of God. Go all the way. Give not just your mind, but
also your body to be a living sacrifice for God. In other words, as Eugene Peterson says
it, "Take your everyday, ordinary life your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and
walking around life and place it before God as an
He is actually making a play on words here that if we translated it more literally would not be good English. But here it is. See if you can follow this. He is charging them "not to be highminded beyond what one ought to be minded, but to be minded so as to be sober-minded." It's a strong warning against overestimating oneself. And it's the practical result of a renewed and transformed mind, in which humility and sober- mindedness play an important part. Verse 3 is Paul's practical counsel on how to actually begin a life of consecration to God.
First off, he tells them (and us today), Do not value yourself more highly than you should. Be honest in your estimate of yourselves. Do not misinterpret yourself as someone who brings goodness to God; No, it's the other way around. God is the One who brings goodness to you. In fact, the only way we can truly estimate ourselves is by who God is and by what God gives us, never by what we are or by what we accomplish for God.
It is interesting to note that after verse 3 Paul launches into a discussion of spiritual gifts. What is interesting about that is that the practice of the spiritual gifts is an outgrowth of humility. It means to have a realistic assessment of the faith and abilities God gave you. Being a Christian is like being put on the witness stand and we are compelled to tell the truth, "the whole truth and nothing but the truth." That truth is that God is to be glorified, not ourselves. We are not the good news, God is.
Therefore there is no reason to be proud, or conceited. Pastor David Gockley, on the occasion of his retirement of 25 years with Religion in American Life. He described retirement as going from "Who's Who" to "Who's That?" And he said that he remembered seeing a cartoon in a magazine that showed a guy bowed in prayer. "God, can you help me, but sort of make it look like I did it all myself?"
The reality is that our value in the body of Christ doesn't come from anything we can do, but from what God does for us. What's the bottom line in all of this? Humble thinking is fundamental for Christian living and behaving. It is the key to growth as a Christian because pride shuts God out of the heart. God doesn't exist in the heart of the proud. Humility is actually the anchor to the spiritual gifts. Without it, spiritual gifts become a tragic abuse of God-given abilities. But with humility, there is harmony within the body of Christ; there is a harmonious working together of the spiritual gifts, because everyone is doing his or her part and no one is usurping the role of someone else. No one is attempting to maneuver, manipulate, control, or elevate themselves at the expense of others in the church. No one will be out to "change" the church, but to change themselves and to love each person with respect for their individuality and freedom of choice.
Humility is the foundation for true fellowship because pride separates. Pride says, I'm above you. Humility says, I'm with you.
There was a disciple of Tolstoy that was a wealthy aristocrat whose name was Chertkov. Tolstoy once reprimanded him for traveling first class, suggesting that he should go second-class to demonstrate his humility. So on his next journey the obedient Chertkov hired an entire second-class coach all for himself.5
Pride separates and elevates oneself. But humility says, I'm with you. W. E. McCumber hit the nail on the head when he wrote: "God is not waiting for people to get big enough to use, but to get small enough in their own eyes for Him to entrust with His mission and Spirit.
"Christ cannot be represented by swaggering leaders who "lord it over" the flock of God. He cannot be represented by puffed-up laymen who nominate themselves as church bosses.
"[God] can be honestly manifested only in the lives of those who feel, as did Paul, that they are 'less than the least of all saints.' "6
Humility tells us that we ourselves are not God's gift to humanity or even necessarily God's gift to the church. The gospel tells us to be transformed in our thinking and in our relating so that we can be what God made us to be without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with someone else or trying to be someone we aren't. I like how the Message translates Romans 12:14-16, Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they're happy; share tears when they're down. Get along with each other; don't be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don't be the great somebody.
Vietnamese evangelist To Dihn Trung was arrested and beaten by the police. After his beating, the officers threw him in jail. His crime? Sharing the Gospel with the local K'Ho tribe. While in jail, Trung began preaching to the other inmates. Finally, after six months, outside pressure from believers around the world forced the Vietnamese government to release Trung. But he refused his release. So many men in the prison were coming to Christ that Trung decided to stay there and serve out his full sentence. As he said, "I don't care about my own life. The most important thing is that I complete my mission, the work that the Lord Jesus gave me to tell people the good news about God's grace."7
You could actually say that humility means a certain kind of self-forgetfulness. With it, we focus on God's mission and not our own rights. Paul's own humility was clear. He said in 1 Corinthians 15:9, I am the least of the apostles. In Ephesians 3:8, I am the very least of all the saints. And in 1 Timothy 1:15, I am the foremost of sinners. It's the influence of the gospel of God's love and kindness in Christ that changes the way we think; it changes our attitudes. May God bless us with that change and transformation everyday.
1. Fadiman, ed, Bartlet's Anecdotes: (see http://anecdotage.com/index.php>aid=13862.
2. See http://danielfry.com/index.php?id=755#_Toc57100048.
3. See Romans 12:1, The Message, by Eugene H. Petersen.
4. NY Daily News, Religion Section, p. B-14, Charles Bell.
5. M. Scammel, Alexander Solshonitsyn: A Biography, (see http://www.anecdotage.com.php?aid=4979.
6. W.E. McCumber, a Conference on Servanthood, Herald of Holiness 69 (Aug 1,1998), .18.
7. Jesus Freaks, (Tulsa, OK Abury Publishing, 1999), pp. 181-182.
Hymn of Praise: #82, Holy, Holy, Holy Scripture: Exodus 34:29-32 Hymn of Response: #316, Live Out Thy Life Within Me
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last updated February 28, 2006 by Bob Beckett and Eric Koester.