Defining Humility

I was taught—and for a long time I believed—that true humility was the absence of any thought of oneself. By definition, then, a person who was practicing humility could never be aware of it.

Sounds very spiritual and all, but a quick survey of the New Testament reveals a problem with this notion.

1 Peter 3:8 (NASB) …be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit;

1 Peter 5:5 (NASB) …clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.

Ephesians 4:1-2 (NASB) walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience…

Colossians 3:12 (NASB)  So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…

James 1:21 (NASB)  Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.

Does God’s word repeatedly issue a command that we can never be aware of obeying? Does God expect conformity to an attitude that can’t ever be consciously adopted? Is it even likely that such an elusive and nebulous concept would be included in these very practical exhortations to relational decency?

Paul certainly sees no conflict between self awareness and humility.

Acts 20:18-19 (NASB) “…You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility…”

It seems we can both choose to be humble, and recognize when we have done so.

So what is humility really? I think the best practical definition I have heard is this: an attitude that rightly reflects my relationship with God. Or…seeing myself (as much as I am able) as God sees me.

Some recent conversations have made me realize that even with this definition, my understanding of humility has been seriously lopsided. That’s because my approach was solely negative. I tried to be humble by reminding myself of what a worm I was.

God is big and I am small. God is merciful and I am wretched. Were it not for him, I could do nothing. Apart from him, I would not even exist.

All of that is very true. And I do well to remember that Jesus’ sacrificial act of love on my behalf is the only means by which I could be saved. That is foundational and that is amazing. But you know what else is amazing?

God wanted me to be saved.

God created humankind with the all the capacities necessary for a relationship with himself. He also created humankind in such a way that each person would have a unique identity and a unique set of qualities and characteristics. Why? I believe he intended to share a unique, intimate relationship with each person.

God’s desire is to know, love, enjoy, and appreciate you and me forever. Each of us is of inestimable value to him.

Salvation is not a begrudging favor—it is evidence of the great worth of a human soul.

Someone wise once told me that we cannot know the depths of what God sees when he looks at us. When he looks at our hearts he sees all the filthy, corrupted, selfish, evil, malicious motives that we, ourselves, don’t even recognize. He sees plenty of room for improvement. But he also gazes upon all that is beautiful and redeemable within us. He sees the worth, the potential, the value. He sees the things that will remain when we are no longer fettered by sin and corruption. He sees who we are and who we can be.

A proper view of my relationship with God assumes two things: That I am utterly dependent upon him and that I am of great value to him.

When my identity is secure in the knowledge that I am precious to God, I don’t have to run around trying to prove to myself or anyone else that I am worthwhile. Listening to God when he tells me who I am is what makes me humble. When I do that, I have no need to chase after validation; I am free to live and love and serve with the assumption that being me is a good thing—that when I offer myself, I am offering something beautiful.

This isn’t the absence of self-awareness. This is neither haughty arrogance nor forced self-abasement. This is a meek and gentle confidence. This is value and dependence embracing each other. This is humility.

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6 thoughts on “Defining Humility”

  1. This is a wonderful post. It really makes you think about practicing humility. Much like any other discipline, we must choose it.

    I found your blog through the Fellowship of Devotional Bloggers.

  2. “I am free to live and love and serve with the assumption that being me is a good thing—that when I offer myself, I am offering something beautiful.”
    That releases us to fully serve, to be truly interested in another’s well-being instead of being worried about ourselves.

  3. I have also struggled with concept of humility. I used to think it meant being a door mat for others. I now think it involves remembering our need for God and seeing ourselves as accurately as we can. That of course includes our negative traits and our positive traits. God gave us gifts in order for us to use them to minister onto others. If we only see the negative traits, we miss the gifts that God gave us to benefit the body of Christ.

    1. Thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts. And you are right–humble, willing service is not the same as being a doormat! Your contribution to the body and to the world is precious and valuable!

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