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The Pharisee and the Publican by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
The Pharisee and the Publican by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
The Pharisee and the Publican - unknown artist
The Pharisee and the Publican - unknown artist
Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son


Humility: The Eleventh Knightly Virtue

Humility is a difficult quality for men to get their hearts around, because in Western cultures, we're so full of chutzpah. When we think of real men, we think of courage, strength, endurance - the qualities of a good athlete; or for godly men, we think of faith, integrity, purity - the qualities of a good Christian. But we don't think of humility. Yet God requires humility to receive anything from Him. Without humility, we might as well close up shop and go home.

The Bible says that "pride goes before a fall" and "humility comes before honor." (Proverbs 15:33, 16:18 and 18:12) In other words, if you want to fail, be prideful; if you want to succeed, be humble. God also adds (and you'll remember this line from the movie Chariots Of Fire, right before the big race), "Those who honor me, I will honor..." (I Samuel 2:30a) Even in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ promises that "the meek shall inherit the earth."

So here's my question: if humility is so important, why do we let it slip through our fingers? Why don't we pursue it with a vengeance, the way we do everything else we value? I mean, it's guaranteed, like gold! You strike humility and you've hit pay dirt! You're rich!

In spite of the value of humility in God's economy, there is nothing any of us struggle with more than pride. That is my number one sin, and I'll bet it's yours as well. The minute we do something right, we think God should move over and share His throne with us - that's how full of chutzpah (or maybe something else) we are!

You know what the main difference between people is? Some do more things right than others (or they think they do), and so they struggle more with pride. That's pretty much it. The main difference between you and the Apostle Paul is that he probably did more right things than you do, and because of that, he also probably struggled more with pride. That's why God gave him a "thorn in the flesh" - to humble him from all that pride. (II Corinthians 12:7)

When we do something right, we become conceited and start trusting in ourselves. That turns off the hose of God's grace - not completely, but enough - and we fall. After that, if we humble ourselves, He forgives us and picks us back up. Then, by His grace, we do something right again, we become conceited again and we fall again. It goes on and on, like a never-ending see-saw. That is the story of the Children of Israel, it's the Christian's story as well, and it's insane.

Pride is the height of insanity; humility is the pinnacle of wisdom. If you know a prideful person, they're insane. If you know a humble person, they're wise. Anyone that says that humble people are stupid is stupid himself. He doesn't see the spiritual gears that run the Universe. All he sees is his own animal appetites. God takes care of the humble, not only in this life, but in the one to come. "The first shall be last and the last first." (Matthew 19:30, 20:16; Mark 9:35, 10:31; Luke 13:30) If you're trying to push your way to the top, stop for a moment and think about what you're doing. You're working for something you cannot keep.

Jim Elliot, the famous Christian martyr that died in the jungles of Ecuador trying to save the blood-thirsty natives, once wrote in his journal, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." What are you working for? That which you cannot keep? Pride will whip you senseless in the endless pursuit of that which does not last. Humility, on the other hand, will gently coach you on to everlasting riches.

I wish I could cut the pride out of my heart like the cancer it is. But it's not that simple. God has a process He wants to take us through, as He did the Apostle Paul. Paul prayed three times that God would remove his "thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan" that was harassing him - but He refused. (II Corinthians 12:8,9) God may use something that we hate and despise to accomplish His purpose in our lives. I think that's especially true of pride. Pride is such a despicable quality in God's eyes that He may use something equally despicable in our own to tear it down. This can be a very painful process; but if the end result is a humble person, it's worth it. Remember: the meek shall inherit the earth.

Jesus revealed something very telling about humility in one of His most poignant parables:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14)

Look at how these two men prayed. Their prayers revealed their attitudes. One was self-righteous, the other humble. But how did they get that way? One thought he was something, the other knew he was nothing. God will show you that you are nothing if you humble yourself, just as He showed the Apostle Paul that he was nothing. (II Corinthians 12:10) When we are nothing, Christ is everything. When we are weak, then we are strong in Christ. He wants to sit on the throne... by Himself! Let Him! It's to our own best advantage.

When I was in Junior Hi School, I was just like that Pharisee. I trusted in myself that I was righteous, and I looked on every other kid my age with contempt... though I didn't realize it. I was a "good boy," and they were bad... though I was the one always getting into trouble! I was going to Heaven, and they were going to hell if they didn't change. How can a twelve-year-old boy think that way? Because I was taught by the Church and my parents that if you don't cuss, you're good, and if you do cuss, you're bad; if you don't look at dirty pictures, you're good, and if you do look at them, you're bad; etc. Yes, the Church did a very good job teaching me how to hide my own sins from God while magnifying the sins of others. And I've struggled with that ever since.

"Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you." (James 4:9,10) Humble yourself in prayer, the way James describes here, and the way the tax collector demonstrated in Jesus' parable, and God will lift you up.

"Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves." (Philippians 2:3) Instead of thinking how great you are, start thinking how great others are, and tell them so. Every time you start to climb on the throne, tell yourself, "That's not where you belong." Control is a beautiful thing... if you want to be last in the Kingdom of Heaven! Remember: the meek shall inherit the earth.

Do you remember how Jesus humbled Himself with His disciples, even to the point of washing their feet? After He performed this service, He said to them, "Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them." (John 17:12-17) If you want to be humble, start serving other people, the way Jesus did. Be willing to do the most menial, the most demeaning task - not just teaching and singing in the choir.

There's a guy in my church named Gene. He's always there, making coffee, bringing food that he picked up at some bakery, taking sick people to the doctor, greeting new people at the front door. Gene's got rough hands from working outside his whole life (he loves to garden), and he loves to hug people - probably because he didn't get hugged much growing up. Gene's not an elder and he's not a deacon; but he's probably the most Christian man in our church. He always has time to say "hey," to ask how you are, and to listen to your answer.

Even as I write these words, pride is welling up inside me, saying, "Look at what you've written! Look at how clever you are!" How sick. I'm not clever, because without Christ, I could do nothing. Christ said that about Himself, that He could do nothing without God's help. (John 5) How much more does that apply to me! (John 15) If it weren't for God, we would all be nothing and we could all do nothing, ultimately, except kill each other, the way Cain did Abel. Because, ultimately, that's where jealousy and pride lead.

If we know that pride is so destructive - so vain - why are we so easily drawn into it? It has to be because, deep down inside, we want to be god. We want to take credit for everything in the Universe, to be worshipped, to sit on the throne, to be in control. That is the essence of the First Commandment. We don't have to make a golden calf and fall down and worship it to break the First Commandment. All we have to do is be lifted up with pride - and most of us do that every day!

"God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"


Waitsel Smith, September 14, 2010


[Send me yours and I'll include them on this page.]

Just wanted to let you know, I shared this post and blog as a whole with my congregation. We are working through a series entitled “Be happy” which walks through Philipians…We are challenged to surround ourselves with things that help us grow as Christians and ultimately help us to live happy…As part of a new column in our program/e-news, entitled “Share happy,” I shared your blog. Thanks for your engaging and interesting perspectives on christianity (and the cool classic film stuff)! God bless and Be happy! - Michelle

Great post. Your quote of Jim Elliot’s most famous saying reminded me of a great new book I read a while back – “JIM ELLIOT: A Christian Martyr Speaks to You” by Russell. It really helps the reader understand the mind and the commitment of this Christian historical figure. - Butch

Text © 2010 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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