EVERY AUTHOR KNOWS THE JOY of holding the first copy of their newly published book. It’s not quite the same thing as holding your baby for the first time, but it’s close.
This was my experience. I had just received my first copy of Gospel Powered Humility. I was excited, so I called my editor to express my joy and ended the conversation saying that I hoped it would sell.
“Bill, I don’t want you to get too excited. This book will probably sell very slowly.”
“How come?” I asked with concern.
“People buy books based on felt need,” he continued. “You have written a good book, and we published it because we believe in it, but nobody has a felt need for humility. Everyone already thinks they are humble.”
He was right. Pride is a set of spiritual blindfolds. We are born with them. Theologians call them Original Sin. They blind us to the spiritual world and our real relationship with it. The first reality pride keeps us from seeing is our own sin, and especially the sin of pride. That is why a proud person will think that he or she is humble.
Humility slowly removes the blinders. Humility is the growing ability to see God as he really is, and myself as I really am. The first thing a person growing in humility sees and hates is their pride. Only this person will be motivated to pursue resources on humility.
For this reason, proud people think they are humble, but humble people believe they are proud. (Read that again and let it sink in). The humble Christian sees their pride and hates it. By contrast, the proud Believer believes that he or she is already humble. They have little need for books on humility or articles like this.
The Essential Pastoral Virtue
For this reason, scripture constantly commends humility. “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5). This virtue is especially crucial for elders. Why? Because a group of elders pursuing humility will produce churches pursuing humility. It is an oxymoron to think proud elders will create a humble church. It doesn’t work that way.
The pursuit of humility matters because it is the seedbed for all the other spiritual fruits, i.e. “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). This means that humble elders are most apt to produce churches abounding in spiritual fruit. Think of the first three—love, joy, and peace. Their members will go out to others in love. You will feel the joy when you enter the sanctuary on Sunday morning. A profound peace will pervade all. The pride that causes strife and contention will be markedly absent.
Since fruitful congregations glorify God, and humble elders produce humble congregations, and humble congregations are fruitful, it is obvious why humility is such an critical pastoral virtue.
For these reasons, and more, the Bible puts an incredible emphasis on humility—often without using the word. Here are some examples.
Humble Believers have low thoughts of their wisdom, competence, and cleverness. “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise” (1 Corinthians 3:18).
Humble people feel their need for spiritual knowledge. Pride causes us to boast in our knowledge. “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2). Real knowledge humbles the student. It convinces he or she that they are relatively ignorant of the only knowledge that ultimately matters—God and eternal things.
Neither does humility locate its identity in its ministry. “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). And, “If anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:3). We that minister in God’s vineyard are merely bondservants doing his bidding. We are stewards faithfully carrying out assigned tasks. Humble elders point people away from themselves to God.
Humility never thinks itself too important to associate with the lowly. “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight” (Romans 12:16).
Humility elevates the thoughts, ambitions, and needs of others. It values them more than its own. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3).
For these reasons and more humility sensitizes us to our personal sin. This was Paul’s experience. At the end of his life he wrote , “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1Timothy 1:15).
Is that how we feel?
Growing In Humility
Since pride is spiritual blindness, and we are all born in this condition, how can leaders grow in humility?
Humility is not a fruit that we can paste onto our spiritual tree. Like all spiritual fruit, it grows and ripens slowly, much slower than we would like. It is a lifetime project, a byproduct of the Holy Spirit’s illumination. It is a gift. We get it by reading the Bible, confessing our pride by faith—even when we don’t see it—and begging God for the spiritual illumination that makes him big and us small.
Most importantly, we get humility by looking at Christ. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). What is Christ’s “image?” Christ is humility incarnate. His cross was its culmination. “He humbled himself becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Watch Christ. Meditate on him. Think about him. Worship him, and you will grow in humility.
The parallel for elders is simple: focus your congregation on Christ by preaching the cross. Your people will grow in humility.
We also get humility by persevering through failure. Think about Peter. He was not usable until he had denied Jesus three times (John 21:15ff).
Eleven Analytical Questions
The fruits of pride are well known. Amongst other is the inability to receive correction, the rush to self-defense, the unwillingness to suspect myself, talking rather than listening, demanding rather than yielding, bragging about my strengths, unnecessary critical speech, contentiousness, considering myself more important than others, finding my identity in my ministry, and unwillingness to trust others enough to delegate to them.
If you are an elder, here are some questions that will help your growth in humility. Start by reading these questions to your spouse and ask for her critique. Listen carefully without defending yourself. If she is honest, it will probably hurt. You will need great restraint.
Then ask your fellow elders these same questions. Put them on an anonymous worksheet. Ask the brothers to score each question with a number from 0 to 10, with 10 signifying humility and 0 signifying pride. Don’t respond to their critique. Just listen and pray for God’s grace to grow in humility.
- When confronted about my sin, do I immediately suspect that you are right, or do I rush to defend myself?
- Do you feel free to correct me, or because you fear my reaction, are you unwilling to be honest with me?
- When in a disagreement am I better at listening or talking?
- During our elders’ discussions on secondary issues, am I better at yielding or demanding?
- When I make a mistake, I am better at asking forgiveness or doubling down in self-justification?
- Do I find it easier to talk about my weaknesses or my strengths?
- During our elder’s meetings am I often unnecessarily critical of others or do I speak graciously?
- Do I habitually consider the needs of the other elders and this church more important than my own?
- Am I contentious and argumentative about things that don’t matter?
- By knowing and watching me, do you think I find my identity in my knowledge and spiritual gifts or my membership in God’s family?
- Do I find it difficult or easy to trust others enough to delegate to them?
I trust you aren’t thinking, “I wish so and so would read this.” That might suggest that you have the blinders on.
Spiritual fruit glorifies God.
Humble pastors produce humble congregations.
Humble congregations are fruitful.
Therefore, humility is the crucial virtue for spiritual leaders.
The church will generally imitate the humility of its elders.