Let me start with quoting this admonition from God’s Word:
1 Peter 5:5b-6: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.
Luke 14:11: For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Notice that there are promises given in these two passages for those who are willing to humble themselves. They will be lifted up and they will be exalted. No doubt the average person would not connect being humble with being lifted up and exalted, but this is the upside-down truth for us as followers of Christ. Living for Jesus is often swimming upstream as to what our culture would tell us. Frequently we are called to live counter-cultural lives but it’s not a call to a dreadful life or a weird life. It’s a call to be lifted; to find true lasting joy and even to be exalted, as Jesus told us.
We typically think that God is the one who exalts or humbles us. If we’re humbled or if we’re exalted, we think it will be God who does it. But Jesus said we must humble ourselves.
Have you ever intentionally tried to humble yourself? Is that something on your to-do list? “Today I will humble myself?” Very few Christians ever take this literally and seriously. But there is great benefit for those who do. In addition to being lifted up and exalted, here are some further promises for those who humble themselves:
- God gives you grace. James 4:6: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (ESV).
- God guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. Psalm 25:9: He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way (ESV).
- God crowns the humble with salvation. Psalm 149:4: For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation (ESV).
- With humility comes wisdom. Proverbs 11:2: When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom (ESV).
- You will be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 18:4: Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (ESV).
So, for all kinds of good reasons we should learn how to humble ourselves. But how do we do that? How do we humble ourselves when our natural instincts are to be number one? How do we humble ourselves when we fear that others will take advantage of us if we are humble? What does it mean to humble yourself and how do you do it?
First, let’s consider what it does NOT mean to be humble:
- It does not mean that you walk around with your head hung low, looking pitiful.
- It does not mean that you run yourself down.
- It does not mean that you cannot be ambitious or successful.
- It does not mean that you can’t be the best at what you do.
- It does not mean that you can never be number one
Furthermore, humility and ambition can co-exist very nicely. Look at some people in the Bible who were ambitious:
- Abraham was ambitious to go to a land where God was sending him, and God calls him the father of our faith.
- Noah was ambitious to build an ark that took over one hundred years to complete.
- David was ambitious to defeat Goliath.
- Esther was ambitious to save her people from extinction.
- Ruth was ambitious to save her mother-in-law and herself.
- Jesus was ambitious to do the Father’s will.
- The Apostle Paul was ambitious to spread the Gospel throughout the world.
Without ambitions and goals and visions, we don’t do anything—we perish! It’s not wrong to be ambitious and want to succeed. Here are three reasons every Christian should have great ambitions:
- We are created by God and from the beginning God had a plan for his creation. He told Adam to “Fill the earth and subdue it.” That is definitely ambitious.
- Jesus told us, his followers, to go into all the world and make disciples. That is an ambition every believer should take seriously.
- Paul wrote to the Ephesians that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works and God has planned good works for each of us. Every Christian should want to succeed in doing these good works.
When our ambitions grow out of this foundation, then we have godly ambitions, and those ambitions are good, they are not selfish, they are not all about us.
The Path to Greatness
I love this story about the time when the disciples were plotting who would be first in Jesus’ kingdom. You’ll find it in Matthew 20:20-28 (ESV):
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Here’s an ambitious mother wanting to make sure her sons got the best seats, and Jesus simply turns their idea of success upside-down. It was crazy then and it is still today—the way up is down. To be great, be a servant. But here’s the thing: It works! If you want to be exalted in God’s kingdom, then humble yourself.
Jesus didn’t scold his disciples for wanting to be great. He didn’t say, “You shouldn’t want to have the first place; you should be humble and let others be number one.” No, he told them that the way to be first was a different pathway. If you want to be the greatest in God’s kingdom, you get there by becoming a servant.
How to Humble Yourself?
Years ago as I read this passage about humbling yourself, I thought, I don’t know how to do that. And what does that look like in my everyday life? So, I prayed and asked God to show me how to humble myself. Here are some things he has taught me and keeps on teaching me.
- First, don’t talk about yourself so much. That one really got through to me, as I began to realize how often I could turn a conversation somehow to me, to what I’m doing, to what I’ve done, etc. So, I began to be aware of this, and intentionally ask other people about themselves, and really listen when they respond. I’ve worked on that a lot, and honestly now it’s much more automatic. So, this is a habit you can build into your life. Just determine to ask others about themselves, their lives, and don’t rush to talk about yourself. That is humbling—and guess what. It will immediately improve your relationships!
- Secondly, avoid being defensive. That’s hard to do, isn’t it? When someone is pointing a finger at me in some way or another, my first reaction is to defend myself. Learning to listen, not get defensive, ask a few questions, try to find out what’s behind it all—that is humbling. But it is also very smart!
- Don’t correct others unless necessary. When you hear someone saying something you know is not exactly correct, let it go unless there is a good reason to set it straight. Obviously sometimes you must correct others, but often there are little things that someone says that you know to be less than accurate, but if correcting them isn’t really necessary, just don’t.
I remember someone who was an English teacher and any time someone used incorrect English, she thought it was her job to correct them right then and there. You can imagine how well that went over. She was right, of course, but she won lots of battles and lost the war, if you know what I mean. She needed to learn to humble herself and let those things go.
- Let others go first. We have opportunities almost every day to humble ourselves this way. Something as simple as letting someone in front of you in the grocery store line. Or letting a driver into your lane when they are trying to move over. In fact, when you’re driving a car you’ll discover lots of opportunities to humble yourself! Just letting others go first—easy to do but sometimes you just have to humble yourself in order to do it.
- Be willing to do the thing nobody else wants to do. You know—those clean-up chores, those last-minute errands, those servant kind of things that can almost seem degrading. Humble yourself by choosing to do those.
Jesus said of the Pharisees: “They love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues” (Matthew 23:6; ESV). They didn’t understand this principle of humbling yourself. They wanted to be first.
So, as you start each day, each week, I would encourage you to make it a habit to ask God to show you how to humble yourself. Become intentional about exploring new ways to do this because the benefits are many. And mostly, you will be more like Jesus, and you will bless many others when you do.