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What does the Bible say about humility?

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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Chris Elkins: Greetings. I’m Chris Elkins with the Denison Forum, and I’m here today with Dr. Jim Denison to talk about an interesting subject: What does the Bible say about humility? First of all, we probably need to start off with some definitions about what is true humility.

What is humility? What isn’t humility?

Dr. Jim Denison: I think that’s really a place to start. Because, for a lot of us, part of the challenge is understanding what this is and what it isn’t.

I went a lot of my Christian life thinking that humility meant denying any compliments that anybody paid, or pretending that something I’d done well had not been done well, that sort of thing. Because the last thing I wanted to be was proud, you know.

And so I really think false humility kind of takes those two forms. The first one is a little bit of dishonesty, where someone says, “You did a great job,” and you have to find some way to demean the job. You did kind of pretend that it wasn’t what it was, that sort of thing. That kind of dishonesty we all know isn’t really true, doesn’t ring true. But we don’t want to be proud. And so we try to find some way to depreciate what we’ve done.

The other way is to be deceptive. And that is to pretend to be humble. When we’re really not but inside we know better, when others really kind of know better as well. And we’re using humble language. Really, that’s not the case: we’re really pretty proud of what we’ve done. And very proud of that. They told us that they appreciate what we’ve done. And so we’re struggling to look to be humble.

It’s the old joke about the guy that writes the book, Humility and How I Perfected It. It’s kind of a sense that we’re proud of our humility, as it were. And that’s obviously not what the Bible has in mind when it calls us to humility as well.

What is true humility? How do we attain it?

I’ve struggled with that over the years, like so many people have, just to try to get a sense of that. C. S. Lewis has been a help to me is in so many subjects. He said phrases like, “Chewing gum—it’s not bad to chew. But be careful not to swallow it” is kind of the idea. And I think what’s inside, this sense that humility comes when I compare myself not to others, but to the Lord, and to his standard for me, as long as I’m comparing myself to other people, I can almost always find somebody that I feel superior to, whether I should feel that way or not. It’s just kind of the way it is.

And you feel like there’s somebody that’s further down the ladder, and you can kind of look down at them. And C. S. Lewis says, “When you’re looking down, you can’t look up.” And so if you’re going to compare yourself to other people, with regards to who you are, or what you’ve done, there’s always going to be somebody that you can feel really proud in relationship to.

But if you compare yourself to the Lord, and to God’s intention for you—if you’ll compare yourself to what God means to what God wants your life to look like—then you’ll always know that you have further to go.

At the same time, you can be grateful for where you are. You’re not being dishonest about the good things that you’re doing and the gifts God has given you. You’re not being deceptive about your humility, but at the same time, you’re recognizing the source of your personal worth. You know that it’s not you, you know that it’s God’s gifts. It’s God’s provision. It’s God’s opportunity. Even the hard work that you do with the gifts you have, this is God’s privilege. To be able to do that every day is the gift of God. Your next breath is the gift of God. To grow up in America, not Sudan, is the gift of God—with the challenges that so many are facing today, or North Korea, or someplace where you didn’t deserve not to be born.

And so to recognize that your gifts, your abilities, your opportunities, come from God, and compare yourself to his standard for you, I think, is the essence of humility.

So the best way to get there is to do it in prayer. Say, “Lord, show me where I’m taking credit for what you’ve done. Show me where I’m being falsely humble. Show me where I’m being deceptive or dishonest. Help me to compare myself to your standard for me and be grateful for where I am. And, at the same time, be humble about where I’m not and about where I still need to go.”

Years ago, a very wise mentor said to me, “The closer you get to God, the further away you realize you are.” And I think that’s really true.

Is humility essential to the Christian life?

I think it is on a couple of levels.

One: if I’m not willing to humble myself before God and admit how much I need him, he can’t give me what he wants to give because I’m not willing to receive it.

He can’t lead those who won’t follow. He can’t heal someone that won’t be healed. A surgeon can’t operate on someone that won’t allow the surgeon to operate. A pilot can’t fly you someplace if you won’t get on the airplane. If I’m not willing to humble myself enough to admit that I need more of God and I need to grow in who I am and where I am, God can’t give me his best for my life.

I think about my boys when they were young, and they would do these plastic swordfights together, and inevitably one of the swords would break.
And they would want me to fix the sword. But they didn’t want to stop playing with it long enough for me to fix it. They’d have to give it to me before I could fix it, with duct tape or whatever I was using.

Well, I’m that way with the Lord way too often. I want God to fix things, but I’m not willing to submit it to him enough for him to fix it. I’m not willing to humble myself enough to admit that I need what only God can give.

So the first reason humility is so important is it positions us—it doesn’t earn anything from God, we don’t press God with our humility—but it positions us to be led to be forgiven, to be empowered, to be used to be blessed to receive God’s best for our lives.

And the other answer that comes to mind is that humility is essential to Christian witness, as well.

One of the real downsides of living in a culture as secularized as ours is that it’s pretty easy for people even listening to this conversation or watching this video to feel more spiritual than other people, to feel perhaps more moral than somebody else. We see acts of immorality in the news and we feel ourselves superior to that. We feel that, because we have a relationship with God—other people may not have that—somehow, there’s something better about us or what not.

And that kind of pridefulness is as off-putting as anything we could do. It’s as destructive to our witnesses as anything I can imagine. The last thing lost people want is to be told that they’re not as good as us, this kind of better, holier-than-thou sort of elitist attitude and spirit that we can get about ourselves is absolutely disastrous.

First of all, it’s not true. We’re beggars helping beggars find bread. And second, it absolutely is an obstacle to people knowing that they need Jesus because we need Jesus.

And so to me, the key again is to every day say to the Lord, “Lord, help me to see myself as you do. Be the source of my personal worth. Remind me today. Father, help me to walk today in dependence that’s grateful for what I have and humble about who I am.”

And recognize that it all comes from the God who is the giver of every good and perfect work.

I close with John the Baptist whose mantra in John 3:30 challenges me every time I think about it, and it’s a word that I would encourage us to adopt as our own mantra for our lives. John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

If that will be our prayer, our commitment, our motto, our standard for life, the Lord will honor that. Other people will see God in us and through us, and God will be glorified.

So I would encourage you to join me in making that your commitment today.

He must increase, but I must decrease, to the glory of God.

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