Humility in Essence: Part I

by Joseph Gill

What is greatness? We all possess some concept of greatness, whether or not we could recite a definition. Our minds paint a picture of greatness when the word or idea of it comes up. Moreover, in some degree and in some way, we all long for greatness. We want to be admired; we want to be respected; we want to wield influence.

As a result of the Fall, our default definition of greatness is shaped by the world and basically boils down to power. Those who are great are revered (even if not especially liked,) and are abler than lesser ones to assert their will. This is done over their own lives and circumstances, and over the lives, thinking, and/or behavior of others. There arose One, however, many years ago, on the far side of the Earth who procured to Himself and His followers the constant scorn and displeasure of the fallen world. He did this because he dared to insist that the world's great ones really weren't so great after all. He declared that the world's concept of greatness was completely absurd; haywire; wrong-side-up. This One, whom the world despised, was less than the least, by the world's definition: ironically, He was actually the greatest of the great according to the only definition that really matters. That One, of course, was Jesus.

In his short book, Humility: True Greatness, C. J. Mahaney offers an accessible and practical digest of Jesus' counter-cultural concept of greatness, which, as the title suggests, finds its essence in humility, rather than in power. In a handful of short chapters, Mahaney addresses the motives to humility, the key to humility, and some immediately usable tools for its cultivation.

So, what's so great about humility? It gets attention, that's what: but not so much from the world, as from God.

This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (Isaiah 66)[1]

God…gives grace to the humble. (James 4)

If God notices you and shows you favor, who else's opinion finally matters? What makes humility such a grand thing, in Mahaney's words, is that "[t]here's something you can do to attract…God's gracious, undeserved, supernatural strength, and assistance! … This is the promise of humility. God is personally and providentially supportive of the humble."[2]

On the flip side of this coin, consider the all but measureless adverse effects of pride. Pride is an inestimably powerful destructive force. It can contaminate the soil in which the Word is meant to take root, and thus cut a revival short. It can split a church, causing the body to attack itself as if it had an auto-immune disease. It can render leaders unfit for service and even derange the shepherds into injuring the sheep they were charged to guard. While humility attracts God's favor, He absolutely detests pride. We do not hate anything as much as God hates pride; it is not passive-aggressive hate, either. God trains His guns on the proud. The previously omitted text of James 4:6 says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."

Insistence in pride doesn't only mean we don't get humility's blessings but also subjects us positively to the force of God's wrath. There's no middle ground, either. We cannot opt for neither humility nor pride; it simply doesn't work that way. Pride is like a stubborn weed: epidemic, prolific, and challenging to eradicate. If the fruit and flower of humility are not proactively cultivated, and pride rooted out, pride will readily sprout un-looked- and un-worked-for in humility's absence. If we are not pursuing humility, pride will invariably flourish in the neglected garden of the heart. "The real issue here is not if pride exists in your heart, it's where pride exists and how pride is being expressed in your life." (Mahaney, p.29) Pride can rear its ugly head and cause all manner of havoc at any time and under any circumstances. Don't underestimate it! It is the grandfather of all sin and lies at the core of every sinful act.

In the next post, we'll look more closely at the "essence of humility," and identify the indispensable key to growth in this grace of the Spirit (that word, grace, is a clue, though.) In the meantime, consider buying and reading Mahaney's book.

Reflection Questions

  • How would you define greatness? Where do you think your concept of greatness came from? Who or what were the main influences in the shaping of your idea of greatness?

  • What is your initial reaction to the notion that the key to greatness is, not power, but humility? How does that conflict with your own definition of greatness?

  • Who's opinion fuels your sense of self-worth? How concerned are you, how much do you care, really, that God should "notice" you?

  • Do you feel that you hate pride like God does? It's easy to be annoyed with pride we find in others. What is your attitude toward your own pride?




[1] I have intentionally not put verses because I think reading verses make a lot more sense in light of the whole passage.

[2] (C. J. Mahaney (2005) Humility: True Greatness Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, p.21)