Murray Gow


Whoever writes on the topic of humility must necessarily be aware of their own shortcomings in humility. This may be why humility is rarely discussed today.


Humility is seen as an important characteristic of the people of God in both the Old and the New Testaments. Modern secular Western culture, however, stresses self-realisation, self-development, self-assertion - it has little patience with the idea of humility. Often the church uncritically buys into the attitude of secular culture so that it too stresses self-development, rather than selflessness.

The ancient Greeks and Romans regarded humility negatively as a servile quality, yet they did recognise that there is such a thing as hubris - a person can get altogether too big-headed and need to be brought down to earth. Thoughtful Christians have recognised that humility is more than just the absence of hubris - humility is a positive quality and is foundational to the Christian life. Bernard of Clairvaux referred to humility as the 'mother of salvation'. St Augustine said, "The whole of the Christian religion is humility" and Martin Luther regarded humility as the joyful acceptance of God's will.

Attempts to define Humility

Humility is a strange quality; the claim that one possesses it is certain evidence that one does not! Focusing on our own humility is apt to put it to flight. As CS Lewis's Screwtape counsels the junior devil, Wormwood: "Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware he has them, but this is especially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, 'By Jove! I'm being humble,' and almost immediately pride - pride at his own humility - will appear.

"If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt - and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don't try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed."

Screwtape goes on to speak of the necessity to "conceal from the patient the true end of humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely a low opinion) of his own talents and character."1


Three things humility is not:

Humility is not a sense of inferiority

Feelings of personal inadequacy are not the same as Christian humility. A person who feels inferior may be just as self-centred as the most egotistical bighead. AW Tozer says "Self, whether swaggering or grovelling, can never be anything but hateful to God. Boasting is an evidence that we are pleased with self; belittling, that we are disappointed in it. Either way we reveal that we have a high opinion of ourselves."2

Says JD McKenzie, "Humiliation makes a man look down on himself, whereas true humility makes the individual look up to God."3

Humility is not to beconfused with passivity

When faced with a difficult situation we may need grace to accept it, but sometimes the situation needs changing - calling for a more active response. How do we know which response is appropriate? Is the situation we wish to change a genuine evil or simply a matter of personal inconvenience? The real key to knowing how to act is in recognising the call of God.

Moses rightly identified an evil - the oppression of his people - but his murder of the Egyptian had an element of presumption - he took on himself the task of delivering God's people. Forty years later, God called Moses to the task for which he had been preparing him. Deliverance is God's work, not man's.

Humility should not be confused with false modesty

Our response to praise may be an important indicator of whether we truly understand the nature of humility. As John Adair puts it, "Acceptance of proper recognition gracefully is a sign of humility, just as false embarrassment at praise suggests its absence."4 A quiet 'thankyou' is usually the best way to respond to praise, followed by an acknowledgment of the contribution of others if there has been a team effort. Christians should always recognise that we are what we are through the grace of God.


Three attitudes which indicate the presence of genuine humility:

Humility involves a right attitude towards God

When we recognise that God has claims on our lives and that we are dependant on him, we are on the road to discovering humility. Speaking of the meaning of humility in the Old Testament, Stephen Dawes says, "we can see humility as an attitude towards God, self and others which is positive and life-affirming. It consists of a recognition of one's dependence upon God and a willingness to submit oneself to him, a realistic assessment of one's own character and ability with a curbing of undue ambition, and a regard for others with a willingness to give oneself in service to them. Pride, by contrast, is a refusal to recognise the sovereignty of God, an exaggerated assessment of one's own worth and an overbearing attitude towards others."5

Humility involves a realistic assessment of ourselves

As John Adair puts it, "Too often humility in people is not renunciation of pride but the substitution of one pride for another - being proud that they are not proud. Humility simply means to make a right assessment of oneself."6 The Apostle Paul counselled the Romans; "For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement" (Rom 12:3).

We should also recognise that any gifts and abilities we have are just that: gifts, given by God - we are not self-made. Many problems arise in leadership when leaders lack sober, honest assessment of their own abilities. An overbearing attitude towards others may be the result either of a sense of personal insecurity, or of an overgrown self-confidence.

Humility prepares us to serve others

Being prepared to serve others is the litmus test for genuine humility - especially when our service is not noticed or acclaimed. It is difficult for Christians to avoid the implications of Jesus' teaching that leadership involves service, and greatness involves even greater service. When James and John sought a place of honour in the Kingdom, Jesus gave the disciples a lesson saying that among the Gentiles, rulers lord it over their subjects, and those who are great act as tyrants. He told them, "it is not to be so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:43-45).

Witnessing for Christ

Christian humility will give us the right attitude to listen to and speak to the non-Christian world. God gave us two ears, two eyes, but only one mouth and one tongue. We should learn from this the need to watch and listen carefully before we speak. One of the reasons Francis Schaeffer enjoyed considerable success as an apologist was that he had the ability to listen very carefully to the concerns of the non-Christian before he attempted an answer.

Moreover, we should beware of the temptation to appear clever. James Denney put it succinctly, "No man can at once give the impression that he himself is clever and that Jesus Christ is mighty to save."

The primary prerequisite for Christian leadership

These days there is considerable emphasis on the need for leadership in the church. This is not an illegitimate concern, but it should be tempered with a recognition that leadership training is potentially dangerous for a variety of reasons.

Any training that produces a self-serving leadership has missed the boat. Leaders who lord it over the flock are truly a disgrace to their Lord and Master. What is more, an over-emphasis on leadership may detract from developing the ministry of the whole church.

Humility is the antidote. James 4:6-10 shows us that humility coupled with submission to God is necessary before God can exalt a Christian: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you."

When commenting on James 4:10, Calvin cites Augustine, "As a tree must strike roots downwards, that it may grow upwards, so everyone who has not his soul fixed deep in humility, exalts himself to his own ruin."

1 Peter 5:1-6 tells the elders they should "not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock" while the younger are to accept the authority of the elders. But "all of you must clothe yourselves in humility in your dealing with one another". Mutual submission is required among Christians and self humbling before God can exalt us. Peter also emphasises the importance of trusting God.

Clement of Rome, writing to the Corinthian church about 96AD, holds Christ up as a model for leaders. "Christ is with them that are lowly of mind, not with them that exalt themselves over the flock. The sceptre [of the majesty]

of God, even our Lord Jesus Christ, came not in the pomp of arrogance or of pride, though he might have done so, but in lowliness of mind, according as the Holy Spirit spake concerning him."7

In his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell correctly notes that leadership should not be confused with management, with being an entrepreneur, with having the right knowledge, with being a pioneer, even with having the right position. He says, "Leadership is influence - nothing more, nothing less."8

He also goes on to point out that in organisations like the army, leaders have power based on rank. In a business the boss has leverage over his employees based on payment of salary and other benefits. But in volunteer organisations positional leadership is ineffective. Only people who have influence can operate effectively. In this sense, the church should be seen as a voluntary society so we need to recognise that influence is vital for leadership in the church.9

But we also need to qualify this viewpoint. Without influence a leader will be ineffective, but influence alone does not make for Christian leadership. After all, the leader who had the greatest ability to influence in the 20th Century was probably Adolf Hitler, yet his leadership proved deadly. A leader needs other qualities, such as good judgement and good character. But the bottom line for truly Christian leadership is service, not influence, and to be a servant, one must begin with humility.10

The dangers of training leaders

It is important that people are trained to be leaders, but it is also a risky process. Two prominent Christian missionary leaders have queried the very idea. Bishop Steven Neill said:

"If we set out to produce a race of leaders, what we shall succeed in doing is probably to produce a race of restless, ambitious and discontented intellectuals. To tell a man he is called to be a leader is the best way of ensuring his spiritual ruin, since in the Christian world ambition is more deadly than any other sin, and, if yielded to, makes a man unprofitable in the ministry."11

J Oswald Sanders also refers to Lesslie Newbigin's questioning of the idea of training leaders because of danger that the church will produce just the opposite - the non-Christian counterpart. Recent history gives a good example of such a failure. Where did Stalin receive his early training? - in seminary - something that should be a scary thought for those involved in ministry training!

"The Church needs saints and servants, not 'leaders', and if we forget the priority of service, the entire idea of leadership training becomes dangerous. Leadership training must still follow the pattern our Lord used with his twelve."12

This is why humility is so important. If we claim to follow Christ, then we must display humility, and it is humility that will save us from taking on the world's values in the way we lead. Christ led by rendering humble service ­ he washed his disciples' feet; indeed, he gave his life for them and for the world.

True greatness

Thomas à Kempis put it well: "He only is truly great, who has great charity. He is truly great who deems himself small, and counts all height of honour as nothing. He is the truly wise man, who counts all earthly things as dung that he may win Christ. And he is the truly learned man, who does the will of God, and forsakes his own will."

If we want to see true greatness modelled, then we see it most clearly in our Lord and Master who gave his life in humble service.



1 CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters No. 14

2 AW Tozer, Man: The Dwelling Place of God, 1966, p. 71

3 Cited in D Prior, Perils of Leadership, p. 35.

4 John Adair, Effective Leadership Masterclass (Pan, 1997, p. 89)

5 Expository Times 103 [1991] 73-74

6 John Adair, Effective Leadership Masterclass pp. 85-86

7 1 Clement 16 ­ in support he cites Isaiah 53.

8 JC. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Nelson, 1998, p. 17)

9 The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership pp. 11-20

10 Two books which focus on the service aspect of leadership, are Robert K Greenleaf, Servant Leadership (Paulist, 1977) and C Gene Wilkes, Jesus on Leadership (Tyndale House, 1998)

11 Cited in JO Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, OMF, p. 148.

12 Sanders, ibid p. 148, summarising Newbigin's article in International Review of Missions April, 1950.

| Top | Home | Back to Index of Issue 40