“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Yesterday we talked about one of the great paradoxes of the Christian worldview. This was Jesus’ declaration that if we want to save our lives, we must be prepared to lose them. Our conclusion then was that even though these two ideas sound contradictory, they are nonetheless both completely true. This morning we’re going to look briefly at another paradox of the faith. This one appears in various places throughout the Old and New Testaments, so there were multiple different passages we could have looked at. This one from James has a context that puts a little more fire behind the observation. Let’s talk about the greatness found in humility and a good example from a man named, Ted.
Humility isn’t really a top shelf virtue these days. We live in a day of rampant self-promotion. Social media fuels this trend, is probably to blame for it, and makes it worse all the time. Now, outright egotism isn’t popular at all, but more subtle ways of advancing our personal brand aren’t at all considered taboo. I mean, sure you can get a little too aggressive with it, but if you don’t do it, who else will?
No, we live in a world in which something a whole lot more closely related to pride is the more common feature. Still, at least in this culture, we are sufficiently Christ-haunted that humility is given a touch of lip service, but it is much more likely to appear as a humblebrag than real humility. We want all the benefits of appearing humble without actually being humble. Of course, the reason for this is that we don’t know what humility really is any longer.
Humility is often portrayed, taught, and thought of as essentially refusing to toot our own horn. Even if we have done something great, if we are going to be humble about it, we aren’t going to tell anyone about our contribution. We’ll let other people take credit we deserve. We’ll think less of ourselves than we might otherwise normally be inclined to do. And again, considering this common understanding of humility, it’s no wonder it isn’t very popular nowadays. In a culture that is turning away from its moorings in the Christian worldview people need to have something by which they can define themselves and feel like they have a purpose. Humility, understood this way, eliminates many of the most common options to which we might otherwise turn.
The trouble is, this isn’t at all what humility is. Using bad cultural definitions of words that leave us thinking in ways that are disconnected from the reality of the concepts we are trying to imagine won’t help us. True humility is not about thinking less of ourselves. It is about being honest with ourselves. Humble people are honest about who they are, who God is, and they’re willing to live comfortably within the boundaries of those two truths.
If God is who He says He is, and if He thinks about me the way He says He thinks about me, then I don’t need to look to anyone or anything else as a foundation for my sense of self-worth. I can be perfectly confident in His love and live my life in light of that. I can love you without fear and work to advance your interests even if that comes at the expense of my interests because I know I have a God who has my back and will make sure my needs are met even if I can’t see how that is going to happen in a given moment. I can be content with what I have and where I am even if it appears to others around me that I’m not in a very good place. This doesn’t mean I stay in a bad place unnecessarily, but I also don’t look for hasty exits simply because I don’t like it in a moment. I serve Him and by that the people around me until He calls me somewhere else. If I happen to be good at something, I can talk about that honestly without fear of giving into pride because I know where the ultimate ability to do whatever it was came from and it did not come from me. And when I discover faults (or have them pointed out to me by someone else), I can own them without shame because I know Jesus took all my shame on Himself on the cross. I certainly don’t sit in a place of sin or live into my faults, but rather I give them to Him, graciously receive the helpful criticism of the people around me, and work with the Spirit’s help to do better. When I am criticized and abused by others, I don’t have to let it get to me or leave me thinking less about myself because, again, I know who I am and whose I am. My confidence in His love means their words don’t have any power that I don’t give them.
For folks who manage to hit such a mark as this, they shine like bright lights in a dark sky. They bring flavor to and preserve the world around them. They broadcast God’s character in a way that draws others to Him. Of course He is going to put them in positions where more and more people can see them and be impacted by them for the sake of His advancing kingdom. When you are humble, then you will be exalted. If you try and exalt yourself, however, you will eventually be brought down. You are building a tower atop a house of cards. One wrong breeze and the whole thing will collapse.
My town is grieving this week. A man who was officially called our Town Ambassador, but who most people knew simply as “Ted,” passed away this week. Theodore Roosevelt Lilly, Jr. was a special guy. He didn’t have a lot. His mind didn’t quite work the way most people’s do. He was just the kind of person the world tends to overlook, demean, and doubt. He was humble by force of reality more so than a conscious choice. But in his humility, he showed a whole town what it looked like to be great. Or, to put that another way, in his humility, the Lord exalted him.
Most of Ted’s days were spent walking up and down Main Street greeting folks and checking in on all the local business owners. He’d been around doing that very thing for more than a generation. Dozens and dozens of people in this area grew up knowing and loving Ted. And that was part of what made Ted so great. In his Christ-like humility, he had the unique ability to love everybody. It didn’t matter who you were. It didn’t matter where you were from. It didn’t matter what mistakes you had made. Ted was going to love you. He was going to be kind to you. He was going to call you a friend. Children loved seeing “Mr. Ted.” My own boys certainly did. They knew a gentle, kind, and gracious soul when they saw one. In a world that more and more sees folks like Ted as worthless burdens on the system, he was a gift from God; a reminder that greatness isn’t found most in the places we seek it first. It is found in being more like Jesus. Ted was more like Jesus than most of us are. He was great for it and will be sorely missed.
So, yes, humility is the way to exaltation. Ted may not have known it, but he certainly lived it. His example is one we could all stand to follow a little more closely. Thank you, Ted, for being wonderful you.