1 Peter 5:5-7 Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
What would you say is the single most important attitude of a mature Christian? That is, if you had to name one heart-condition that best defines someone who has grown in his or her faith, what would it be? Loving? Trusting? Hopeful? Holy? Selfless? Servant? Undoubtedly a case could be made for all of them (especially loving). Let me throw one more into the mix, one that doesn’t get mentioned nearly as often as those above but is just as deserving: humility.
One of the most significant marks of Christian maturity is humility. Therefore, humility is one of the things most needed in times of trouble—which is what Peter’s readers found themselves in. We began looking at humility last week as the proper response to godly eldering (5:5a). This morning we’ll consider humility from a broader perspective as we look at (1) what humility is, (2) what it is not, and (3) where it comes from. Then, next week, we’ll consider (4) what it does. In so doing, I think it will become plain that humility is necessary if we are to honor God, especially when life is hard.
With that, let’s pray that God would make us humble.
WHAT HUMILITY IS
In our passage for this morning Peter charges his readers to clothe themselves with humility. He declares that God gives grace to the humble. And he commands them to humble themselves. But what is humility?
The most straightforward definition of humility that I’ve come across, the one I think best captures the biblical perspective, is this: humility is the disposition that comes from seeing yourself accurately; nothing more and nothing less. This definition has two parts to it. Peter and the biblical writers primarily emphasize the first part, but we need to see the second part as well in order to avoid being crushed and misdiagnosing humility.
The first part of our definition means understanding that we are lowlier than we could ever realize. Why do we lack humility or possess pride? Often it is because we think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We have certain gifts or abilities and those things make us feel superior to others. Having an accurate understanding of ourselves, however, means knowing that anything good in us is a contingent, derivative good. That is, nothing good in us is native to us. It is all, only, and always a gift from God. Let me give you an illustration…
There’s a famous father and son duo, the Hoyts, who have completed over 1000 endurance events together—including marathons and even Ironman triathlons. That’s impressive by any standard. What would you think if you heard the son bragging about his accomplishments? It might seem warranted, wouldn’t it? But, as you may know, there’s a bit more to the story. The son has severe cerebral palsy. In every one of the 1000+ competitions he did nothing except sit in a boat or stroller while he was pushed or pulled along. His dad did all of the work for both of them. With that understanding it’s easy to see that the son has no foundation to boast. An accurate understanding of himself means understanding that without the help of another he was incapable of even beginning—let alone finishing—a single race.
Whether we realize it or not, that’s the case for us in everything. Any good in us, anything we might be tempted to boast about, is from God. That is why Peter wrote, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God.”
What’s more, because sin has infected all of us, even the good that God has put in us is thoroughly corrupted. Even our most selfless acts are tainted by self-interest. Even our most loving deeds have traces of disdain. Even our most generous gifts hold back. Even our most sacrificial gestures are laced with pride.
No matter how low you feel, then, genuine humility begins with the realization that under God you are actually much lower than that. True humility recognizes all of this and will not allow us to see ourselves more highly than we ought. Again, this is the main emphasis of biblical humility, recognition of our lowliness under God.
However, as I mentioned, there’s another crucial aspect to humility as well. As Christians we understand that humility is tethered to the lowliness associated with our derivative goodness and sinful corruption, but we also understand that it is tethered to the high position associated with our union with Jesus as well. We cannot accurately understand ourselves—and, therefore, we cannot be truly humble—if we don’t have a healthy concept of both. Again, let me give you a quick illustration of the need to understand who we are in Jesus…
If you’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia (The Horse and His Boy) you’re familiar with a young boy named Shasta. For his entire life all Shasta knew was that he was the unwanted son of the lowest of fathers. Day after day from his earliest recollection he was worked to the bone and mistreated. The entire story pictures Shasta looking at himself and interpreting the events of his life through the lens of a poor, unwanted, nobody. As it turns out, however, he was the lost son of a king. Because he did not see himself accurately he was afraid of things he shouldn’t have been afraid of, he accepted mistreatment as if he deserved it, and he failed to feel any sense of worth because he thought he didn’t have any. For some, this might seem like humility, but it isn’t. It failed to take into account an important aspect of who he was, the prince of Archenland. Again, Church, whether we realize it or not, this is always the case for us, we are children of the King of kings.
Humility in the first sense (lowliness) blocks pride by recognizing we have nothing good in us that wasn’t given to us by God. Humility in this second sense (loftiness) blocks worthlessness by recognizing that we have God as our Father. Again, humility is simply thinking rightly about ourselves on both ends of the spectrum.
If that’s what humility is, let’s quickly consider what it is not. That is, when Peter charged his readers to clothe themselves with humility and humble themselves under God, he meant that they were to understand themselves rightly in relation to each other and God. In order to obey this, it’s also important to understand what he didn’t mean. Let me suggest four such things; things humility is not.
WHAT HUMILITY IS NOT
Humility is not thinking of yourself as worthless. There is a big difference between truly understanding who we are in light of God’s holiness/our sinfulness and feeling worthless and useless. For a Christian to think of himself or herself as worthless is really a form of pride. God has told you who you are in Christ. In order to feel worthless you must think you know better than God. Remember, humility is the result of an accurate self-understanding, but as Shasta teaches us, it is not accurate to think of yourself as lacking worth.
Humility is not primarily outward. All too often fake self-deprecation is passed off as humility. In people like this, genuine, accurate compliments are dismissed. They say things like “Oh, that was nothing” or “Anyone could do it.” Their pride is merely disguised behind a thin, counterfeit, external veneer of humility. There is no genuine sense of lowliness before God, only pride not wanting to be recognized as such.
Humility is not niceness. Niceness is another mask that is often mistaken for humility. It’s usually good to be nice, but niceness does not equal humility and one can be both nice and proud. Perhaps it’s more common to experience this from the other direction—someone who is serious and firm (which is generally thought to be the opposite of nice) is often seen as lacking humility. However, there is no truly humble person who is not regularly serious and firm.
Humility is not agreeability. This one is not far from niceness, but it is different. It is sometimes thought that humble people don’t have strong opinions or that they are always eager to accommodate the desires of others. Humble people, it is wrongly argued, don’t argue. It is wrong (but common) to think of someone standing up for something as lacking humility and someone who is always agreeable as humble.
How do we know that humility is not these things? We know it because of Jesus’ example. Jesus was continuously, perfectly humble, but he never thought of himself as worthless, he never put on a mask of lowliness (or any kind for that matter), he was often not nice, and he was rarely agreeable to whole groups of people.
Humility is the disposition that comes from seeing yourself accurately; nothing more and nothing less. Each of the above four attitudes fails to take something(s) the bible teaches about God’s people into account. Therefore, humility is not these things.
Having seen what humility is and isn’t, we need to consider how we get it. That is, Peter charged his readers to have it and told them where to get it.
WHERE HUMILITY COMES FROM
Ultimately, genuine humility is a uniquely Christian disposition. Of this one author wrote, “[non-Christian understandings of humility] have severe limitations; they can take us only so far in understanding humility because they are not rooted in a biblical world-view…As John Calvin wrote, ‘It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself'” (C.J. Mahaney, Humility: True Greatness, 21).
This means that only those who have been granted life in Christ can be truly humble because only those who have been granted life in Christ have ever accurately “contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into” themselves.
Further, in this sense, humility, like all aspects of Christlikeness, is the fruit of God’s sanctifying work in Christians. In other words, in answer to the question of where humility comes from, it’s important that we begin with the understanding that it comes from God. Humility is a gift that God is in the process of giving in increasing measure to those who are hoping in Christ.
And yet, like every aspect of our sanctification, God has determined to give humility to his people through various means. That is, there’s another answer to the question of where humility comes from: it comes from God’s people pursuing it in the places God has put it. But where are those places?
In this passage we find three specific sources of humility. The first we looked at last week (in 5:1-5), but it shows up again in this passage (5:7). Humility comes from realizing that we need the help of others; shepherding help in particular. Second, it comes from considering its rewards (5:6-7). Finally, and ultimately, it comes from viewing ourselves through God’s perspective (5:6). Let’s briefly consider each.
Humility comes from realizing that we all always need the help of others and are all always under the authority of others. One way, therefore, that we can be sure to maintain a proper perspective of ourselves—one way God has given us to grow in humility—is to continually place ourselves under those God has placed over us to help us. It’s hard to be proud—to think more highly of ourselves than we should—when we’re regularly functioning in positions of necessary subordination. Embracing the reality that every one of us has been placed under certain people—and ultimately under God himself—because we need them, helps us grow in humility.
Practically, therefore, be eager, kids, to listen to your parent’s instructions being conscious of the fact that God has placed them over you because you need them. As you do, you will grow in humility. Likewise, be eager wives, to embrace your husband’s leadership; not because he’s necessarily a great leader, but because God gave him the role and because by doing so (especially if he isn’t a great leader) you will grow in humility. Be eager, citizens to come under your government (even a bad government as Peter wrote in 2:13), for there is humility to be found there. Be eager to come under your elders, Church, for there is humility there as well. And, of course, be eager to acknowledge your need for God’s help (5:7) and that you are always under the mighty hand of God (5:6) and therein find help and humility.
If we are not humble we will not acknowledge our need for help or subject ourselves to anyone. But as we realize our neediness and subject ourselves to those God has placed over us, we will grow in the humility that God has already granted. That’s the first place in which this passage tells us God has placed humility.
Humility comes from considering the reward of being humble. As we all know, the promise of reward is a powerful motivator. And, of course, the greater the reward, the greater the motivation.
Kids, what if I asked you to clean this entire church? Would you be excited to do it? Probably not. It’s a big building. But what if I told you that if you did, I’d give you $20? I’m guessing I’d have a few more takers. What if I told you that I’d reward everyone who helped clean with $2,000? Now I bet we’d get every kid involved. Growing in humility is kind of like that. It can be hard work to really come to understand ourselves rightly and act accordingly. We kind of like to think of ourselves as more highly or lowly than we should. But kids, make sure you hear this: the rewards God offers for those who grow in humility are far, far greater than anything any amount of money could buy. God offers those rewards to help us get humility.
In fact, the bible is filled with the promise of rewards for humility (and punishments for pride). Consider the magnitude of each and find significant motivation.
2 Samuel 22:28 You save a humble people, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down.
2 Chronicles 7:14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.
Psalm 25:9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
Psalm 147:6 The LORD lifts up the humble; he casts the wicked to the ground.
Psalm 149:4 For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation.
Proverbs 3:34 Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.
Proverbs 11:2 When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.
Proverbs 22:4 The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.
Isaiah 66:2 this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble…
Matthew 18:4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 23:11-12 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Grace, these are amazing blessings for those who are humble and amazing curses for those who are not!. But there’s more. In our passage for this morning Peter names four more specific rewards for humility.
First, quoting Proverbs 3:34, Peter says that God rewards the humble with his grace. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (5b). Grace, how unspeakably powerful is this? Who, in the entire universe do we least want against us? God! Who in the entire universe do we most want for us? God! How do we avoid the former and gain the latter? We put on humility!
Second, according to 6b, God not only gives grace to the humble. He also exalts—lifts up, esteems—the humble. We don’t know exactly what this means or when it will happen, but the idea of being exalted by God in any way, at any time is more than enough reason to go after humility
Third, the implication of 7a is that God takes the anxiety of the humble (positively, he brings peace). What is the source of anxiousness? Why are we anxious? Often it is because we fail to think of ourselves and our God rightly. That is, often it because we lack of humility.
Are you anxious about what your friends think of you? Humility means recognizing that you’re worse than the worst they can imagine, but covered in the blood of Christ. Are you anxious because of finances? Humility means recognizing that you are more vulnerable than you’ve ever imagined (whether you have $10 or $10,000,000), but entirely protected by the hand of God. Are you anxious because of your health? Humility means recognizing that the longest life is a vapor and death is all you deserve, but in Christ you have an everlasting, imperishable inheritance of life waiting for you in heaven.
And, as a motivating reward for pursuing humility, in 7b we see that Peter promises that God has a special care for the humble. Our greatest need is the favor of God. In Christ we have it in full. And one of the primary expressions of it, as we’ve seen over the past few weeks, is God’s constant, perfect, shepherding care for you. That care, Peter writes at the end of v.7, is exclusively for the humble.
I’m not sure how to make this point more clear than I already have. Where does humility come from? It comes from God. How does God bring it to his people? In many ways, but especially by making known to us the staggering rewards that will be received by those who are humble.
Finally, humility comes from seeing ourselves from God’s perspective. That is the essence of what Peter meant when he wrote, “Humble yourselves…under the mighty hand of God…”. People who think primarily in horizontal terms (people who primarily compare themselves to others) cannot be humble. Humility is seeing ourselves rightly and seeing ourselves rightly means seeing ourselves ultimately in relation to the greatness, glory, power, majesty, and holiness—the mighty hand—of God.
But that leaves us with an important question. How are we able to truly see ourselves properly in relation to God? Some knowledge is hardwired into us. That’s Paul’s point in Romans 1-2. Some knowledge can be discerned from creation. That’s the point of passages like Psalm 19. But the only clear, authoritative, effectual, and sufficient way that we can see ourselves rightly in relation to anything (especially God) is through God’s Word, the bible. In other words, if we are to have any hope of obeying Peter and becoming humble, we need to be people of the Word. Our conscience, nature, and common sense are often misleading and can only take us so far. The essential nature of everything—including ourselves—is only truly available to us in the bible. The bible and humility are unseparatable.
How do we get the humility that Peter tells us to put on? We get it from God. How do we get it from God? He works it out in us in order to save us and as the fruit of our salvation. How does he work it out in us? In part, he does so by telling us where to find it. Where has he told us to find it? In relationships where we are subject to others, in seeking out its rewards, and in a proper understanding of our relationship to God as taught in the bible.
All of this leaves us with another question, which we’ll consider next week, “What does humility do?”. What do humble people do within the church and the world? What do humble people do before God? And what do humble people do when life is hard? Again, all of that is where we’ll go next week.
For now, let’s pray that God would make us humble. Non-Christian, this cannot happen until God grants you new, spiritual eyes. The good news, however, is that God will grant new eyes to everyone who call on Jesus name. Do so today and find life, humility, and reward beyond measure. Christian, repent of your remaining pride. Pride of thinking of yourself more highly than you ought or the pride of refusing to believe you’re as high as God has made you in Christ. Refuse to measure yourself primarily against others and refuse to accept all that God has told you about yourself. Everyone, remember in gratitude that all of this is only available to us because of the humility of Jesus Christ; even to death on the cross. Amen.