• John Davis

Want to Be Humble? Don't Seek Humility.

"Humility is a slippery virtue - once you think you've got it, you've lost it." - Bob Russell


A God-centered life begins with humility because humility is the automatic response of every human being who comes into the presence of God. Pride is the opposite of humility. You cannot be God-centered and prideful at the same time because pride in its very essence is self-centered. But true humility is God-centered because humility comes from beholding the glory of the Lord. When we see God clearly, we see ourselves rightly. In Scripture, every time someone saw any kind of manifestation of God’s glory their immediate reaction was humility. Think of Isaiah beholding the glory of the Lord in Isaiah 6:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1–5, ESV)

Notice how Isaiah immediately feels a sense of sorrow, repentance, and fear because he is a sinner that has seen the holy and righteous God. He does not have to will himself to humility here. It happens naturally. Do you want to be humble? Strive with all you have to see the glory of God. When you see it, you will be humbled.

We see a similar reaction from Peter when Jesus reveals his glory in Luke 5. After fishing all night with nothing to show for it, Jesus tells Peter go out into the deep water and cast one more time. Peter doesn’t see what good it will do, but he obeys anyway because it’s Jesus. Lo and behold they caught so many fish their nets were breaking and the weight of the fish was sinking their boats. Peter’s reaction is telling: “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’s knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’” (Luke 5:8) When faced with the glory of God in Christ Peter is humbled and immediately feels how unworthy he is.

As you read through the Bible you will often notice that when people encounter God they fall on their faces. It almost seems involuntary, as if God created our bodies to immediately react in this way to his presence. The physical posture of putting one’s face to the ground mirrors what is going on in the heart. God’s glory produces fear and awe. It puts us in our place. It humbles us. If we could but see and behold God’s glory every minute of every day we would never again have to worry about pride.

God lets us in on a foundational principle of humility in Exodus chapter 33. If you recall, Moses has just made one of the boldest requests in all of Scripture. After God granted his intercessory prayer to spare the Israelites for their idolatry and rebellion Moses pushes the envelope because he longs to see the glory of God. In Exodus 33:18 he says, “Please, show me your glory.”

Before we move on, we need to pause for a moment and appreciate this as one of the greatest prayers in all of Scripture. In the chapter on the God-centered gospel I noted how God’s goal in salvation is to give us himself. The most God-honoring desire we can have is a desire for him. Moses exemplifies it here. He longs to see the glory of the Lord. He is desperate for the satisfaction only God can give. He understands the greatest pleasure we could ever experience is seeing God’s glory and losing ourselves in an overflow of worship and joy.

But God’s response might surprise you. God tells Moses he will cover Moses in a cleft of the rock and pass by. He will then remove his hand so Moses can see his back, or some would argue the translation should convey more of an idea of God’s residual glory, the place where he has just been. But God tells Moses, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20) Here God has revealed a universal principle of the way our world works. Humans cannot see God in all his glory. If we did, we would die. Is this because his infinite glory would be too much for our finite bodies to handle? Is it because his wrath would break out against our sinfulness? We cannot know for sure. But the principle remains: human beings cannot see God in his fullness because it would kill them.

What fascinates me about this idea is that as you read Scripture you keep coming across people who seem to know this principle without God having to tell them. It is as if God has written it on our hearts. For example, take Jacob and the mysterious scene where he wrestles with God in Genesis 32. In verse 30 we read, “So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.’ (Genesis 32:30) Is that not fascinating? Jacob intuitively understood this principle that God later revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. If we see the Lord we are supposed to die.

We see the same thing when Gideon meets the angel of the Lord. Studying the multiple appearances in the Old Testament of this enigmatic figure reveals him to be much more than your typical angel. He is clearly divine, a manifestation of God, and possibly an Old Testament appearance of Christ himself. In Judges 6:22-23 we read, “Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord. And Gideon said, ‘Alas, O Lord God! For now, I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.’” Initially we might not think much from Gideon’s reaction, but notice God’s reassuring response. Gideon need not fear. God will not kill him. Gideon, like Jacob, intuitively understands that he deserves to die having seen this form of God. The same concept can be found in Leviticus 16:13, Deuteronomy 5:24-26, Judges 13:22, and Revelation 1:17. All of these examples together communicate the same truth: the glory of God produces humility in all who behold it.

It was C.S. Lewis who taught me that true humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. In Mere Christianity he writes,

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”[1]

Again, pride and God-centeredness cannot coexist because pride is inherently self-centered. But true humility comes from beholding the glory of God and forgetting about yourself completely. So, if you want to be humble, don’t seek humility itself, seek God and his glory and humility will inevitably come.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 107-108.

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