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Understanding Humility

Being humble is not something that comes naturally to us as human beings. I have found that most people do not really know what humility looks like. Historically, humility has been linked to the word meekness. In the Beatitudes we hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Of course, meekness rhymes with weakness, so who in the world would possibly want to be meek? I have never heard a father say, “I want my son to grow up and be meek.”

The word “meekness” surprisingly comes from the word praus, which is a powerful animal that knows how to restrain its power. The idea here is that meek and humble people are powerful people, though they do not flaunt their strength and power.

Famous skeptic Friedrich Nietzsche loathed Christianity because he believed it was for weak people. He hated the way the God of the Bible took such an offense at the pride of man. He believed the Christian attack on pride was to mask the weakness of humility in the Christian faith.

The great theologian John Stott responds with these powerful words:

At no point does the Christian mind come into more violent collision with the secular mind than in its insistence on humility, with all the weakness it entails. The wisdom of the world values power, not humility. We have drunk in more of the power philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche than we realize. Nietzsche dreamed of the rise of a daring ruler race. Tough, masculine, and oppressive Nietzsche worshipped power. He despised Jesus for His weakness. The ideal of Nietzsche was the Übermensch, the superman, but the ideal of Jesus was the little child. There is no possibility of compromise between these two images; we are obliged to choose.

C.S. Lewis says that in God, we encounter something that is immeasurably superior to ourselves. In his book, Guide to Humility, Thomas Jones says,

Humility is so right because it so squares with reality. It is a reality that we owe other people a great deal. Now consider an even deeper reality. There is a God and you are not Him. There is a great and awesome God who created the Heavens and the Earth and you are not Him. There is a God who knows all, and understands all, and is in control of all, and you are not Him. And I am not Him. He is God, and we are not. He is the great God, and you and I are small people. Very small in comparison to Him.

I find it interesting what Jones says about being in control. Many people keep God at a safe distance because they do not want Him to interfere with their lives. They do not in any way want to give up control of their lives. However, you have to wonder, do we really have that much control over anything? No we don’t.

We don’t seem to recognize this, or at least have not given it much thought. We are not in control. We are weak creatures; our bodies are wasting away, which in itself should cause us to see our great need for God. Only when we understand our need for Him does true humility begin. As Andrew Murray puts it, “Humility, the place of entire dependence on God, is the first duty of the creature and is the root of every good human quality.”

Pride seeks to be independent of God. At its heart, the pride we speak of is spiritual. Søren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish philosopher, observed that we all suffer from spiritual pride. We think we can accomplish great things, achieve prosperity, and find a purpose that is big enough to discover meaning in life, and do all of this without God. The prideful heart of man causes him to believe, “I do not need God.”

I am reminded of a conversation I had with a good friend several years ago. His father was a very wealthy, self-made man and had built a large, successful business on his own. One day my friend approached his father and shared his concern that his father had no spiritual life. His father responded, “What do I need God for? I have everything I need.” You can see why C.S. Lewis calls pride “the anti-God state of mind.”

I do not know if this man ever changed his mind, but a few years after he had made this declaration of not needing God, he died. Over time, life has a way of humbling us all.


Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

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