Humility gets something of a bad rap in our culture. We confuse it with humiliation; we confuse it with false modesty, which is a very different thing; we use it as an opportunity for insults. Winston Churchill’s famous putdown of Clement Attlee is a classic case in point: “He is a humble man, but then, he has much to be humble about!” There are those who berate the church for teaching that humility is a virtue, on the grounds that doing so is harmful to people’s self-esteem. They seem to think the idea is that God doesn’t like you very much, and so you shouldn’t like yourself very much either.
This all gets the matter drastically wrong, and badly misreads Scripture. To help you understand why, let me begin by drawing from two men who helped me understand this. One is C. S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, he commented, “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. . . . He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
Which is to say, humility isn’t self-deprecation, but a type of self-forgetfulness. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis captured this beautifully; he had the demon Screwtape write, “The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.”
Which of course raises the question, where does this mindset come from? Where do we find its source? From a Reformed perspective, the best answer to that question I’ve ever found came (ironically enough) from a Catholic priest. Fr. Ernest Fortin, a French-Canadian philosopher, argued that “the Christian virtue par excellence is humility—a virtue that stands in stark contrast to any classical ideal: humility first of all of a God who would humble Himself to take on our humanity and give His life as a ransom for the many. But humility as well for the believer—to understand that all is grace; that we have no right to claim anything as our own—not our life, not our gifts, not even our faith. We are at every moment God’s creation.”
This all, I think, is what Paul is on about in this part of Romans. He has said just before this that we are to live our lives as our offering of worship to God, and that this happens not by effort and willpower or tricks and techniques, but by our minds being renewed in the power of the Holy Spirit; that is, if you will, the “law” that’s supposed to govern our lives. Here, he begins to apply that more specifically, to the question of how we are to live with and behave toward one another: if our minds are being renewed, how does that change how we see ourselves and the people around us?
Paul uses three different forms of the same word in verse 3, the word translated “think.” It’s the word used back in chapter 8 when he said, “Those who live by the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live by the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” This word isn’t about the act of thinking as such, it’s about the frame within which we think—our mindset, our perspective, our worldview. It seems safe to say that the renewal of our minds begins with a change of our mindset toward God and our understanding of who he is; but the next thing in line is a change in our mindset toward ourselves and our understanding of who we are, and thus in our perspective on our lives.
The key is that we learn to see ourselves clearly and truly as we are, not in the world’s eyes but in God’s sight. Paul tells us in Romans 12:3 that God has given us all a common faith in Christ by his grace, and that the faith by which through grace we have been saved should be the only standard by which we measure our lives. We need to see that all is grace, and that we have no right to claim the credit for our life, our gifts, our salvation. We need to realize that what matters is whether we live our lives by faith in ourselves, or by faith in God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and his Holy Spirit—and whether, out of that, we’re living to glorify him, or to glorify ourselves.
Now, that realization can only grow in us as we draw near to Christ, as the Holy Spirit renews our mind, because it comes out of two things. One is the understanding, not intellectual but visceral, of just how badly we need the grace of God and how utterly dependent on grace we are—the realization that we really can’t be all that impressive; the other is the visceral understanding of just how great a price God paid to give us his grace, and just how great is his love for us who paid that price—the realization that we don’t need to be all that impressive. When once we get hold of that—or rather, once that truth gets hold of us, then as Lewis put it, we can “[get] rid of the false self, with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy?’ and all its posing and posturing”; we can stop trying to fake it, and stop feeling that we need to fake it, and just rest in God.
The fact is, for all the time we may spend thinking about our lives, our gifts, our accomplishments, and worrying what they say about us, they aren’t really ours anyway, they’re God’s. In truth, they only say one thing at all about us: that God loves us with a deep and abiding love. What we’re no good at, he didn’t create us to be good at. Whatever worldly standard of achievement we measure ourselves by, he didn’t create us for that. What matters is that we have the gifts and talents God gave us to do what he calls us to do. We talked about sheep a bit this summer, and your average sheep is a very stupid animal—but it’s exactly as smart as it needs to be in order to be a good sheep. It hasn’t been created to be anything else, it’s been created to be what it is, to the glory of God; and so have we, who are the sheep of his pasture, and the flock of his hand.
Yeah, none of us is good at everything; if we’re honest, most of us aren’t really good at all that much. If anyone tells you they have a whole slew of spiritual gifts, the odds are pretty good they’re either deluding themselves, or trying to sell you something. Most of us are good at a few things, and really bad at others, and pretty indifferent in a lot of areas—and that’s fine, because that’s how God made us. Look what Paul says in Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12: God created us to need each other. He created each of us to be good at this thing to fill a need over here, and to be bad at that thing so that someone else can be good at it. We’re all specialized players whom God creates and fits together so that the work gets done and Christ is represented on earth.
And if you think about that long enough, eventually the penny will drop, the great mindshift at the heart of this passage in Romans: what we do, what we can do, what we’re good at, isn’t primarily about us as individuals, it’s about all of us together. We belong to God, which means we belong to each other; our lives are not our own, they are his, which means they are for his people, for his body, for his work. We need each other, because God made us that way; we are needed, because he made us for our part.