A Revolutionary Quality: Humility


The Greek word for humility is tapeinos; in Latin it's humilitas. Both can mean to be made low or to lower oneself. I propose that for the Christian leader humility is sacrificing or lowering oneself for the benefit of others. It is contentment and joy when you are not the focus, when you are overlooked, when no rewards are being passed out.

We see this in Eisenhower, but we can see it even more in Jesus. When it came time to die, he struggled, but what kept him on track for fulfilling his mission was his humble nature and the relationship he had to his own community, the Trinity. He wanted to please the Father and the Holy Spirit. Jesus willingly lowered himself so that others might be lifted up and live.

We tend not to appreciate how foreign humility was to the people of Jesus' day. The society in which he lived did not honor humility; in fact, it was considered immoral.

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All Mediterranean societies, including Israel, were honor-shame cultures. The key question for any family member was, "Does your life bring honor to our family?" It was considered good form for generals and kings to write about themselves in glowing terms, to puff their biographies, and to discount any weaknesses or mistakes. People were expected to lower themselves before kings, who were considered to be gods, but never to an equal. And it would have been considered out of the question to lower oneself before someone of a lower class. It was simply not done; it was considered morally suspect.

In this honor-shame environment, Jesus' humility was radical. Read what he said: "Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light" (Matthew 11:28-30). To hear most Christians tell it, being a Christian is hard, but Jesus claimed that his yoke, or being his disciple, was easy. He was speaking to those for whom life was a terrible burden, anything but easy. He was doing something that no one would do in that honor-shame-based society—invite the powerless into more powerlessness, and call it easy.

If anyone had street credibility on making something difficult seem easy, however, it was Jesus. He was God, yet he clothed himself in humanity. This choice placed severe limits on someone who had existed outside of time and space, outside of any limitations, outside of suffering, death, abuse, and triviality. In coming to earth, he had them all. And only because he was humble of heart was he willing to do so, and to take his life as a man to its ignominious and glorious end. Jesus was proof that it was possible to live a contented life. He told his followers, "Join me, yoke up; we will do this together."

Jesus said his disciples are to be servants, even slaves. Being a slave is part of what it means to be a Christian leader. Our leader came not be served, but to serve. We are to do the same.

Written by Bill Hull

Taken from The Christian Leader by Bill Hull. Copyright © 2016 by Robert W. Hull. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.

Photo by Rasmus Landgreen on Unsplash