When simple terms like gentleness, humility, and meekness take on modern cultural definitions rather than culturally sensitive biblical ones, we will end up creating God in our own image. We will also likely create faith communities that reflect cultural values rather than biblical ones. We do not have to become Jewish nor import their culture into our world. But neither should we export our culture into the text and think we are being “Biblically faithful.” Jesus and the apostles were not white Americans from Nebraska in 1954. Gentleness, humility, and meekness can become grossly distorted in our day if we do not at least understand what the terms meant to the people of the day, before we try to live out an ethic that may have no biblical foundation at all.
Humility is not the gentle demeanor you convey when you are “correcting” someone you view as your spiritual inferior. Humility is the character you manifest when someone spiritually “inferior” (however valued or measured) is correcting you, and doing it poorly and unfairly.
Humility is a topic that is easier to preach to others about than possess ourselves. Humility is not a “topic” that can be “preached from the Bible.” Humility is a derivative fruit of a crucified life. Those who have it, do not have to preach about it. It is the aroma of Christ. Humility is a sermon without words.
There is hardly a more abused biblical term than humility. Humility is one of the easiest qualities for the old creation nature to fake: a gentle exterior, a certain cadence of speech, emotional “evenness,” never speaking the truth for fear of conflict or rejection, etc., will win the esteem of the undiscerning as being “humble.”
Authoritarian leaders often preach excessively about humility while possessing little themselves. Emphasizing humility is often used as a control mechanism to deflect legitimate criticism from “subordinates.” Unsafe, unhealed, and unwhole leaders squelch, discourage, and retard the development of spiritually normal, functional, new creation personhood by presenting it as anger or a lack of humility. Any normal expression of personhood (voicing an opinion, point of view, or preference) is considered to be lacking humility.
Humility is frequently equated with a spineless, doormat, self-deprecating, self-aware, introspective, cautious, conservative, spirit of inferiority. The Greek root word, tapeinós, connotes a groveling, slavish, cowardly servility. It was morally contemptible and almost universally interpreted negatively. Aristotle viewed it somewhat positively but admitted it was hard for men to be it. In classical Greek, humility (in the positive sense) was defined as modesty: an unassuming diffidence not unlike magnanimity (from a Greek word meaning largeness of soul). Many Christians would accept this definition as biblical humility. It is not. Magnanimity is self-aware. It does not include the concept of sin or of man’s standing before a holy God. It is a human virtue that despises genuine biblical humility because biblical humility acknowledges moral indebtedness to God and is rooted in God awareness: confidence toward God. New creation humility is confident sonship, exercised in faith, at the word of the Father.
The New Testament uses the word in a uniquely Christian context. No Greek writer before the Christian era used it. The correct biblical definition is a deep sense of moral littleness before God. New Testament humility is not about largeness of soul. It is about littleness of soul before God, and great confidence toward Him because of what has been done in Christ.
The ultimate act of biblical humility is confident faith. It is abandonment of confidence in self and utter confidence in God and His promises. Failure to trust God, act on His promises, step out on His Word, exercise His graces and gifts because of an inferiority complex, insecurity, fear, timidity or some other psychological maladjustment is not biblical humility. There are few things more offensive and contemptible in the “Christian life” than phony humility generated by a controlling, scrupulous, behavioral moralist.
Humility has nothing to do with external diffidence, mildness of speech, and a lack of personal psychological wholeness. A lot of psychological dysfunction masquerades in the church as humility. J. Konrad Hölè has a poignant insight into church dysfunction:
The only thing worse than not recognizing something that is dysfunctional, is thinking you need more of it to produce change.
If our definition of humility is erroneous, more of it will not help us individually or the church corporately. The timid, the insecure, and the fearful have a special reservation in hell along with a select company of offenders (Rev. 21:8). They will always view the faithful, the bold, and the confident as proud and arrogant–they will be accused of lacking humility.
Portions of this article are excerpted from the The Silent Killers of Faith by Stephen Crosby. Copyright 2011 Dr. Stephen R. Crosby www.drstevecrosby.wordpress.com. Permission is granted to copy, forward, or distribute this article for non-commercial use only, as long as this copyright byline, in totality, is maintained in all duplications, copies, and link references. For reprint permission for any commercial use, in any form of media, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.