So You Say You Want to Be Humble

  • Nathan Schneider
Man reading with a magnifying glass

I can think of several key experiences that have humbled me in my life. Obviously, the first year of marriage comes to mind. If that isn’t a humbling experience for every husband on the planet, then there’s something very wrong with you. That first year is the life-equivalent of racing top-fuel dragsters. You basically go from 0 to 200 miles an hour in your relationship over a 24-hour period. The day before the wedding, you’re best friends, in love, and riding on the clouds of anticipation. The day after the wedding, your lives are now forever intertwined and exposed for each other to see. All the little things she never knew about you are lived out before her twenty-four seven. All the quirks and weird personality traits she never saw are now hers to experience and yours to regret. For as exciting as the first year of marriage is, there’s a lot of learning and growing that happens in the first year. Or at least there should be.

There’s another humbling experience that comes to mind for me. When I went to seminary, I left behind the dream of a music career to pursue ministry training. I left my hometown, my family, my church, traveled to a new city (Los Angeles) and a new church, and met new people, all of whom were doing the same thing as I was.

My very first class I ever had in seminary started at 7:30 am on a Tuesday morning. I walked up the two flights of stairs to the third floor of the J building at The Master’s Seminary, strolled down the hall and entered the classroom. I found a seat at a table, arranged my stuff, and looked around. I was one of about twenty men who were about to embark on their seminary training, and we were all nervously waiting for the professor to arrive. A few students chatted with each other. The rest, myself included, sat there in silence wondering what in the world we had just signed up for. It’s not like we had just joined the paratroopers. This wasn’t the night before D-day. But the tension of the unknown was palpable, and everyone knew it even if they didn’t say it.

A few minutes later, the professor strode in, and class began. The introduction to the class said it all: “Gentlemen, welcome to Beginning Hebrew.”

There’s something uniquely humbling about learning a new language. I’m not saying it’s like year one of marriage or anything. It’s actually way worse. After all, in marriage, you’re starting this new chapter of your life out with someone you love and who loves you back (I sure hope). You’re not grading each other (yet). And you’re certainly the most charitable and gracious toward each other as you probably ever will be. Your relationship with a new language, on the other hand, is not like that. There’s no mutual love. There’s no grace. There’s just this strange language, like a wild beast, which you either tame, or you fail the class.

But to make matters worse, biblical Hebrew is a strange sort of beast. For one, everything is backwards, which means that right from the start, everything you know about language is completely inverted. Add to that the fact that the letters used in Hebrew look nothing like anything you’ve ever seen or read before, and the intimidation factor escalates exponentially. It looks about as foreign as you can get. The cherry on top for learning biblical Hebrew is the knowledge that you’re about to embark on a study of a language which has officially been dead for several thousand years, which means that all of this planned learning won’t give you the requisite skill to order a cup of coffee when you finally make that trip to Israel. 

I look around the room. The anxiety and panic in my head is being reflected back to me in the eyes of all the other guys in the room. We’re all in this boat together. Well, at least if I drown, I won’t be alone.

Of course, learning Hebrew isn’t that much different from learning any other foreign language. In each case, you literally have to start from the very beginning. You start with the proverbial A, B, C’s and begin to build upwards. The fact that you’ve already done this with the language you currently speak—except that you did it when you were two years old—doesn’t help the process. You really do feel like a child again. And that is incredibly humbling.

The dictionary gives two basic definitions for the verb “to humble”:

  • To make (someone) humble in spirit or manner
  • To destroy the power, independence, or prestige of (someone)

Both of those things are going on in the learning process at any given time. Whether it’s in your marriage, or after you have kids, or when you enter the workforce, or when you try to learn a new language. In all these things, we’re going through experiences and circumstances that assault our sense of power and pride, and undermine our desire for autonomy. We’re reminded of the things we can’t do. We’re confronted with the things that we can do that we shouldn’t. And hopefully that leads to a spirit of humility—where we don’t assess ourselves higher than we should.

There’s no greater sledgehammer for our pride than the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s at that moment, when our minds engaged with the reality of our sin and our rebellion, and we were humbled to the core before the God of all power and glory and righteousness, that the most amazing work of “humbling” began in our lives. We went from thinking we were everything to realizing that we are nothing. Our pride plummeted faster than the stock market in 2008. In the gospel, we were humbled.

But here’s the reality. There is a lingering principle that remains in us, despite our new natures, despite our new hearts. The old pride and rebellion smolders under the remains of the old self that fell down at our conversion. And there’s always a risk that the old edifice will begin to rise if it’s not continually knocked down.

That’s the nature of the Christian life. What was started at the cross is completed at the grave. And in the intervening years, we battle the flesh and its desire for pride and power and independence. We fight the old man who continues to try to reassert himself. The gospel takes us all the way back to the beginning. Like the first day of Hebrew class, we learn our A, B, C’s as a Christian—as a new creation. We grow, completely and abjectly humiliated to the core by our encounter with the gospel.

The challenge is to continue that course, to continue in humility, and to not let the old man of pride and independence rise back up. How do we do that? Here’s a couple things to think about.

Consider and reconsider Jesus Christ

You want to know how God defines humility? Here it is: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3–4). Practically speaking, humility is a horizontal issue. It’s how you view yourself in relation to others. It’s whether you care for other people to the degree that you care for yourself.

But Paul goes on from there to offer the supreme and ultimate example of humility. He points us to consider Jesus Christ: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5–8). If you want to understand what humility entails, consider and reconsider Jesus Christ. He’s the only man who could ever claim to be more important than everyone else. Yet he purposefully and consciously lowered himself to serve us and die a humiliating death to redeem us from our sin.

You won’t find a greater example of humility anywhere else.

Seek and destroy pride in your life

Regression in the Christian life happens when we lay off the gas pedal and stop taking a proactive position against sin in our lives. We turn off the alarm system, fire the guards, and vacate the watchtowers. Then we’re surprised when the unwelcome intruders of pride, selfishness, and conceit walk into the kitchen in the morning sipping on a cup of coffee.

Growth in the Christian life requires us to be aggressive. It calls for us to take the offensive. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…” (Col. 3:5). That statement is vivid. In the old language, it reads, “Mortify therefore your members…” Assassinate them. Execute them. Seek them out and put them to death. This is a seek and destroy mission. There are intruders always lurking in the compound, and Seal Team Six has orders to find them and put a bullet in their heads.

If you want to stay humble as a Christian, you have to always be looking for sin. As John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

Consciously seek out opportunities to be humbled

You want a sure-fire way to expose pride in your life? Intentionally find ways to be humbled. Consciously seek out circumstances and experiences that put you in a position to admit that you’re not as good as you’d like, not as skilled as you want to be, and have lots of room to grow and mature. Without question, pride, like little gremlins, will come to the surface.

We’re not good at this. Let’s just admit that right here and now. Who consciously seeks out ways to be humbled? That’s exactly my point. Who does that? We’d all prefer to give a presentation at work and only hear positive feedback. We’d all like it if the only thing our employer ever told us is how great we’re doing at our job and that there’s nothing we could do to improve. We’d all love it if our spouse lauded us everyday with how great we are, and our kids sang our praises for our perfect parenting.

Like it or not, each of those scenarios is an opportunity to hear someone remind us that we’re not done growing yet, that there’s still more we can do, and that we aren’t the be-all-end-all of anything. Ask people for help. Encourage people to give you feedback, both positive and negative, and look for ways to do exactly what Paul tells us to do in his definition of humility: to not consider ourselves as higher than we ought to, and to consider others as higher than ourselves by seeking the interests of others and not just ourselves.

And if all that doesn’t work, consider learning a new language. Maybe even Hebrew.