Learning to Practice Humility (James 4:1-8) by Tim Posey
In this article I would like to look at how deep character change happens to us. Jonathan Edwards had a lot to say about this kind of change, especially in his work “The Nature of True Virtue.” In this book he distinguishes between common virtue and true virtue. Common virtue produces people who are honest, generous, decent and civil through moral restraint. Common virtue basically jury rigs the heart and its deepest habits through motives of fear, pride, a desire for approval or a desire for reward. The pressure is from outside in, not inside out. Common virtue focuses on rules or laws but not on the ruler or the lawgiver. Common virtue is moral reformation without spiritual transformation. It is what Luther called “civil righteousness.”
True virtue on the other hand is not having the deepest habits of the heart merely restrained but rather changed. With true virtue fear, pride, approval, reward, etc. dissolve and are disintegrated at the root. Moral reformation (common virtue) bends and forces us, while spiritual transformation melts, shapes and changes us. We look at Him and His character changes our character (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18). This kind of transformation has a root. The queen virtue is humility. The balance of this article will focus on practicing humility. It is not something to possess, it is rather something we learn to practice. As we learn to practice humility let’s think about it in three ways. First, what humility toward God looks like; second, what humility toward self and others looks like; finally, how to practice humility.
In considering what humility toward God looks like, let’s look at what humility is not: humility is not cultivating a poor self image or an exercise in self deprecation, groveling, or self flagellation, which ironically, given wrong motives, can be a subtle form of pride. We don’t score any sanctity points by dressing Amish or looking like we were weaned on a sour pickle. Calvin defines humility as the mother and root of a virtue. Jonathan Edwards said that humility is the most essential thing in true religion. In our discipling of others we can teach people prayer, Bible study, doctrine, evangelism, community, the sacraments, etc. but if you bypass cultivating and practicing humility you might end up with a Pharisee. Humility is much more difficult to practice than the spiritual disciplines. Those are easy to check off as done because they are outer disciplines, while humility is an inner discipline we aspire to that is learned by degrees. Teaching outer disciplines without cultivating the inner discipline of humility is self defeating and strengthens pride. Humility is radical God dependence. Humility is the posture of a soul that is actively receiving from God through acknowledging our need. Jesus said, “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5c). Calvin taught that humility is not evidenced simply when a man is aware that he has some virtue and abstains from pride and arrogance but when he has no refuge except in a God-centered faith. Humility is the inner disposition of receiving grace. It is the polar opposite of pride, which is self reliant, self righteous, self deceived and self exalting. Pride and arrogance seek to obligate God, humility blushes to receive anything from God.
Now let’s consider what humility in relation to self and others looks like. Humility is self forgetfulness. It is not thinking less of self or thinking of self less, but the ability to forget self. The Gospel is the power that delivers us from the illusion that the universe revolves around us. It is grossly unrealistic to expect that everyone and everything else should bend our way. The lust to be served, honored, noticed and adored is a desire to be treated as a god and we become a bottomless pit of need. The Gospel liberates us to serve the needs of others and delivers us from fixating and obsessing over our wants. We can even become obsessed over our depravity and sinfulness in a way that is disconnected from Christ. Obsession with our sin, failure and weakness makes me still the center of attention and not Christ. Humility sets us free from this obsession.
In regard to others we must face a very important question—how do I know if I am humbly using my gifts to serve others or impress others? If I don’t merely want to be a godly father, a faithful pastor, a loving husband, a good parent, etc. but I want to be the best. Life is a competition and I must win. Humility is not competitive, pride is.
So how do we practice the virtue of humility? First, we have to change our focus. In 1 Peter 5, we are told to clothe ourselves with humility. According to Jonathan Edwards the birth of humility is a soul that is overwhelmed by the knowledge of God. Edwards distinguishes between legal humility and evangelical (Gospel) humility. Legal humility is trying to make myself small enough to win God’s approval. The focus is own self and the religious flesh Christ wants to crucify. Gospel humility is being overwhelmed by God’s holiness, beauty and grace. This leads to forgetfulness of self.
Second, we must adopt a posture of receptivity. I can do nothing of myself, but I can do all things through Christ who is my strength. It is liberating to know that when I am in over my head, or called to do something above my ability or pay grade or level of experience, I don’t have to panic. Sometimes we don’t know what to do and instead of pretending and putting up a good front, it is okay to say I feel too weak or confused to be a good (fill in the blank) right now or I’ve blown this relationship, help me set it right. Sometimes it is hard to pray, witness or love an enemy and backing off in humility and admitting it is the better route to growth.
Third, we should expect growth in humility through experience. J.C. Ryle said, “The older you grow the more you see less reason for ever being proud.” Ignorance and inexperience are the pedestal of pride. Life experience removes the pedestal and we learn humility.
Last, we need to embrace a self-emptying spirit (cf. Philippians 2:1-8). We need to die daily to our reputation and ever-present goal of impression management and regard others as better than ourselves. Only the Gospel gives us the power to do this.
In conclusion, true virtue that comes from the inside has as its root true humility. Learning to practice it will prepare us for heaven, for I have a sneaking suspicion we will be doing a lot of it there.