The Lost Virtue of Humility

Humility is very commonly thought of as a matter of self-deprecation. The thought seems to be that the more we put ourselves down, the more humble we are. This has led some philosophers throughout history to deny that humility is even a virtue but is instead more of a vice. However, this popular understanding is decidedly not the biblical notion of humility. The biblical notion of humility has very little to do with how we understand our worth or importance. Our worth is fixed by being created in God’s image. Furthermore, Jesus is the exemplar of living a life of humility (see Phil. 2:3-11). So His humility couldn’t have anything to do with his worth, since he is infinitely worthy. And we don’t ever see Jesus putting himself down. The Christian notion of humility, as exemplified by Jesus, is an attitude of how to relate to others. It has to do with our actions and the ends to which they are directed. More specifically, humility done Christianly is when one is oriented away from self and has God as one’s end.

What is an “end”?

Most of our actions are intentional. We intend, by acting, to do something. We have a goal or purpose, general or specific, at which we aim. Many things that we aim at are not in any way final ends. Instead, they are means to achieving further and greater ends. Let’s say a person has the aim of doing a bunch of pushups. Generally speaking, pushups themselves are (thankfully) not the final end at which we typically aim in performing the action. We do pushups for the further aim of being healthy or to increase strength or perhaps just to have finely shaped shoulders and pectorals. However, notice something like finely shaped muscles are themselves likely not one’s final end either but a means to still further ends, such as impressing others, building a positive self-image, etc. I’ve been known to ask my students why they are in school, in order to have them reflect on their aims and goals. Sometimes a student will say that he or she is in school for no other reason other than to receive the diploma. I typically challenge this claim (gently) because what good is the diploma, a slip of paper, in itself? The student likely wants the slip of paper to be better positioned for a career or ministry or perhaps to assuage parental or societal pressures. A lot of people say that their sole goal in life is to earn a lot of money. But, again, almost no one acts like money is their final end. What good are piles of cash if you can’t use the cash to buy things? Cash seems only a means for achieving further ends. So we have ends, many of which are means to further and more ultimate ends.

When we make our own needs and desires our final end, this, I assert, is pride. We become our own self-made god. Humility, on the other hand, is when we take our focus off of ourselves and make our end serving the needs of others. To be a disciple of the Lord Jesus is to make God our final and ultimate end. What Christian discipleship amounts to is that we become disposed to serve the interests of God in surrender of our own self-serving interests (this will include outreach and service to others). When we act, knowing our place relative to the proper place of God as God, then we have put on Christian humility.

What Christian discipleship amounts to is that we become disposed to serve the interests of God in surrender of our own self-serving interests (this will include outreach and service to others).

I’m convinced that most of us struggle deeply with pride, where we fail to make God our ultimate end. Now on its face this statement is not all that interesting as most of us around here would hold to a thoroughgoing doctrine of human depravity. However, what I am interested in is the ways that the depravity of pride subtly shows up. What I will argue is that we have a strong tendency to seek, as an end, our own pleasures. My claim is that we are, deep in our hearts, pleasure-seekers or hedonists. There’s of course nothing wrong, in itself, with satisfying one’s desires, but I would assert that, on the Christian worldview, desire-satisfaction should not be an end itself.

What is striking is that this prideful pleasure-seeking is pervasive even amongst Christians. When we come to Christ, we may clean up our lives, throw off certain destructive pleasure-seeking behaviors; however, my worry is that we replace these behaviors with less immediately destructive behaviors that are no less hedonistic. To illustrate, when I was growing up I had a number of friends for whom life was just all about the next party, and they imbibed all manners of intoxicants as a regular part of their week. Some of these realized that they couldn’t maintain that kind of pace, so they started, in a way, taking breaks from the party to do other things like, well, earn a lot of money and obtain a lot of possessions. Now it looks more responsible on the outside, but notice they are still all about seeking pleasure, and their pursuits are still purely self-seeking. Rather than it being only all manner of drugs and alcohol, it is now sports cars, houses, big screen TVs and somewhat more moderate amounts of drugs and alcohol which they use for gaining pleasure. It is hedonism but just a bit more subtle, just a bit more responsible hedonism.

It is hedonism but just a bit more subtle, just a bit more responsible hedonism.

How do we fall into this trap as Christians?

Think about how we look for a church home. We want a place where the preaching is good, the music is good, the seats are good, it is decorated nicely, there are flat screen TVs in the bathroom, etc. We too often look for a church where the primary thing we seek is a place that we will enjoy. Church subtly becomes more about us and our fulfillment than about God.

We also, I want to suggest, too often share the Gospel this way. Don’t we often try to sell people on the spoils of eternal life? Never do you see any place in Scripture where the enjoyment of heaven (as an end in itself) is dangled out there for folks to come to Christ. When we look at the Gospel presentations in Scripture, especially the great sermons of the book of Acts, we see the apostles always saying who God is and what Christ has done for us as the reason for repentance.

There’s even a popular call out there for us to be Christian hedonists. John Piper’s slogan is that “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him.” Now the slogan has the ring of truth, but I submit that we will not be satisfied in Him if we make this satisfaction our end. My claim is that if we seek for (i.e., make as our end) the “benefits” of the Christian life, we live a disordered life and, moreover, will likely not be satisfied. When we seek God, by contrast, great pleasure and satisfaction accrue.

The fundamental problem with the hedonistic lifestyle is that it, at the end of the day, rarely yields satisfaction. Moral philosophers call this the Paradox of Hedonism. The paradox is that the person who seeks after pleasure almost never finds it or, at least not any kind of lasting pleasure. Just imagine the extreme drug user. Presumably a person gets into the drug use for pleasure and satisfaction. But how many satisfied and fulfilled hard-core drug addicts do you run into? They typically are the paradigm of utter misery and despair. It is the same reason why celebrities, with every pleasure at their fingertips, bemoan their celebrity. They would seem to agree with an ancient hedonist who declared these pursuits to be vanity and compared pleasure-seeking to striving after the wind (See Ecclesiastes, the whole book, especially 2:1-11).

How then does one find true pleasure and ultimate satisfaction?

Paradoxically, to find ultimate satisfaction, you shouldn’t seek after it. It is only when we seek after worthy ends that true and lasting pleasure and satisfaction result. For example, when we seek to meet the needs of someone else, we find a satisfaction that is far greater and lasting than were we to merely seek after the satisfaction. I submit that when we seek after the interests of God (put on Christian humility), there is no greater satisfaction or fulfillment. Ultimate pleasure and true satisfaction is something of fringe benefit of Christian humility, from making God himself our final end. When we put on pride, seek our after our own ends, we put ourselves in the position of God and live disordered lives. When we put on humility, we surrender these selfish pursuits to God but we gain every good we could ever want.

Ultimate pleasure and true satisfaction is something of fringe benefit of Christian humility, from making God himself our final end.

This profound truth is captured by Jesus’ claim: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:24-25).