Humility and Exaltation
Last week we began a series I’ve entitled “Short Sayings of Jesus.” Jesus was a master teacher, and He employed many teaching forms (e.g., lecture, Socratic discussion, parables, modeling, active learning situations, etc.). He was also a master of short sayings – which are like spiritual high-potency multi-vitamins: easy to memorize because of their brevity, and have wide application to our lives. Jesus employed two types of short sayings:
Mini-teachings, which briefly develop an important truth. Jesus frequently utters these in response to a situation/person (e.g., Lk. 10:41,42), or as part of a longer teaching (e.g., Matt. 7:3-5). We looked at one of these mini-teachings last week.
Aphorisms, which are short, pithy sayings that express a general truth (e.g., “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”). We will look at one of Jesus’ aphorisms this morning – read.
As a young Christian, I was taught that we should not only teach what the Bible teaches, but also that we should emphasize the Bible emphasizes. Why? Because repetition indicates importance (PARENTING EXAMPLE: “Get your money out” in response to “I want . . .”).
The gospels record Jesus uttering this aphorism three times (He probably used it many more times in His public ministry), which ranks it second in Jesus’ sayings (after the four-time “He who loves his life loses it . . .”). This repetition emphasizes the importance of the truth embodied in Jesus’ aphorism.
This aphorism (in slightly different forms) is also communicated many times in the rest of the Bible – both in the Old Testament (read 2 Sam. 22:28; Prov. 29:23) and in the rest of the New Testament (read Lk. 1:52; Jas. 4:6,10; 1 Pet. 5:6). Beyond that this contrast between self-exaltation (or pride) and humility is communicated countless additional times throughout the Bible.
This shouldn’t surprise us, because the Bible teaches that pride is the original and foundational sin that is the “mother” of all other sins. Conversely, it teaches that humility is the foundational virtue (virtually synonymous with “faith”) and the “mother” of all true spirituality (as we will see). Now let’s take a closer look at the meaning of this aphorism . . .
Many biblical aphorisms are sociological maxims about human behavior rather than absolute promises from God. For example, Prov. 15:1 (read) is generally true – but it is not a promise that is always true, because people have free will! The same is true of Prov. 22:6 – for the same reason.
But this aphorism is an absolute promise, not a sociological maxim. “Whoever (or everyone) who exalts himself will be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” This is not saying that if you are humble around people, they will usually praise and reward you (that certainly didn’t happen to Jesus!). It is stating a divine law as certain as the natural law of gravity: God is always opposed to all who are proud, and He always gives grace/exalts all who are humble. The timing is up to God (“at the proper time”), as is the manner of His exaltation – but He will always do this.
How God humbles the proud & exalts the humble
To understand this, let’s look at the context of the three times Jesus utters this maxim. In each of these three utterances, He uses it as the climax/punch-line to a parable (Lk. 14:11; 18:14) or to a mini-teaching (Matt. 23:12). This will also give us some insight into what pride looks like, and how to start down the path of humility if we want to be exalted by God.
Read Lk. 18:9-14. What is at stake here is the most terrible of all abasements or the most wonderful of all exaltations – right standing with God, or condemnation by God. The tax-collector went home “justified” (DEFINE), while the Pharisee went home “not justified.” Why did God pronounce the tax-collector justified, but pronounce the Pharisee condemned? Not because of their comparative religiosity or morality – the Pharisee was far better than the tax-collector on both counts. It was because of their heart-attitudes toward themselves.
The Pharisee was prideful, and his pride came out through his self-righteousness. He trusted in himself that he was more righteous than other people, and consequently viewed others with contempt. In spite of his outward religiosity and morality, he didn’t truly believe that he needed God’s mercy or forgiveness. This is the most lethal form of pride, and it isn’t limited to religious people. Some of the most self-righteous, judgmental people I have ever met are very secular in their world-views (EXAMPLES). God can forgive any sin except the sin of believing that you don’t need His forgiveness. This is a form of denial that will be eternally lethal to your soul unless you come to your senses. A cancer victim who insists he is healthy ties the hands of the surgeon who could save his life. To be a sinner but insist that you are righteous is to tie the hands of the God who alone can save you.
The tax-collector, for all of his serious defects, got the most important thing right. He didn’t utter a comparative word, because he knew that the only important thing was that he was guilty before God (“me, the sinner”). He knew that he could never earn God’s acceptance, and that his only chance was God’s mercy (“God, be merciful to me”). Actually, he prays: “God, be propitious to me” – which means: “God, make atonement for me, provide a substitute to pay for my guilt.” God cannot express His mercy in a way that compromises His righteous character; He must punish our sins with the death they deserve. But in His love He provided His own Son to atone for our sins through His death. So to say to God: “Make atonement for me through Your Son’s death” is the expression of humility that results in the supreme exaltation – permanent right standing with God Himself. Have you taken this step?
Jesus’ other application of this aphorism is a warning against lust for human praise and recognition. Read Lk. 14:7-11 and Matt. 23:5-12. Lust for human praise and recognition is rank pride, because it imitates Satan’s choice to be the center of the universe. It will end in disgrace – not only human disgrace sometimes (NIXON), but in disgrace before God because of our self-deification. Ironically, God Himself the only rightful Center of the universe because He is a humble Servant. So to “take the lower seat,” to choose to be a servant of God to meet the needs of other people, is the choice for humility and true godlikeness – and God will honor this attitude both in this life (e.g., granting more authority to influence others for Him) and in the next (Matt. 25:21,23).
We should note that lust for human praise and recognition is a problem not only for social-climbers in secular society (e.g., school and work; Lk. 14), but also for church people involved in spiritual ministry (Matt. 23). This lust will morph in order to stay alive and in control of our lives. I can remember my competitive lust for people’s admiration all the way back to early grade school. It was a terrible addiction that enslaved me, and it led me to use and abuse many people. After I received Christ, some of the rankest forms of this pride got removed – but it also morphed into a more subtle and insidious form. What began as a simple desire to serve people out of gratitude to God over time became more and more corrupted into a way to get other people’s respect and admiration for my spiritual accomplishments. This is still a big struggle for me, and whatever freedom I may have gained has required a lot of discipline from God. How about you?
Here’s another biblical answer to this question: prideful people have a lot of anxiety, but God gives humble people a lot of peace. Far more than you might suppose, your anxiety is likely a negative consequence of your pride. Our psyches were never designed to bear this weight. The Bible makes this point in several passages.
Read Prov. 29:23,25. Pride results in “fear of man” – anxiety about what people think of me, what people might do to me, etc. But humble trust in God’s view of me leads to security.
Ps. 131 is a beautiful picture of this peace (read 131:1,2). Why is David’s soul composed? Because he has humbled himself by turning away from self-aggrandizement, competing with and looking down on others, and trying to do “great things” for human praise. We can adopt this attitude, and it will lead to the same kind of soul-composure. “A mature believer leaves the clamor of proud ambition and rests in the Lord.” (Bible Knowledge Commentary) God says: “With the credit comes the stress. If you want the credit, then you’ll get the stress that comes with this. But if you want me to have the credit, then I’ll get the stress – and I can handle it.”
Read 1 Pet. 5:6,7. Humbling yourself under God’s mighty hand involves (and enables) you to cast your anxieties on to Him.
So here are three ways that God humbles the proud, but exalts the humble. That leads to a final question about this aphorism: How can we cultivate increasing humility?
How we can cultivate increasing humility
We have be careful here. There is a big difference between cultivating humility and self-generating it. We can never self-generated humility; as Andrew Murray said: “Self cannot cast out self.” We are too fallen to ever extract pride from our own souls; it will only morph into a different form and defeat us. Only God can give us humility. Yet the fact that God tells us to “humble ourselves” means that we can (and must) cooperate with Him as He seeks to do this. That’s what garden cultivation is. I cannot generate the simplest vegetable – this is beyond my power. But I can and must cultivate my garden – weeding, feeding, watering, etc. – if there is to eventually be a good harvest. Here are a few ways we can cultivate humility.
Ask God to sensitize you to your personal “pride style” (read Ps. 139:23,24). Pride comes with its own cloaking device; it’s always easier to recognize in others than in yourself. Christian pride is often even more subtle and easier to deny because we do so many genuinely good things. Ask Him: “How do I boast, indulge in self-pity, etc?” “With whom do I compare and compete?” “What are my self-coronation projects?” Ask others who know you well what they see here.
Prioritize a secret life with God (read Matt. 6:1,3,4,6). Our “public” and “private” spiritual lives should be like an iceberg (SLIDE) – more going on before God alone and behind the scenes. If there is significant service and prayer that are just between you and God, this is a safeguard against pride and a fertilizer for humility. But if most/all of your spiritual life is “public,” you are in peril of man-pleasing pride (6:1), and your spiritual life is likely to become a sink-hole (SLIDE).
Learn to welcome “thorns” and “weaknesses” (read 2 Cor. 12:7,10). God works through disappointments, physical ailments, difficult and distressing circumstances, insulting and persecuting people, etc. to protect us from self-exaltation. Because of our deep depravity, this is essential for preventing conceit and promoting humility.
When I was a child, polio was still rampant. When Jonas Salk developed his vaccine, it had to be injected with a big needle. I did not want that vaccine because of the painful needle, but my parents insisted – to protect me from the far worse fate of polio. Pride is far more harmful than polio!
“Humility is a very beautiful thing to see; but . . . (becoming) humble is painful indeed . . . It hurts to be criticized, to be misunderstood, to be misjudged, to be snubbed, to be written off; but such things are the high road to humility. None of us enjoys walking that way. Oddly enough . . . for some of us it is when we realize how little we are regarded by others that we (finally) begin to recognize how highly we are esteemed by God. We have ceased to wonder what others think about us; we have discovered our worth in the eyes of God.”
SUMMARIZE steps toward cultivating humility >> questions about these steps and/or comments about other steps?
 Basil Hume, cited in Meditations through the Centuries, compiled by Hugh Hopkins.