Is God humble?

Paul Mackrell and Chris Sawyer
01 April, 2008 5 min read

Is God humble?

Is God humble? It sounds irreverent to ask such a question, but we shall ask it anyway. Now let me anticipate your response. Two thoughts may occur to you. The first is this – of course, God is not humble. He has no need to be. Of all the beings in heaven and earth, he alone has nothing about which to be humble.

God is perfect and cannot lie. He sees people as they really are, including himself. We reason that since humility is simply owning up to flaws of character and failures in behaviour, how can God possibly be humble?

That is one thought. The other centres on the essential humility of the Lord Jesus Christ. We would say that although the Father is not humble because he does not need to be, here on earth the Son was extremely humble. In fact no one has ever shown such humility. Think of the way he washed his disciples’ feet. In this he is our pattern – the supreme example for all believers.

Put those two things together and you end up with the conclusion that when Jesus took our humanity he took humility as well. In other words, even though in practice our sinful nature is dominated by pride, humility remains an essentially human quality.

Jesus took humanity not humility

But is this really the case? In Philippians 2 Paul urges the believers in Philippi to imitate Christ’s humility. But when did Christ’s humility begin?

Did it start at Bethlehem or was it his from eternity? Can we say that ‘taking humility’ was as much a part of the package as was taking a human body, taking servant-hood and taking the Calvary Road? I would suggest not.

It is much nearer the mark to say that it was precisely because of his humility that he willingly became a man. It was not that he stepped into the clothes of humanity at Bethlehem and found humility woven into the fabric. Rather, he came into this sinful world of ours as a result of the essential humility that is bound up in the divine character.

Of course, it was at Bethlehem, leading right through to Calvary, that we see the humility of Christ most gloriously displayed. Nevertheless we can say that at the incarnation Jesus took humanity but not humility. Humility had been, and always will be, part of the divine character.

Christ’s humanity made him hungry, thirsty and tired, but it did not change his character in any way. Neither did his humanity add any new personality traits to his divinity, such as humility.

In short, Jesus is humility personified – is and always was. Admittedly, his humiliation began at Bethlehem and culminated at Calvary. But his humility went right back to eternity.

What of the Father?

If Jesus was humble from eternity, it follows that the other persons in the Trinity must be (and must have always been) equally humble. There is nothing about the character of Jesus Christ that is not also true of the Father and the Holy Spirit.

To return to the instance of washing his disciples’ feet, it was incomprehensible that the Son of God should stoop so low as to do the work of a slave. The twelve were taken aback by this supreme act of lowliness. Philip, like the others, was impressed but he wanted more. In Jesus he had seen humility, but he wanted a sight of glory. He asked to be shown the Father.

Jesus’ reply exposed the fallacy in Philip’s thinking. He told him: ‘anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’. Jesus was saying that there was nothing about the Father that could not be seen in the Son – the things he did, the words he spoke, the manner in which he acted. In other words, if you see humility in the Son, be assured it is a family trait.

The cross is the climax of the Son’s humility. But at the same time it reveals immense humility on the part of the Father. What else, other than immeasurable lowliness of spirit, could surrender his glorious Son and put him to death for us? We catch an echo of this same spirit in the parable of the prodigal son, when his father ran to embrace him as he returned, disgraced and ashamed.

The meaning

So what does it mean for God to be humble? Perhaps we need to look again at our understanding of the word ‘humility’. At a human level, humility is bound up with sober self-assessment. We see ourselves as we really are and the proper response is one of humility.

But humility also means valuing others more highly than ourselves – considering that their needs and their time is more important than our own. God’s humility is of a similar kind. Calvary is a case of God, quite literally, putting our interests above his own.

There is nothing humble about fallen human nature. Quite the opposite. Our basic instincts are to strive for self-advancement and status, not through any evolutionary principle but because that’s the character of sin. Even as Christians it’s often a struggle for us to surrender some of our precious time and energy for others.

Any achievements we notch up in this regard are feeble, spasmodic and half-hearted – and even then they are often nullified by the smug afterglow of pride. The gentle warmth of a humble act is quickly doused by self-congratulation.

And we are talking here about humility before our fellow men and women, people who to one degree or another are pretty much like us. It’s just here that we see the staggering humility of God. He put the needs of fallen and rebellious sinners first.

The irony of the Fall

There is a strange irony here. In tempting our first parents, Satan’s line of attack was to appeal to what would become the defining characteristic of mankind in his fallen state – human pride. He also plied them with deliberate misinformation as to the nature of God. He told them, ‘you will be like God’.

Fed by the alluring guile of the devil they thought ‘knowledge, glory and power’. They did not think ‘humility’. Had they done so they might have chosen differently.

Their very choice condemned us, their successors, to be by nature the precise opposite of God. Far from becoming like God we became very unlike God. Whereas God is clothed in glorious humility, we dress ourselves in hideous and gaudy pride.

The importance of the question

This is not an academic issue. Consider Isaiah 57:15: ‘For this is what the high and lofty one says – he who lives for ever whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite”.’

Or Isaiah 66:2: ‘The is the one I esteem; he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word’.

These verses tell us that the Lord enjoys the company of the contrite. If some of the humble saints of the Old Testament walked with God, it is equally true that God walked with them. He liked being with them. It is surely not going too far to say that the Lord enjoyed their company because they reflected something of his own character.

Is this not why repentant sinners find acceptance with him? Having come to an end of themselves they seek the forgiveness that is found in Christ alone. It is the signature on the claim form that lays hold of the Son of God and renounces every last vestige of human pride.

Here is the challenge for us. We are to be holy as he is holy. Should we not also be humble as he is humble?

Paul Mackrell & Chris Sawyer

Editors note: Chris Sawyer very recently went to be with the Lord. We extend our sympathy to his family.

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