You’ve probably heard it before that we are supposed to “humble ourselves”. This is a favorite saying of many preachers, especially those who like to use the Bible as a blunt-force object. Whenever they see someone doing something wrong, the go-to phrase for many of them is “You need to humble yourself before a holy God!” – I’ve had this phrase lobbed at me many times, in many different places, yet I was never told what it actually meant. I used to assume that it meant to berate yourself, because after all, the legalistic and condemning preachers just spent an entire sermon telling me all the things that I need to do to get right with God, and how displeasing I am to Him, so that must be a form of humbling, right?
That was my thought process all those years ago, and I have found that many believers today still think along the same lines. Many people are still very confused about the idea of humbling themselves. So that’s why today in this study, we will be examining what it really means to humble ourselves; and by seeing the truth presented in scripture, we will not be in confusion regarding this phrase any longer.
As we begin today, there are two places in scripture where this quote can be made, and we will look at both of them. The first being in James 4:10:
“Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.”
On the surface, this sounds perfectly natural and makes sense to us, and as I mentioned, preachers use this verse a lot on their congregations; but is the way it is commonly thought of and used, what the verse was actually intended for? Look at the verse in context of the verses surrounding it… James 4:9-11:
“Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.
Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.
Speak not evil one of another, brothers. He that speaks evil of his brother, and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law, and judges the law: but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge.”
When examining the context, we can see that this verse is intended for a very specific audience. Remember that James is one of three apostles, sent to bring the message of Christ to the Jewish people (Galatians 2:9). Now there is an application of these verses for us as believers today, but it is only possible to see when we first understand how it was meant for James’ immediate audience of unbelieving Jews.
The Jews of James’ day were steeped in their traditions, their laws and their pride based on their works. They did not recognize their need for a spiritual Savior, they had the Law of Moses, and they were relying on their relationship with God through that covenant. They were prideful because they saw themselves as special and above the Gentiles because God had chosen them as His people. So instead of going out and spreading the word of God to the world and being the nation of priests that God originally intended (Exodus 19:6)… instead they boasted in their position and in themselves and later used the Law as a means to boast over others. They expected that the Messiah would redeem Israel and destroy her enemies – but they did not recognize the Messiah as someone who would redeem their soul and spirit and destroy their spiritual enemies (i.e. salvation).
So James here is speaking to his Jewish brothers. He is telling them, instead of rejoicing in your works, instead of indulging and reveling in your self-effort and pretentiousness, you should realize that you are actually in a very bad position. You should recognize that you actually need to be saved, you need to be redeemed. Instead of passing judgment on others who you think are worse than yourself, you should recognize that to do so is to break the law of Christ in Matthew 7:1. And sandwiched right in the middle of these two things is James prescription – his divine antidote to this problem, the Grace of Jesus; instead of boasting in yourself and being puffed-up by your works which are utterly worthless and unable to save. Come to God with humility of spirit (different than debasement) come to God recognizing that you alone have no power to make yourself righteous or holy, and He will lift you up. Notice that it is not the one who comes to God that does the lifting – it is God who does the lifting, the person merely consents to be lifted-up.
So James’ message to his Jewish brothers was to come to Christ, because they were trusting in themselves and their own law-keeping and rejecting the gift of Grace. As you read the rest of the chapter you see that his message is consistently consistent with that theme. Draw near to God, come to Him, stop being prideful and boasting in yourself. This was his message to the Jews, and this is the same message that sadly can also be applied to those who claim to be believers today as well.
In many ways, Christianity is rediscovering its Jewish roots, and that is not a bad thing – even so there is a side-effect that for some, this drive also encourages other aspects, of Judaism, such as a focus on works and law-keeping and ritualistic practices. In my years attending church-buildings, I have encountered many places that taught entirely on “what we need to do”, and “how we need to behave”, that Jesus and His free gift of Grace was never mentioned. Sure the Name of Jesus may have been said here and there, and the word Grace may have been spoken… but it was never taught; the focus was entirely on man and his efforts. This is precisely what Jesus says about the church of Sardis in Revelation 3 – they have a reputation of being alive, but they are dead… their focus is entirely on their works instead of Christ.
Now this segue’s directly into our second scripture on humbling ourselves today, which is 1st Peter 5:6:
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time:”
The neat thing here is that if you are observant of the details, you will notice that the verse does not end in a full stop, but a colon. This is another instance where context is key to understanding the meaning of the verse – and while Peter is indeed speaking to believers here, take notice in verses 6 through 9, what his message is here concerning humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand:
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time:
Casting all your care on him; for he cares for you.
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour:
Whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brothers that are in the world.”
How exactly is it that we humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God? By casting all of our cares upon Him; because He cares for us!
The mighty hand of God is not a hand of affliction. It is not a hand waiting to slam down and squash us. It is instead a hand of protection, like a massive divine umbrella. It is a hand of covering and safety. A hand that shields and protects us.
Humbling ourselves is not debasing ourselves or making less of ourselves as a person, but it is making much of Jesus and what He has done for us. There are many people unknowingly practicing a form a false humility, debasing themselves and lowering themselves and condemning themselves in an effort to somehow make things right with God by suffering; when the true way to humble ourselves is to recognize that Jesus suffered in our place, and we can truly and righteously do as the verse says and cast all of our cares (anxieties, worries and distractions) onto Jesus, because He does indeed care for us. And as He is exalted, as He is lifted up – He takes us with Him. Let’s not forget that… As He is lifted-up, so too are we, because He lifts us up as well. I don’t know about you, but I am very grateful and very happy to let God lift me up, every single day. I am not too proud to admit that I cannot lift myself up, so I am eager to let Him do it for me; and He does!
And for those who may have missed our previous study on the other verses of 1st Peter 5:7-9, it is here, in our study titled Change Your Focus, Change Your Life. I would encourage you to read that study as well, as the goodness of Christ is far too vast for one single article to contain!
Remember, humbling ourselves is not making less of ourselves; not beating ourselves down, but lifting up Christ and recognizing what He has done for us. Give Jesus the praise!