The Grace and Discipline of Humility

By: Dr. Steven Riser; ©2005
Dr. Riser asks and answers three questions: 1) What is humility? 2) Why is humility so important? 3) How can I grow in humility?

Texts: James 4:6b-8a; Romans 11:33-36

Introduction: The Nature of Humility

As a teenager, before I came to trust Christ my brother presented me with a motto which read: “When you’re as great as I am it’s hard to be humble.” Since then I have learned a lot because I had—and have—a lot to learn. So, I would like to share some thoughts on the grace and discipline of humility.

We begin by asking three questions: 1) What is humility? 2) Why is humility so important? 3) How can I grow in humility?

Explanation: What is Humility?

Humility is not primarily an attitude toward oneself but towards God and oth­ers. It means:

  1. A willingness to let God be God—to acknowledge one’s dependence on His power.
  2. To rejoice with gratitude in response to His great blessings and glorious grace.
  3. To adopt the perspective and ways of the Lord as one’s own.
  4. To accept in contrition the judgment of God when one falls short.
  5. To trust God’s power and His willingness to forgive and redeem.

Humility is not a synonym for: 1) selflessness, 2) contempt for self or 3) a divinely sanctioned inferiority complex. Biblical humility is not negative but posi­tive; it can lead us to lay down our lives for others (John 15:12-13). The best way to understand humility is attempting to see ourselves through God’s eyes rather than our own. Charles Spurgeon said that, “Humility is making a right estimate of one’s self.” Humility isn’t denying the power of gifting you have but admitting that the gifting is from God and the power comes through you and not from you.

  1. Humility is an essential characteristic of a truly godly individual. It involves recognizing our totality inability to accomplish anything for God apart from his grace (John 15:5). While God humbles men to bring them to Himself (Dt. 8:2, 3), it’s only when men humble themselves before God that they are accepted. (2 Chron. 7:14) The prophet Micah specifically states that one of God’s basic requirements for us is that we walk humbly with him. The prophet Isaiah declares it is in the humble heart that the high and lofty One dwells. If a proud spirit is one of the seven things that God hates (Prov. 6:16, 17) then it naturally follows that a humble spirit is one of the graces of the spirit that God loves.
  2. Humility needs to be the habitual attitude of a child of God. A humble per­son recognizes reality, namely that all we are and have is from God and that we are the object of God’s undeserved redeeming love. The Apostle Paul put it this way, “by the grace of God I am what I am.” It further recognizes that we are not our own but have been bought with a price: the precious blood of Jesus Christ. A genuine spirit of humility is essential to a proper estimate of oneself, one’s gifts and one’s calling. True humility is not to think too low or too high but to think rightly and truthfully concerning oneself (Rom. 12:3).
  3. A humble mind and heart is foundational to all the other graces and virtues. It’s an essential prerequisite to experiencing the grace of God. For the apostle James declares that “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Without humility we wouldn’t recognize our need for God nor desire to respond to His grace. Humility is an important prerequisite for faith for it’s the Spirit of God working in us that enables us to view ourselves aright.
  4. There can be no fear of or reverence for God without sincere humility. There can be no genuine love without humility for Paul said that “love is never proud…”(1 Cor. 13:4, 5), therefore love must be humble!
  5. Those that know God will be humble and those that know themselves can’t be proud. So few of us are big enough to become little enough to be significantly used of God. St. Augustine expressed it this way, “Humility is the first, second and third in Christianity.”
  6. Jesus not only strongly impressed his disciples with the need of humility, but was Himself its supreme example. He described Himself as “meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11: 29). The first of the beatitudes was to the “poor in spirit” and it was “the meek” who should “inherit the earth”. According to Jesus, humility is the way to true greatness (Matt. 18:4). Do you remember the example of humility that Jesus provided for us toward the end of his ministry? It was that of washing the disciple’s feet (Jn. 13:1-7). He said “I have set for you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (v. 15).
  7. In Philippians Paul makes the earnest appeal that Christians should mani­fest the Spirit of their Lord’s humility (Phil. 2:1-11) who deliberately set aside His divine prerogatives and progressively humbled himself to the point of death on a cross receiving in due time the exaltation which must inevitably follow. I don’t believe that we could find a more powerful example of humility than that of Christ Himself! Jesus said, “A servant is not above his master” (Mt. 10:24).
  8. But there is a false humility which the apostle Paul warns about that still exists in many forms today and has to be carefully guarded against. We must not deny the gifts and abilities that God has given us. False humility is pride that disguises itself as humility. We must not be proud in our humility! Did you hear about the minister who received a metal for his humility? The first time he wore it they took it away from him. Humility is an elusive quality, when you think you have it, you don’t.
  9. I would like for us to consider the vertical and horizontal dimensions of humility: 1) The vertical: in relation to God and 2) the horizontal: in relation to others.

I. Humility in Relation to God: Submission to Authority

1. Submission to God’s authority is the way of personal Christian humility. Nothing is more obnoxious in us who claim to follow Jesus Christ than spiritual pride, and nothing is more appropriate or attractive than humility. And an essen­tial element of Christian humility is our willingness to receive and respond to God’s Word and Spirit.
2. Perhaps the greatest of all our needs is to take our place again humbly, quietly and expectantly at the feet of Jesus Christ, in order to listen attentively to His Word, and to believe and obey it.
3. The ultimate issue before the whole church is whether Jesus Christ is Lord (as we say He is) or not. The question is whether Christ is Lord of the Church (to teach and command it) or the Church is Lord of Christ (to edit and manipulate His teaching). As we all know, Christ will judge the way we answer this question more by our actions than by our words. For He says, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not the things which I say?” (Our submission to Christ’s Lordship is primarily demonstrated by our actions (1 Jn. 3:18).)
4. With the contemporary crisis of authority in the world and the waning au­thority of Christ in the Church, my plea is that we return in humble submission to Jesus Christ as Lord, who Himself humbly submitted to Scripture in His own faith, life, mission and teaching.
5. In so doing, we will find:
  • the way of mature discipleship and intellectual integrity.
  • the way to unite churches and evangelize the world, and
  • the way to express the proper humility before our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is indeed a humbling but a wholesome and healing experience to submit to the authority of Christ through Scripture. So often we think we know it all when in fact we know very little. A wise man observed that “A mountain shames a molehill until both are humbled by the stars.
6. God declares through the prophet Isaiah “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8, 9). Compared to God we all know next to nothing!
7. So much for the vertical dimension of humility, what about the horizontal dimension?

II. Humility in Relation to Others: Sacrificial Service

  1. More than any other single way, the grace of humility is worked into our lives through the discipline of service. Humility as we know is one of those virtues that’s never gained by directly seeking it. The more we pursue it the more distant it becomes. To think we have it is sure evidence that we don’t. Therefore most of us assume there is nothing we can do to gain this prized Christian virtue and so we do nothing!
  2. But there’s something we can do. We don’t need to go through life faintly hoping that some day humility may fall upon our heads. Of all the spiritual disci­plines, secret service is the most conducive to the growth of humility.
  3. When we set out on a consciously chosen course of action that accents the good of others and is for the most part a ministry or service that does not call attention to itself, a deep and wonderful change occurs in our spirit.
  4. For you see, nothing disciplines the inordinate desire of the flesh like ser­vice and nothing transforms the natural desires of our flesh like hidden service. The flesh strains and pulls for honor and recognition and it will seek to devise religiously acceptable means to call attention to the service rendered. But if we refuse to give into this temptation we are crucifying the flesh and every time we crucify the flesh we crucify our pride and arrogance.
  5. The apostle John wrote, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 Jn. 2:16). We fail to understand the phrase “the lust of the flesh” because of our tendency to relegate it only to sexual sin. The “lust of the flesh” refers to the failure to put under our control—to discipline—our natural selfish, sinful human passions.
  6. C. H. Dodd has said that the “lust of the eyes” refers to “the tendency to be captivated by outward show.” The “pride of life” he defines as “pretentious ego­ism.” In each case the same thing is seen: infatuation with natural human powers and abilities without any dependence upon God. That is the flesh in operation and the flesh is the deadly enemy of humility.
  7. What is necessary in order to hold these passions in check? Daily disci­pline! The flesh must learn the painful lesson that it has no rights of its own. Paul says, “Make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”
  8. William Law made a lasting impact upon 18th century England with his book, a serious call to a devout and holy life. In it Law urged that every day should be viewed as a day of humility. How do we go about making each day into a day of humility? By learning to serve others. Law understood that it was the discipline of quiet service that brings humility into the life.
  9. If we want humility he counsels us to: “condescend to all the weaknesses and infirmities of your fellow-creatures, cover their frailties, love their excellen­cies, encourage their virtues, relieve their wants, rejoice in their prosperities, compassionate their distress, receive their friendship, overlook their unkindness, forgive their malice, be a servant of servants, and condescend to do the lowest offices to the lowest of mankind.”
  10. Who comes to your mind in modern society that graphically illustrates the grace of humility? One of the people that comes to my mind is Mother Theresa. I believe that her life and ministry is an outstanding example for each of us. Truly she ministered to the lowest of the lowly.
  11. Another notable figure that comes to mind when I think of humility is evan­gelist Billy Graham. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that God was pleased to use him so mightily. I was impressed with the spirit of humility he demonstrated in his interview with David Frost and Larry King.
  12. Charles Fox, in writing of God’s army, stipulated the following requisites for service in his army:
  • foolish enough to depend on God for wisdom
  • weak enough to depend of God for strength
  • despised enough to be kept in the dust at His feet; and
  • being nothing enough for God to be everything.

III. Twelve Ways to Humble Yourself

  1. Routinely confess your sins to God (Luke 18:9-14). “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Rigorous honesty and genuine confession are essential practices of a humble person (Psa. 139:23-24)
  2. Acknowledge your sin to others (Jas. 3:2; 5:16). One of the true tests of humility is to share, with those we trust, the weaknesses we have confessed to God.
  3. Take wrong patiently—learn to suffer long (1 Pet. 3: 8-17). Patiently re­sponding to the unjust accusations and actions of others demonstrates our strength of godly character and provides an opportunity “to put on humility.
  4. Actively submit to God-ordained authority (1 Pet. 2:18). Our culture doesn’t value submission to authority, however, God has placed authorities over us to help protect and provide.
  5. Graciously receive correction and seek constructive feedback (Prov. 10: 17; 12:1). One could simply say, “Thank you for caring enough to share with me, I will pray about it and get back with you.
  6. Accept a lowly place (Prov. 25:6, 7). Don’t try to sit at the head table or be the first in line for a meal. Defer to others and esteem others better than yourself (Phil. 2:3, 4).
  7. Purpose to associate with people of lower estate (Luke 7:36-39). Resist the temptation to be partial or to give preferential treatment to the wealthy and the powerful. God is no respecter of person, neither should we be.
  8. Choose to serve others (Phil. 1:1; 2 Cor. 4:5; Mt. 23:11). We serve God’s purposes in part by serving others. Unselfishly serving others focuses on building the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of self.
  9. Be quick to forgive (Matt. 18:21-25). To forgive is to acknowledge a wrong has been done and to release our right of repayment for the wrong. Forgiveness involves giving up the right to get even (Eph. 4:32).
  10. Cultivate a grateful heart (1 Thess. 5:18). The more we develop an attitude of gratitude in response to God’s grace, the more true is our perspective con­cerning ourselves. A grateful heart is a humble heart.
  11. Purpose to speak well of others (Eph. 4:31-32). Speaking well of others edifies them and builds them up instead of us. We should never seek to exalt ourselves at the expense of others.
  12. Treat pride as a condition that always necessitates embracing the cross (Luke 9:23). We must commit ourselves to a lifestyle of daily dying to self and living through Him—this is the foundation of true humility.


  1. I believe that as we learn to daily discipline the flesh we will invariably see a growth in the grace of humility. It will slip in upon us unawares.
  2. Though we may not directly sense its presence, we will become aware of a fresh zest / exhilaration with living. We will wonder at the new sense of confi­dence that marks our activities.
  3. Although the demands of life are as great as ever, we will live in a new sense of unhurried peace. People whom we once only envied we now view with compassion, for we see not only their position but their pain.
  4. People whom we would have passed over we now see and find to be de­lightful individuals. We will feel a new spirit of identification with the outcasts of our society (1 Cor. 4:13).
  5. Even more than the transformation that is occurring within us, we are aware of a deeper love and joy for God. Our days are punctuated with spontaneous offerings of joyous praise and heart-felt adoration.
  6. Joyous sacrificial service to others is a prayer we act out of our gratitude in response to God’s grace. We seem to be directed by a new control center—and so we are—and so we are!
  7. G. Campbell Morgan felt God saying to him, “Which do you want to be, a servant of mine or a great preacher?” Struggling with the question, he asked, “May I not be both, Lord?” he had visions of being an unknown minister in some obscure town. But evaluating the options, Morgan submissively prayed, “O Lord, my greatest wish is to be a servant of Thine.” Time has proved that the Lord’s response was to make him one of the greatest preachers of recent memory.
  8. Are you willing to humble yourself and become a submissive servant of the Lord? The Church of Jesus Christ needs your help today—working, dreaming, and praying until that day when the Church of Jesus Christ is received as his glorious bride! Amen.

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