The Vital Virtue

The Vital Virtue

8 November 2013

"Learn of me; for I am...lowly of heart." (Mt 11.29)


"If he finds a humble station in life hard to put up with, he will scarcely avoid arrogance when honour comes." (John Calvin, Reformer, 16th C, Geneva)


"Gold of obedience and incense of lowliness bring and adore Him; the Lord is His Name." (Hymn 232, PCNZ)


In a recent essay ("Night Visions" - 17/10/13) I wrote that the "central key" to the Church "safely negotiating" approaching waves of tribulation and revival, will be "humility"! But exactly and Biblically what is it?


Well, not unexpectedly, definitions (both sacred and secular) lie strewn about. For example, the phenomenally influential, 12th C contemplative and churchman, Bernard of Clairvaux, described humility as "esteeming ourselves small inasmuch as we are so". And more recently, the "Universal Dictionary (1988)" speaks of a "lack of pride" and presence of "modesty". Perhaps more interesting and helpful is the idea that the Latin word "humilis" signifies "lowliness", and the closely related "humus" means "ground"?


But as Christians we are not left to scrabble about in the dust, looking for the best or most agreeable of the many descriptions available. Ours is the privilege to look to The One who in and of Himself incarnates and thus defines Truth in all of its broadest and most detailed aspects. For it is Jesus our Lord and Saviour who says,


"Learn of me; for I am...lowly of heart." (Mt 11.29)


Humility, so far as God our Saviour teaches is neither a definition, nor is it a behaviour. It is His heart, His being, His essence.


"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus...he humbled himself." (Php 2.5&8)


The story and process of the salvation of the human race by Jesus, is all and entirely about humility. He descended from the Throne of God in Heaven to dwell in the womb of the Virgin. He grew up as a member of the rural peasantry. During the last eighteen months or so of His earthly life, He lived as an outlaw, and then accepted the status of a criminal for its last hours.


But even after the Lord of all had further "humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Php 2.8), He abased himself yet further for our sake.


"For Christ also (having) once suffered for sins...went and preached unto the spirits in prison." (1 Pe 3.18-19)


In other words (and according to the Apostles' Creed) having been buried in the ground, "He descended (yet further down) into hell", for us. God became man in order to go down as low as any man can ever go, in order to raise us up as high as Heaven. (Even today, in our own time, Jesus continues to humble and lower Himself, so that He can "appear" on our Communion Tables, "disguised" as common bread and wine, in order to provide us with the meat and drink of His flesh and for our earthly pilgrimage.)


Our Lord Jesus Christ most dramatically and effectively expressed and revealed His lowliness of heart to His disciples in an event which most Believers are perhaps overly familiar with...when He washed their feet. (Jn 13.1-17) There are immense treasures in the detail of this incident.


(1) Something which should have been done, had been left undone. Ordinarily a slave belonging to the dinner host would have performed the ablutions. Up until the moment when Jesus got up and did what needed to be done, the atmosphere would have been awkward and very tense. But it was just too hard for these "upwardly-mobile" Apostles to take the vital step down. At that moment, only One Person in the room was "downwardly-mobile" and so had the power to do so...God!


(2) Humility or lowliness of heart, is not an idea or a behaviour. It is a spiritual unction and a grace of the Holy Spirit. During this "Last Supper", Jesus alone understood and lived this. If we were to attach as much significance to this manifestation of the Spirit, as we do to prophecy and miracles, the Church would be a radically different and more revolutionary and more influential organism today.


Our spiritual ancestors absolutely understood and practised lowliness of heart. In the wildernesses of Syria and Egypt in the 4th and 5th C's, our contemplative Desert Fathers and Mothers said:


"I saw the devil's snares set all over the earth, and I groaned and said, 'What can pass through them?' I heard a voice saying, 'Humility'."


"A devil tried to run Macarius through with a sickle, but could not. 'Your humility,' it said, 'is why I cannot prevail against you.' "


"A demoniac, frothing terribly at the mouth, struck an old hermit on the jaw, and he turned the other cheek. This humility tortured the demon like flames, and drove him out there and then." (1)


(3) The "towel" which the Lord "girded" Himself with, could be worn in two different ways. If it was tied with a knot, then the wearer was a slave. If worn as a stole (draped like a very long scarf), then this signalled a person of honour and pre-eminence and prestige.


Because Jesus at that time wore this "garment" as a slave, today He wears it as The King. Similarly, if we will not "wear" all that God gifts to us, as His slaves, then we will never be among those who receive His honour and praise.


Having his feet washed was a very traumatic and confronting event for Peter. But he never forgot, and got the message. Many years later, he exhorted God's People to be, not just humble...but "clothed - wrap yourselves - with humility". (1 Pe 5.5)


Why? Because that's the heart and nature and character of The Firstborn, whose Church we are. But also because The Way is the way of salvation. That is to say, if you want to "go up", then first you must "go down". Altitude is gained through this attitude. Our voluntary descent, precedes any ascent.


"He humbled (lowered) himself...Wherefore God also has highly exalted him." (Php 2.8-9)


"Humble (lower) yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up." (Jas 4.10)


"Humble (lower) yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, and he shall lift you up." (1 Pe 5.6)


This divine and unavoidable dynamic is nowhere more graphically explained than by the Lord Himself during a Sabbath meal in the house of "one of the chief Pharisees"! (Lk 14.1-11)


"When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour...take the lowest place, so that when you host comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, go up higher...move up to a better place.' "


Jesus told this parable because "he noticed how the guests" at this meal "picked the places of honour at the table"! And just in case He wasn't getting through to His hearers, He concluded pretty plainly and bluntly,


"For every one who exalts himself will be ranked below others who are honoured or rewarded, and he who keeps a modest opinion of himself and behaves accordingly will be elevated in rank." (Amplified Bible)


"Everyone who makes himself important will become insignificant, while the man who makes himself insignificant will find himself important." (JB Phillips NT)



(1) "The Desert Fathers". Transl. Benedicta Ward. Penguin, London 2003.