Unlike pride, humility does not come naturally; it must, in the Bible's terminology, be "put on." It must be added to our character by means of God's Spirit and consistent, conscious decisions to submit to God because we love Him, because we are sincerely seeking to be like Him, and because we greatly desire to glorify Him. In this manner, by God's power and our cooperation, humility is created as part of our character, enabling us to grow stronger toward overcoming pride's evil influences.
Because of exposure to Satan and this world, pride is within us almost from birth. Humility is most definitely not that way but is a created attribute of character. A carnal humility can be created within a child living under the supervision of loving parents who are making the effort to train their children in good character qualities. In like manner, spiritual humility is most definitely a developed characteristic because of contact with God and our willing cooperation. James 4:6-10 asserts:
But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.
Once we understand some of the Bible's instruction regarding spiritual humility, this clear series of commands becomes important. They must be commanded because these actions are not natural to human nature and because the pride dwelling within us is so strong and influential.
Humbling ourselves is commanded just as surely as resisting the Devil, cleansing our hands, purifying our hearts, lamenting, mourning, and weeping. This means that humbling ourselves in submission to God is a choice that can—indeed, must—be exercised. Humility is important enough that God repeats this command briefly in Proverbs 3:34 and in I Peter 5:5-6.
Humility is dealt with somewhat differently in each testament, but at the same time, there is a tight similarity between the two treatments. In the Old Testament, it is shown less as a good quality of an honorable person's character than as a condition or situation an individual finds himself in because of poverty, affliction, or persecution. In this approach, a humble person is one in a humble circumstance.
In other words, the humble person has been brought low in a social sense. This perspective provides an understandable illustration that visibly portrays the more important spiritual attitude of the heart. People in a humble circumstance project degrees of attitude and conduct that may even approach obsequiousness, portrayed to an extreme in the movie Lord of the Rings, when the conniving counselor, Wormtongue, is confronted and embarrassingly corrected by Gandalf.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Living by Faith and Humility
How does the New Testament present humility? According to commentator William Barclay, the classical Greek language did not even have a word for humility that included no sense of shame. The root of the word the apostles used literally means "to depress," a very expressive word. To the Greeks, humility indicated servility and slavishness. This may have been because Greeks looked down upon anyone who acted in humility as not being an upstanding person of good character. Culturally, it was evil, shameful behavior, as to them it exhibited someone untrustworthy. At best, they would consider the person to be a wimp because they admired people who aggressively took charge, commanding others about.
The Christian approach is entirely different. We will consider a few scriptures that give a description of the way humility enhances one's character.
Psalm 113:4-7: "For He is high above the nations; His glory is far greater than the heavens. Who can be compared with God enthroned on high? Far below Him are heavens and the earth; He stoops to look, and lifts the poor from the dirt"(The Living Bible).
Psalm 138:6: "Yet though He is so great, He respects the humble, but proud men must keep their distance" (The Living Bible).
Both of these psalms picture God as being of awesome power, but He holds His power in check to achieve a greater good. Rather than destroy through imperious self-centeredness, He pities and builds with gentle, understanding kindness.
Matthew 20:25-28 shows New Covenant leadership: "But Jesus called them to Himself and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.'"
Matthew 11:29 makes Jesus' insistence on humility exceedingly clear: "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
Matthew 11:29 is a direct command from the same God described in Psalms, though here He is acting as a Man. His example and commands regarding this continues to be the way Christians are to follow.
Humility is not a weak, cringing approach to life. It is not a denial of power but the deliberate controlling of power to accomplish a greater good. It comes into proper use when a converted person deliberately utilizes a servant approach rather than a natural, proud, and carnal human-ruler approach. It is the attitude that best promotes good relationships because it neutralizes pride and the damage it can wreak. At the very least, it indicates modesty that grows from a genuine self-evaluation that concludes in the person deeming himself worthless in relation to God and His truth.
It is important that we understand self-evaluation better. In the Christian sense of humility, the person is not deeming himself worthless because he sees himself as a vile creature full of sin—though to some degree this is true in comparison to God—but because he is merely a creature, absolutely dependent upon God even for every breath of air. Further, he views himself as possessing nothing intrinsically good, having to receive all good, spiritual things from God as well. Even Jesus had this attitude, and He is our model.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Living by Faith and Humility
Notice how many active words Paul uses in Colossians 3:1-17 to describe what a Christian must be doing:
- "Seek those things which are above" (verse 1).
- "Set your mind on things above" (verse 2).
- "Put to death your members" (verse 5).
- "Put off all these" (verse 8).
- "Do not lie to one another" (verse 9).
- "Put on tender mercies" (verse 12).
- "Bearing with one another, and forgiving" (verse 13).
- "Put on love" (verse 14).
- "Let the peace of God rule . . . and be thankful" (verse 15).
- "Let the word of Christ dwell in you" (verse 16).
- "Do all in the name of the Lord Jesus" (verse 17).
Paul makes sure we understand that we must actively participate in order to grow. When God talks about growth, He means increasing in His attributes, the qualities that will conform us to His image.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Five Teachings of Grace
Meekness is rooted in God, and therefore we must pursue it. Because it is a quality of God's character, we must exert effort to make it part of our character. Although we may be experiencing adversity, as the meek we should still appreciate God's good and gracious will.
Martin G. Collins
With admonitions like these, we step into the intimate personal relationships within a congregation or family. They show that unity depends more upon the exercise of the members' moral qualities than the structure of the institution. Paul shows in Ephesians that the life we are called to live is characterized by five qualities: humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, and love, the last of which embraces the preceding four and is the crown of all virtues. Each of these qualities enables us to act in mercy and live at peace. God's Spirit empowers us to use these qualities to overcome the ill will and the bitter, passionate rages that lead to clamorous slander, destroying reputations.
Such ill will and rage hardly promote kindness, compassion, and acting in grace toward each other. "Acting in grace" is an acceptable translation of the Greek word, charizomai, rendered "forgiving" in Ephesians 4:32. Acting in grace catches the essence of how God has acted toward us and our sin against Him. And because He has forgiven us, we are commanded to forgive each other (Colossians 3:13).
Mercy begins with the way we feel about or toward each other and moves toward merciful acts. God loves us and has an outgoing concern for us. If God so loves us, then we ought to love each other (I John 4:11). Thus, we are bound to forbear with one another and act kindly, in mercy. Anybody focused on himself as the center of the universe will have a difficult time thinking kindly of others, and unity will be difficult, if not impossible. It is no wonder, then, why so much divorce occurs, as well as division in other areas of life. A focus on the self does not allow much room for humble, kind, and compassionate thoughts of service for others.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Beatitudes, Part 5: Blessed Are the Merciful
This is the practical application of "seek[ing] those things which are above" (Colossians 3:1). In effect, Paul is saying that, if we are seeking heavenly things, the resources to overcome these things will be available. They will be part of us because God responds to those who are truly seeking Him.
We must be patient. Our relationship with God is not magic. It takes work. Those of us who have had any of these problems understand that one must hold a tight rein on oneself to keep from doing the things that Paul says to "put off." They are so deeply ingrained within us that they want to break out all by themselves.
This is why Paul writes in Romans 7:15-23, "The things that I do not want to do, I do. The things I do want to do, I do not do." He concludes that two conflicting laws were working within him. There was the law of his mind, which loved God, understood a great deal about Him, and wanted to submit to Him, to sacrifice for His sake and in His name, and to discipline himself. But the law of his flesh—sin that dwelt within him—every once in a while reared its ugly head and broke out.
Thus, we must discipline ourselves. We know that we are to "put off" those things that do not reflect the image of God and to "put on" the characteristics that do. "Putting on" and "taking off" are not always easy. Sometimes, we can readily apply or overcome certain things; they seem to come easily to us. But other character flaws are thorns in the flesh, their barbs stuck deep within us, and they embarrass us from time to time and make us feel guilty. They make us wonder whether we will be acceptable before God. Seeing this, we realize that overcoming them will take a great deal of work—and work requires discipline.
One of the final things that Paul mentions in this passage is love (Colossians 3:14). Love is the crown; it tops off, as it were, all of the other virtues, tying them all together. A true love for God and love for others—not to mention a proper love for ourselves—will motivate us to transform into Christ's image.
The diligent "putting on" and the "taking off" will be the proof of our seeking God and the things which are above. When we understand this, we realize that even the ability to "put on" and to "take off" is a gift from God, as the resources to do this come from Him. God responds to those who make Him the focus of their lives, and this is who we exhibit. The evidence begins to show in the way we live our lives.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part Twenty-Three)
As the elect of God, we must put on or clothe ourselves with longsuffering. By doing this in unity as a church, we rid ourselves of, or at least dramatically reduce, friction. To be loving and effective, a minister must correct, rebuke, and encourage with longsuffering.
Martin G. Collins
When Paul speaks of putting on the new man here, he gives us several attitudes we need to emulate as followers of Christ. Most of them involve the way we deal with each other because a major part of what God is teaching us has to do with building and solidifying our relationships. As we see in the next few verses, he comments specifically on the husband-wife, parent-child and employer-employee relationships.
Why? Largely, our judgment by our Savior hangs on the quality of our relationships. We should never forget the principle found in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats: "Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:40, 45).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Road Less Traveled
Paul puts love "above all," showing that love is the epitome of virtues. Here, its importance is as "the bond," something that binds or holds things, like a congregation, together.
Eventually, all groups tend to fly apart. They do not remain united by magic. Generally, a group maintains its unity through a common cause. As each person contributes to attaining that cause, unity is generally served. However, even though individuals expend effort to achieve the cause, frictions arise from a multitude of reasons. Love is the supreme quality that enables the members of the group to maintain unity and keep it from flying apart. This is achieved by each person constraining or restraining himself to act in love.
Interestingly, qualities that we normally think of as being manly—like drive, courage, determination, and aggressiveness—are missing from this list in Colossians 3. Though they are not inherently evil, they play directly into the human ego, frequently resulting in crass individualism.
Because it tends to produce division, individualism is not what Paul is aiming for here. Without strong spiritual control, those traits tend to descend into competitiveness, anger, wrath, malice, dissembling, accusation, slander, and foul talk. These in turn are nothing more than unashamed self-seeking, traits that split and divide.
Each virtue Paul lists is actually an expression of love, traits that make it possible to live in a community. There is nothing weak and effeminate about them: It takes a strong person to resist what comes naturally and do what God commands rather than go along with urges of our carnal feelings. Paul lists love as a separate attribute here to show that it is not limited to the qualities he names.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fruit of the Spirit: Love
Humility has its basis in an honest and realistic comparison of us with God. To compare ourselves with other people always allows us a great deal of wiggle room because we can always find flaws in other people's character. But these rationalizations are not really honest because our goal is not to be in the image of other people or them to be in our image. Our goal is to be in the image of God, and therefore the comparison must be with Him.
When we do that—and we do it honestly—we always come out on the short end of the stick. We are woefully poor (poor of spirit) of any value, any quality or characteristic one might even begin to imagine. We fall so far short of His holiness that it knocks the props right out from under any idea we might have to take pride in what we are.
If we are striving to be like Him, to walk in His steps, to be in His image, this comparison gives us a much more realistic foundation to work from in relating both to Him and to fellow man. It is a wonderful attitude adjuster and regulator of relationships.
Humility tends to be the flipside of faith, because where the confident—the faithful, the trusting—will push themselves forward, the humble has a tendency to hesitate. It is a matter of restraint.
In the humble, there is a consciousness of emptiness, of potential weakness, of helplessness, of worthlessness. However, we should never get the idea that the humble are weak. Paradoxically, they are among the strongest of all people on earth! It all depends on one's perspective. In God's perspective, these people are strong, while from a human perspective, it depends on whom they want to impress.
Humility is so important that God gave Paul some help to make sure that he would stay humble (II Corinthians 12:6-10). Yet, if we would evaluate that, from the time of Jesus on, no one was more spiritually powerful than Paul. It all depends on one's perspective. Who is the humble person being compared with? In comparison with other men, Paul did not appear very strong, but when God looked at him, He liked what He saw—a powerful, effective servant of God.
This is so important because humility's dominant thrust is its willingness to submit to God and to what is right and true. Some, of course, would submit willingly to death if it would glorify God. Our level of humility, therefore, pretty much sets the tone of our relationship with Him and with others. In both cases, that is, with God and man, the humble esteem the other better than themselves. This quality will guard the unity of the spirit (Ephesians 4:3).
Humility or lowliness goes hand-in-glove with meekness. Meekness is a rather complex subject requiring many items to describe it accurately. However, it contains an evident element of restraint. The meek are kind, gentle, and sensitive to others needs. They are thoughtful, agreeable people. They are not aggressive, assertive, insistent, or argumentative. They are easily approached and easy to get along with. Again, we should not be mistaken: The meek are not weak. Certainly, we would not classify Jesus and Moses as being weak, but meek they were. They were firm and uncompromising regarding following truth, but they did not feel constrained to overwhelm those who were aligned against them.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Unity (Part 8): Ephesians 4 (E)
The very fact that Paul urges us to dress ourselves with these virtues signifies that none of us has "arrived" spiritually. All of us are flawed, deficient, and weak in some respects. As we yield and develop these virtues, we must be forbearing and forgiving toward our brothers on the basis of Christ's example of forbearance and mercy toward us. The enabling power of God's Spirit is already within us, or this exhortation would be in vain.
It can be done if we will choose to humble ourselves and act when we become aware of the need of a brother or of the church itself. God calls upon us here not merely to act but to do it with affection. In all cases, we must let our heart dictate to our hand, to let our most tender feelings encounter the miseries of those in distress, just as Christ did in descending to clothe Himself in clay. We need to let our feelings be at hand and readily touched that we might open our hands wide in help.
This world has hardened us. We have seen so much arrogance and cruelty that God warns that at the end people will be "without natural affection" (II Timothy 3:3, KJV). We are this end-time generation, and we must go a long way even to start to be like Christ in kindness. But we can do it! Perhaps we can liken beginning to be like this to learning to swim by just "jumping in." Kindness is something that we must develop, and we can do it because God has already enabled us by His Spirit. This fruit is especially sweet tasting and a major factor in producing unity.
Never forget God's character, His example, and this promise He has given to us in Isaiah 54:10: "'For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,' says the Lord, who has mercy on you."
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fruit of the Spirit: Kindness
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Colossians 3:12:
1 Thessalonians 4:10-12