CS Lewis observed an odd thing about the reaction people have to Jesus. Even people who do not have faith in Jesus almost always believe that Jesus is humble, yet Jesus says seemingly outrageous things like “he who loves mother or father more than me, is not worthy of me” and “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me”. If a guy at the office said something like that, I sure would not jump to the conclusion he is humble!
So what’s going on? Is Jesus humble?
How can anyone who thinks he should be more important to me than my mother be humble?
This post will list 11 characteristics that seem to me to answer that riddle. I put them in the deadly-boring bullet point format just to keep the post from being a mile long. Every point is directly from the Gospels.
- Jesus was poor, despite the fact he had extraordinary powers. He had everything it takes to have plenty of money. How many brilliant, charismatic people who have the ability to perform miracles can you think of who choose to be poor? I can think of only one. One time, a fellow came to Jesus and offered to be his disciple. Before accepting him as a disciple, Jesus told the man that he was himself homeless. He said birds have nests and foxes have holes, but Jesus says he has nowhere to lay his head. Luke 9:58
- Jesus never retaliates. Even though he knows he is the salvation of the world and that what he says is the standard by which souls will be judged, literally. Yet when people oppose him, he does not strike out. In Luke 9:51-56 two of his most prominent disciples ask him to destroy some people with fire because they rejected Jesus – instead, Jesus rebukes the disciples.
- He points people away from himself and toward the Father, even at the same time he claims to be the only access to the Father. It’s odd. He says things like “the Father and I are one” in John 10 (they try to kill him for saying this) and “no one comes to the Father except through me” in John 14, while at the same time he says other things like “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” in Luke 18. Somehow the overall impression is that Jesus directs seekers to God the Father, even as he calls them to be his disciple.
- He is willing to suffer. Obviously dying on a Roman cross is the ultimate example of this willingness, but it’s there in smaller things, too. The authorities are trying to kill him (Matthew 12:14), people chase him out of town because he scares them (Luke 8:37), his own friends in his hometown tried to kill him (Luke 4:28-30), he fasts willingly for 40 days before he begins his preaching ministry. There is suffering in these things, suffering accepted willingly for other people.
- The demands Jesus puts on people never serve Jesus in a selfish way. Jesus puts demands only on people who would find the Father, only on those who would enter the kingdom of God. These demands are on people who first come to him, not on people he singles out himself. Even the ones who eventually form the 12 apostles seem to be those who first sought him. Look at John 1:35ff and at what I posted a few days ago. The demands of Jesus lead to the Father.
- When he rebukes people (which he is quite willing to do when it’s called for), the rebuke is because of some offense given to the Father or to other people. It’s not because of personal disrespect done to Jesus. Matthew 23 opens with blistering rebukes to prominent Jewish figures, but not one of these rebukes is for something they did to Jesus.
- When people reject him, it breaks his heart for their sake, not for his own. In that same Matthew 23 passage, he tears into the hypocrites, then he expresses the great sorrow of his soul. His regret is that those same people would not let him heal and comfort them. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.” A proud man would rail. Jesus mourns.
- Jesus shows no sinful pride in dealing with friends. Jesus has to jump Peter’s case several times and can get rough with him. He even calls him “Satan” in Matthew 16:23 (whoa!), yet it isn’t personal. He directs Peter’s attention to God and to the will of God.
- Here’s one I can’t quite put my finger on, but I’m sure it’s right. Jesus does all these miracles and yet I never get the impression he wants to call attention to himself. Occasionally he instructs people not to tell anyone about the miracle, but even when he doesn’t do that, the distinct impression is that each miracle is for the sake of other people, not for the sake of Jesus himself. He never comes off as a show-off. For that matter, when Satan is tempting Jesus in the wilderness before he begins his public preaching, the first thing Satan tries to get Jesus to do is perform a miracle for his own personal appetite (to avoid starvation) and Jesus refuses. The miracles are for other people, not Jesus, and that’s humble.
- John 6 is another one I can’t quite figure out, but I still know it has humility all over it. This is the passage where Jesus says outrageous things about eating his body and drinking his blood – says these things repeatedly and as the chapter goes on, he says them with increasing confrontation and even with graphic emphasis – he must have seemed insane to the people who heard him, since pretty much everybody abandoned him after this. Yet… even in this strangest of passages so centered on physical aspects of Jesus, he is concerned only with the benefit of the people who are listening to him. Even when he talks about himself, he is talking about the benefit of other people and that is remarkable. He wants to provide these people (and us) with protection from our greatest enemy, death.
- I end with a quote. John 5:30. “I do not seek my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”
These 11 points center in on the answer to CS Lewis’s point and my question
So how can people think Jesus is humble? They believe Jesus is humble because everything he does, he does for other people, never for himself. Read the list again and you’ll get the point. Jesus knows he is the Son of God and the Savior of the world and the Lamb of God and the centerpiece of God’s entire history with humanity. He knows this, he never denies this. Yet what he says and does is not about him. It is about the Father and about the people around him. When he gets mad, it’s about the people who have been hurt or the Father who has been disrespected. Miracles? They are for mercy and faith-building in other people and to bring glory to the Father. His sermons? Even when they are about Jesus himself, his purpose is to serve other people.
Jesus is the perfect embodiment of love for the Father and love for neighbor. And that makes him humble at exactly the same time he is God.
It awes me and moves me to understand that the being who created the universe is willing to humble himself, to humiliate himself, because he wants so much to benefit me.
And humility is not limited only to what Jesus does. Humility is part of the very nature of Jesus, it is part of his being, not just his behavior.
I wish I were humble
I have spent the last two Lents and the last two Advents trying to understand what humility is. I spent a lot of time trying to engender humility in myself. I haven’t been casual about this. I have to a considerable extent during these times set aside my regular prayer and study, all in an attempt to cure a serious fault in me and replace it with humility. Maybe after two years, I’m making some progress.
I think this eleven-item explanation of Lewis’s point about Jesus seeming humble, I think this has helped me understand what humility is. Humility is doing (even existing) for the sake of other people and for God. If deeds of humility draw attention to me (and sometimes they will), then I must use whatever virtue and strength I have to turn the attention to God or to the person I tried to benefit. When a thought comes to me that (1) I could do this-or-that in order (2) that people will notice and think better of me, then I must shun that thought, must even undertake the good deed in secret as a discipline on my motives. When I look for practical ways to live the Gospel, I must not look only at public ways. When I thank God for the chance to do some corporal act of mercy or spiritual act of mercy, my thanks should be entirely for whatever glory was given to God or benefit received by my neighbor.
Jesus always tried to obey the Father and benefit other people.
Even when the attention was on him, it was because Jesus was obeying God or benefitting other people.
This is humility. I can do it, too, I can live it with God’s help and my resolution.