Written in 2006
christian humility and happiness go together
During a recent vacation with my wife I read a wonderful book: Humility: True Greatness by C. J. Mahaney (Multnomah). It talks about humility and its opposite: pride. What follows is not a review of this book but an expression of the thoughts that it triggered in my mind. The book has some helpful practical guidelines to help us follow the path of humility. And I will describe some of those as an appendix to this article.
The Power of Pride
Pride is something we will all battle with all our life. Mahaney quotes John Stott: “At every stage of our Christian development and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is the greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend” (p. 29). This is an area where we can never say we have arrived. We will always need to be really alert to the possibility of falling.
I think of several people who had so much potential but who have either crashed through prominent sin or have simply not lived up to the promise they showed in their earlier years. Most often the cause is pride. Does not the Bible say, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18)?
Mahaney says, “Pride also undermines unity and can ultimately divide a church. Show me a church where there’s division, where there’s quarrelling, and I’ll show you a church where there’s pride.” He also says that it is pride that brings down leaders. He quotes Mike Renihan: “Pride ruins pastors and churches more than any other thing. It is more insidious in the church than radon in the home” (pp. 34-35).
Disciplines god sends to take away our pride
In his list of things that help us to kill pride and grow in humility, Mahaney lists “Responding Humbly to Trials” (pp. 137-154). I even think that, because he loves us and knows how hard it is for us to rid ourselves of pride, God sends us loving disciplines which force us in the direction of humility (Heb. 12:5-11). We may fail in a venture. We may not be chosen to do a job for which we thought we were eminently qualified. Something may go wrong in a project we are doing and we may be humiliated as a result. We may make an accidental blunder resulting in people laughing at us. An even worse situation can arise when another person makes a blunder and people laugh at us not at him. The leader of a programme may decide to scrap an item for which we have practiced hard.
The discipline is usually “painful rather than pleasant” at first, but “later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). As we surrender to God’s sovereignty in permitting this he gives us the freedom and joy that comes from crucifying the flesh.
Unfortunately we sometimes refuse to be trained by God’s discipline. We fight it angrily. We blame others for what happened. We lose our temper and shout at others in a way that demeans them. Then we will not learn humility through suffering. Instead our pride will increase even more. The intended cure for pride becomes a trigger for more pride. The discipline was a test that was intended to purify us (Jas. 1:2-4). But instead it exposed us to be proud people, and our reaction made us worse off than before the test.
Mahaney makes a great point from the book of Habakkuk about how humility helps us go through suffering without being bitter. “Those who know true joy in the midst of suffering are those who recognize that, in this life, our suffering is never as great or as serious as our sins.” This means that however great our suffering, it is always less than what we deserved for our sins: eternal hell.
I think it is normal for us, when faced with suffering, to lament and groan as many biblical characters did (see Rom. 8:20-25). But then, as God comforts us, faith and hope take over and we overcome anger. We reason: we deserved hell, but we are going to heaven even though we don’t deserve it. I think persistent anger over what people call “undeserved suffering” comes essentially from pride. We think we deserve to be looked after, and are not. We deserve hell, period! But God in his mercy has gifted us heaven. Actually “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). Instead of being angry over undeserved suffering we rejoice over undeserved heaven.
HOW HUMILITY RELATES TO AMBITION, MOTIVATION AND WORK
One of the tragedies of the church is that many Christians have substituted the joy of the Lord, which is an unimaginably great treasure, for the cheap satisfaction of success in some venture. Often people break principles to achieve their ambition. Just see what happens in ecclesiastical election campaigns. But after a short spell of satisfaction they condemn themselves to an unhappy life.
People can get to can get to top, even in the church, by fighting for themselves and being their own advocates. The ugly history of church politics bears witness to this. The church is a structure of society. People can use the methods of the world to climb to the top even in the church. And they may succeed. But they succeed by their own strength. Their work is work done in the flesh. At the judgement it will all be burned up (1 Cor. 3:12-15), and they will realise what utter goats they have been.
Why not let God surprise us? We work hard. We use earthly wisdom to be as effective as we can within biblical principles. We dream big with a yearning to see God fully glorified through our lives and work. But we concentrate on faithfulness to our call and not on earthly success. Faithfulness of course will include a commitment to hard work and excellence. We do our work as best as we can. And we leave it to God to honour us. When honour comes our joy is complete, because we never expected it and knew we did not deserve it. It was a delightfully surprising bonus to a joy that is already in our hearts.
Those who battle for their own honour will never be fully happy. For even if most people honour them, there will be some who won’t. And this will take away their joy. Remember how Haman reacted when he “saw that Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage to him”? Though most people in the Empire honoured him, he “was filled with fury” over this one insignificant gate-keeper (Esth. 3:5).
I am not saying we should simply stay on in the wrong place when we are unjustly deprived of opportunities for advancement. One who is gifted and qualified to be a teacher should look for opportunities to teach. If we feel that we can serve God well in a position that has been advertised we would do well to apply for the post. It is not wrong to go to places where we can be most effective for God. Of course, our gauge of effectiveness is biblical, not earthly. It includes the cross and the belief that the most important rewards are in heaven.
So we use wisdom, we work hard, and dream big. But earthly success is not a big deal to us. Our eyes are focussed on eternity. We know beyond a doubt that if we are faithful here honour awaits us there. So we “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1b-2).
But what happens when honour comes because of our work for God? We can rejoice that God is honoured. Singaporean Bishop Robert Solomon relates how after Sadhu Sundar Singh had completed a world tour, people asked him, “Doesn’t it do harm, your getting so much honour?” Sundar Singh answered, “No. The donkey went into Jerusalem, and they put garments on the ground before him. He was not proud. He knew it was not done to honour him, but for Jesus, who was sitting on his back.” When people honour me, I know it is not me, but the Lord who does the job.”
But when honour does come to Christ through our work, we are thrilled because we are one with Christ and madly in love with him. We know we are unworthy vessels. But we know that the great “treasure” of the gospel is transmitted “in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Accepting our weaknesses and confessing that effective ministry is entirely a result of God’s mercy (2 Cor. 4:1) does not take away our joy. Rather, it makes joy to overflow, so that the whole of life is looked at through the lens of amazement that God should use such weak people for such a great work. The Bible says that we can share these honours with others in the body so that all may rejoice in them (1 Cor. 12:26).
God is not a celestial killjoy who simply does not want us to be happy over our efforts. He wants us to be happy, but he wants us to be happy in the grace and mercy that enables us to serve him. With such an attitude we won’t get mad when we are not given the credit for something “we have done.” We do not consider that to be a “big deal” anymore.
Liberation from the need for human praise and recognition is a key to a happy life. If renouncing our claim to praise was all that we did, we would not be happy. Actually we would invariably be proud that we do not go after praise. We all know of people who are so proud about their supposedly faithful, unheralded and humble service that they have ended up obnoxious, and looking down on others. But when the thirst for human recognition is substituted by rejoicing in Jesus, then we have substituted an enslaving attitude with a much more enjoyable attitude. Such an exchange has a greater chance of success.
Joseph Haydn told his biographer that when he was writing his oratorio, The Creation, “Daily I fell on my knees and asked God for strength.” In 1808 Haydn, now a very old man, was brought on a stretcher to hear a performance of The Creation. There is a place in this oratorio where the chorus sings, “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” Then there is a response, “And there was light,” which, in my opinion, is one of the most glorious moments in western music. After that moment, at this particular performance, the crowd burst into applause. “Haydn was heard so say with trembling hands uplifted, “Not from me. It all comes from above.”
HUMILITY AND THE COMPETITIVE SPIRIT
In light of what I have said above, it becomes clear that we must avoid like the plague attitudes that say things like: “I am the most capable person to do that job; not she”; “I should be the leader of this group”; “I must fight this refusal to promote me. I must not allow this group to go to the dogs by these wrong decisions.”
We also avoid such ambitions as, “I must be the senior pastor of this church one day”; “I must be the President of this group one day”; “We must have the biggest church in our city”; and “I must be the best preacher in town.” These come from a spirit of competition, for other Christians must be eliminated if we are to achieve our goal.
Socialist economies have collapsed because they did not provide sufficient motivation to people to work hard and strive for quality. Since then competition has become a given all over the world. Competition may be the way markets operate. But it is not the way of the kingdom where each member belongs to the same body and serves for the profit of the same Lord.
Christians have a greater motivation than competition. We are passionate to bring glory to the glorious Lord of the universe who has done something amazing in our lives. This is how Peter describes it: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10). We are thrilled by this elevation.
We don’t need to overtake others in order to be happy. But in our happiness we are driven to bring more glory to God. We don’t compete with other Christians; instead “we lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16); “in humility [we] count others more significant than [ourselves]” (Philip. 2:3). The only people we compete with are ourselves, for we have seen the glory of God and we want to reflect that as best as we can in our work. So we are passionately committed to excellence in all we do.
ONCE MORE: THE JOY OF THE LORD
While others find satisfaction from earthly success and honour, we may find the way of the cross a lonely road to follow. But we have the joy of the Lord. And that gives us the strength to persevere.
I heard David Sitton, the head of Every Tribes Mission, tell the story of a 90 year-old missionary who spoke to his youth group when he was a young man. This man had been a missionary for 72 years. He kept repeating the same thing over and over again: “I want you to remember this. You can forget everything I say, but don’t forget this.” He went on and on saying this for about five minutes, while the audience was itching to tell him, “Go ahead and say it!” Finally, he said what he wanted to say. He said, “The joy of the Lord is your strength. When the joy goes, the strength goes.” After saying that, he sat down. If we have joy we can go on serving with enthusiasm.
So Humility is not the same as being down on ourselves with an inferiority complex. Rather it is being thrilled by what God has done for us in Christ in spite of who we are. Mahaney describes how, when the renowned New Testament scholar Don Carson interviewed the great theologian Carl Henry, he asked him about his humility. Henry responded, “How can anyone be arrogant when he stands beside the cross?” (p. 68). Isaac Watts wrote,
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.”
But, while the cross takes away our pride, it also causes deep joy when we realise what has happened to us because of it. The very thing that causes humility also causes joy. Christian humility and happiness go together.
APPENDIX I: SURPRISING CONFIRMATION FROM THE CORPORATE WORLD.
Usually we think that the world despises humility. In Mahaney’s book I read a surprising report of what Jim Collins and his researches found in their five year study of how good companies became great companies. It is recorded in the bestselling leadership manual Good to Great. Mahaney heard Collins speak once and he described two specific character qualities that his researchers found was shared by CEOs of these good-to-great companies. The first was predictable: “These men possessed incredible professional will—they were driven, willing to endure anything to make their company a success.”
The second quality was not something the researchers expected to find. “These driven leaders were self-effacing and modest. They consistently pointed to the contribution of others and didn’t like drawing attention to themselves.” Collins says that “these good-to-great leaders never wanted to become larger than life heroes. They never aspired to be put on a pedestal or become unreachable icons. They were seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results.” (pp. 17-18).
When Collins interviewed people who worked for these leaders, he says they “continually used words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings and so forth” to describe them.
When I read this out at our YFC Board, one of our board members said that he had read in a publication of Harvard Business School, the following results of research. They had surveyed what they described as achievers and underachievers. They found that
1. Achievers generally talk about how they have fallen short of their standards and about what they could not do, while
2. Underachievers usually talk about what they were able to do.
SOME OF MAHANEY’S WAYS TO CULTIVATING HUMILITY
Mahaney gives various practical suggestions on how we can cultivate humility. Some are well known like his first two: “begin your day acknowledging your need for God” and “begin your day expressing gratitude for God” (pp. 68-73). He mentions suffering also, as we said above. I found some of the other points he makes extremely refreshing. Let me mention a few gems.
 Robert Solomon, “The Foundations of Humility,” Methodist Message, (The Methodist Church in Singapore), March 2006, p. 3.
 Jane Stewart Smith and Betty Carlson, The Gift of Music: Great Composers and their Influence (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1987), p. 52.