As they gathered for their traditional Passover celebration, the whispered topic of conversation centered on who would be the greatest among the 12 disciples of Jesus (Luke 22:24). While these men were jostling for position, they were unaware their master had knelt on the floor to assume the role of the servant to wash their feet (John 13:2-5).
Simon Peter protested. He could not allow humility holding his feet. His confident, even cocky bearing was only a mask for the deep uncertainty of his soul. Secret insecurity was very uncomfortable when the most secure person in the room began washing his feet. Looking up from his place on the floor, Jesus taught these men that the path to greatness flowed through a humble, serving heart. He who yielded up his legitimate rights (Philippians 2:7) for the welfare of others was leading by example.
This was a shocking revelation to these First Century men. Success and achievement in their world was measured by the number of servants they commanded, not by the amount of people they served. They aspired to ride in a fine chariot, not lift someone else up to ride in their place. This idea of humility being the path to greatness was so radical that it would take some time to accept and practice.
Many people don’t realize there is a natural reversal in life. Those who attempt to elevate themselves above others will experience the opposite result, for the way up is down. Jesus said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). There is a strange absurdity in life where we tend to elevate our heroes above reality, and then, in jealousy, knock them off the pedestal and destroy them. Only humble hearts can be safely promoted to the center stage of life, because they are given special grace to stand in the limelight without a bloated ego.
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Humility is the counterpart to the selfishness and independence so promoted in the culture. But a life filled with pride is on a pathway to ruin. The ancient proverb says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18). We know from the accumulation of scripture that God lives in the humble heart (Psalm 34:18; Isaiah 57:15; 66:1-2). “The door of God is humility” (St. John the Short of Egypt).
One fellow jokingly stated he thought his greatest asset was his humility. But humble people don’t realize they are humble. Once a person is aware they are humble, they aren’t. Humility is not thinking too lowly of yourself; or too highly of yourself; but not even thinking of yourself. The humble person lives with the awareness they need God and other people.
Humility is not humiliation. Humiliation debases and leaves shame in its wake. Humility is a conscious decision for forego one’s legitimate rights, even needs, to invest in other people with no regard for personal return. It is the emptying of oneself, which results in a life filled with honor. It is so centered on the welfare of others that personal concerns fade into the background.
When I view the problems in our culture today, I think humility would be a mighty powerful remedy for the issues we face. Perhaps we could stop yelling and have civilized, respectful conversations. We might find solutions if leaders would practice kneeling instead of fighting for space before a microphone. What a wonderful world it would be if humility would displace selfishness.
Can you imagine the National Mall in Washington, D.C., covered with citizens of all races and persuasions kneeling like George Washington, asking for guidance from above? Why don’t we start practicing that posture in private, so it would not seem so strange in public?
Loren A. Yadon is pastor of New Life Fellowship of Boise.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.