Should you ask me what is the first thing in religion, I should reply that the first, second, and third thing therein is humility. – Augustine
The death-side, if we may so speak, of a right posture before God, removes self from the shrine of worship, and prepares the heart to worship God alone. It gets into its rightful place under God, while the resurrection-side earnestly seeks and submits to God. The attitude of getting into our rightful place as worshippers can be simply termed humility.
God’s Word, in contrast to many other philosophies and religions, exalts humility as the starting point for knowing God. Grace makes communion between God and man possible, and God has made it very clear that the kind of heart that he blesses with more grace is the humble heart.
For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, With him who has a contrite and humble spirit, To revive the spirit of the humble, And to revive the heart of the contrite ones. (Isaiah 57:15)
But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6 )
Similarly, the Bible links humility with the fear of the Lord: the reverent response of a human to Yahweh’s glory. The fear of the Lord is likewise placed as the basic or fundamental posture of life:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, But fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Pro 1:7)
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Pro 9:10)
In other words, before you can grow in the knowledge of God, before you can grow in understanding or wisdom, what needs to be in place is an attitude, an affection, a way of responding to God – the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord and humility are virtually synonymous:
By humility and the fear of the LORD Are riches and honor and life. (Proverbs 22:4)
The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom, And before honor is humility. (Proverbs 15:33)
If the first and most basic posture of the Christian life is the humble fear of the Lord, then we would expect Scripture to say that the fear of the Lord should always characterise us. In fact, that’s exactly what it does say.
Do not let your heart envy sinners, But be zealous for the fear of the LORD all the day; (Pro 23:17)
The book of Ecclesiastes ends this way:
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecc 12:13)
Your whole duty, “the whole of man” is to live in this kind of relationship with God, to live before him in this kind of posture. Fearing God, walking in humility before him, is the most basic posture of the life of faith.
Augustine, writing in the fourth century, said, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.”
Why should humility be so fundamental to Christian living? The answer is in the definition of humility.
A Just Posture
The anonymous author of the thirteenth century classic Theologia Germanica wrote,
“And therefore it is true to the very letter, that the creature, as creature, hath no worthiness in itself, and no right to anything, and no claim over any one, either over God or over the creature, and that it ought to give itself up to God and submit to him because this is just.”1
Here is a helpful definition of humility. Humility consists in the right estimation of our position before God. Humility is really a form of acknowledgement of who God is, who we are, and what our response to him should be. Humility is descending from lofty pretensions down into the ground-floor reality of truth: truth about God, truth about self, truth about others.
Humility is not a faked self-loathing, or a false self-deprecation. Rather, it floods the darkened room of our proud self-love with the light of truth. As Jan van Ruysbroek wrote in The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, “But humility brings man face to face with the most high mightiness of God, that he may always remain little and lowly, and may surrender himself to God, and may not stand upon his selfhood. This is the way in which a man should hold himself before God, that thereby he may grow continually in new virtues.”2 Rising from the sight is a posture of heart that we can safely call humility of the heart: “an inward bowing down or prostrating of the heart and of the conscience before God’s transcendent worth”, as van Ruysbroek put it.
To compare ourselves to God is to be humbled. The heart bows. Dependence, devotion, and even delight begin as we compare the supreme, sovereign, holy, just, omnipresent, infinite, faithful, immutable, omnipotent God to ourselves. The spiritual vertigo we feel when seeing the chasm between ourselves and God is the fear of the Lord.
If we are to worship God by knowing him, the absolute starting point is that we recognise he is God and we are not. A failure to give God his place as God is at the root of all our problems. The beginning of all sin is pride and unbelief; the beginning of right relationship with God is humility. The posture of humility begins with understanding God’s ‘godness’ and humbling ourselves under that.
Although our position in Christ is one of being accepted, secure and completed, this does not change our humble status when compared to God. Consider how Scripture reports some of the differences between us and God. While God is self-existent (Ex 3:14), we live and move and have our being in him (Acts 17:28). While God owns all things (Ps 24:1), we are mere stewards, and all we have (including our own lives), we have received (1 Cor 4:7). God is perfectly free and can do all his holy will (Ps 115:3); we can do nothing without him (John 15:5). God’s vastness and glory dwarf man to near-nothingness (Ps 8:3-4, Is 40:15). God is holy, and his glory ought to have destroyed sinners, but for mercy (Lam 3:22). Humility is truly a just posture.