Genuine Humility is Self-Forgetfulness

“The essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.–C.S. Lewis

This past Sunday afternoon I preached on humility. Here is a shortened version of what I said in my sermon:

Guarding Against the Opposite of Humility: Self-Glorification

The opposite of humility is pride and pride is in essence self-glorification. We need to be on guard against pride because pride is in all of us and it’s our biggest enemy. The late New Testament scholar John Stott once wrote, “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. . .Pride, is more than the first of the seven deadly sins; it is itself the essence of all sin.”

Is Stott being too strong? No! It seems that when we consider the whole of the Bible indeed pride is our greatest enemy. As we said, pride is essentially self-glorification and this is what Satan tempted Adam and Eve with in the garden: “if you eat the fruit, you will be like God.” Indeed, the sin that God seems to hate the most is pride. C.J. Mahaney, in his book Humility: True Greatness, writes:

“From my study, I’m convinced there’s nothing God hates more than this. God righteously hates all sin, of course, but biblical evidence abounds for the conclusion that there’s no sin more offensive to Him than pride. When His Word reveals those things “that the LORD hates” and “that are an abomination to him,” it’s the proud man’s “haughty eyes” that head up the list (Proverbs 6:16–17). When the personified wisdom of God speaks out, these clear words are emphasized: “I hate pride and arrogance” (Proverbs 8:13, NIV). And consider the divine perspective on pride revealed in Proverbs 16:5: “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the LORD; be assured, he will not go unpunished.” Stronger language for sin simply cannot be found in Scripture.

And consider also the fact that James and Peter both tell us: 6“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6; 1Peter 5:5). Indeed, pride is in all of us, it’s our biggest enemy, and we must hate it and oppose it in ourselves as God hates it and opposes it. We need to be on guard against pride.

Guarding Against the Counterfeit of Humility: Self-Loathing

But we also have to be on guard against counterfeit humility. If the opposite of humility is pride, which is in essence self-glorification, counterfeit humility is self-loathing, hating oneself, always talking down about oneself to others, shunning or shrugging off compliments all the time. Some people confuse self-loathing with humility. But it’s a counterfeit or false humility. Because the truth is that self-loathing and self-glorification really aren’t that different. They both share the same root, namely obsession with oneself.

Genuine Humility: Self-forgetfulness

So what then is genuine humility and how do we grow in it?  Genuine humility is not self-glorification or self-loathing, which are both obsession with oneself. Genuine humility is self-forgetfulness. C.S. Lewis once wrote: “If we were to meet a truly humble person. . .we would never come away from meeting them thinking they were humble. They would not be always telling us they were a nobody (because a person who keeps saying they are a nobody is actually a self-obsessed person). The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less” (quoted in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulnes: The Path to True Christian Joy, by Timothy Keller).

What is the opposite of pride then? The opposite of pride is not self-loathing but the freedom of self-forgetfulness. It’s a fruit of the Holy Spirit that comes from hearing the Gospel over and over and over again. We see this in Philippians 2 where Paul tells us that Christlike self-forgetfulness is the pattern of genuine humility: Phil. 2:1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Notice how the truly humble person is not one who is obsessed with oneself. The truly humble person is more concerned about other people than oneself. What does that look like? Paul says, they aren’t selfishly ambitious, they count others as more significant than themselves, and they look not only to their own interests, but also to the interests of others. I’ll leave it to you to apply these principles to your own life, or if you’d like you can listen to how I apply it in my sermon. Let me just conclude by pointing you to Christ, as Paul does.

The Cross of Christ: Gospel Motivation for Self-Forgetfulness

Christ points the Philippians to Christ as the supreme example of humble self-forgetfulness. And he doesn’t just point us to Christ he says, this is who you already are in Christ: 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

This is the beauty of the gospel. Christ, who always was glorified in heaven and always deserved to be glorified as God, gave up His glory to save us from our vain attempts at self-glorification. And He did it through His own self-forgetfulness, by seeking and serving our interests above His own, even to the point of death on a cross! And because of His humble self-forgetfulness he was then glorified, not by Himself, but by his Father: 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This is the supreme pattern of genuine humility. It’s found in Christ! And this is who you and I already are, in Christ, by faith. And so, the Biblical exhortation is, “become who you are in Christ” knowing that God sees you in Christ and that you already have what He has.

You see, the Gospel provides both the pattern and the power to live a life of humility.How does it provide the power? The Holy Spirit speaks to you in the Gospel and says, “In Christ, you have everything you could ever want and need: In Christ, you are accepted by the God of the universe. In Christ, you have His fatherly pleasure. In Christ, you have the greatest love that anyone could ever long for. In Christ, you have the greatest name that anyone could ever seek to attain. In Christ, you have the greatest security, the greatest joy, and the greatest inheritance.” There is nothing you can selfishly grasp at in this world that isn’t already yours and more in Christ. You already have it now by faith and you will have it by sight when he returns. And it’s all a gift of free grace! And so, forget about yourself. Lose yourself to find yourself in Christ. And from the abundance that you have in Christ, magnify His worth by loving God and serving the interests of others above your own.

The opposite of humility is self-glorification. The counterfeit of humility is self-loathing. Genuine humility is self-forgetfulness and becoming who you are in Christ. How do you cultivate humility and how do you fight against pride?

Conclusion: Growing in Humble Self-Forgetfulness

There are a lot of things you can do, by God’s grace and strength, to cultivate genuine humility in your life.

  1. Use the means of grace (The Word and sacraments)
  2. Study God (“Who am I that YOU are mindful of me?”)
  3. Study sin and grace (“But for the grace of God, there go I”. . .”Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”)
  4. Identify the grace of humility in others (We learn best by example. . .Christ is the supreme example. . .But Paul also says: “practice what you see in me, as I imitate Christ”)
  5. Encourage and serve others each day
  6. Invite and pursue and welcome correction (this is not my favorite, but still important)
  7. Every day acknowledge your dependence on God and your need for God through prayer, giving thanks at all times.
  8. Reflect on the wonder of the cross.

I could elaborate on each of these points in great detail, but this final one is probably the most important one. This is where Paul points us in Philippians 2 as noted above. And this is where other great preachers and teachers of the faith have pointed us as well. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote the following about the surest way to pursue humility:

“There is only one thing I know of that crushes me to the ground and humiliates me to the dust, and that is to look at the Son of God, and especially contemplate the cross. “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.” Nothing else can do it. When I see that I am a sinner…that nothing but the Son of God on the cross can save me, I’m humbled to the dust…. Nothing but the cross can give us this spirit of humility.”

John Stott also wrote:

“Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to be saying to us, “I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.” Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size.

And may we decrease so that Christ might increase in us for the glory of God and the good of others. Amen!

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2 thoughts on “Genuine Humility is Self-Forgetfulness

    • Hi Andrew, I forget why, but I referenced your blog post last week in my studies. Get the Keller book and read it! It’s really just a short booklet on a sermon he once preached. The Kindle version is only 99cents! You can read it in about 30min and you’ll be thankful that you read it.

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