This is the concluding post based off of my sermon last week seeking to understand what repentance is. Repentance is an action and not simply a feeling. It leads to submission to God, a drawing near to God, mourning over sin, and a humbling of the person. James wrote, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you,” (James 4:10, ESV). Of course the question must be asked: what does it mean to be humble? We must understand that there is a false humility and a true humility, but even in the true humility there can often be a misunderstanding of what it is.
False humility can present itself in one of two ways: an outward humility with inward pride or a sense of self-deprecating pride that masquerades as humility. The first is generally easy to spot within oneself. There is a purposeful deceptive plan. The person wants others to think he/she is humble, while scheming inwardly to use this manipulation to his/her advantage. While not all in leadership positions do this, some do. No one likes a braggart and no one wants to be around pomposity, and a persona of humility is developed to gain respect, credibility, and one’s own way. Meanwhile, inwardly this person enjoys the power, the control, and the pleasures that come from his/her play-acting. Clearly, this is not the humility that James was instructing believers to have.
Of course there the self-deprecating pride masquerading as humility. This is just as false, but also very damaging to the individual that is portraying himself in such a way. Self-deprecating pride is one that draws attention to itself by how horrid he or she is. I find that often when one learns about total depravity, he/she sinks into this realization that he/she is depraved, and it almost becomes a channel for self-deprecating pride. I’m a sinner. I’m scum. I’m a horrible person. At the last church I pastored, there was a man who studied a book with me about Calvinism. For the next few months, he would say stuff like I just wrote, and my other friend (co-pastoring with me), one day told him, that while every part of him was marred by sin, it is no reason to wallow in it. Christ had forgiven him, and he should not wallow in what was.
It is very easy for a person to think that self-deprecation and humility are the same, but they are not. They aren’t even close. The reason I call this pride is because with the self-deprecation is often the desire to be seen as holy or closer to God or even a way to gain approval from others. It may or may not be a conscious decision (and I would suspect that it usually is not one). Either way, this is not what James called us to do.
But there is a right understanding of humility. Humility is to be brought low. That’s literally what “humble yourself” means. Bring yourself low. However, it is often taken to extremes, which leads to a misunderstanding of what true humility is. It is very easy to puff ourselves up. It is all to easy to think of ourselves as the most important. And so the thought goes that if we are to humble ourselves, we must make ourselves the the lowest of the low. In this we often will allow our thoughts, services, talents, etc. to be squashed in the name of humility. However, that’s misunderstanding humility.
I love what C. S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; its thinking of yourself less.” There are a number of cases where we see true humility in Scripture. I want to show three people quickly. The first is Esther. Esther was King Ahauserus’ wife, Queen of the Persian Empire, but the law was that no one, no one, was allowed to enter into the king’s presence without permission. If he/she did so, and the king did not hold out the scepter to receive them…let’s just say they wouldn’t make the mistake a second time. When the Jewish people, Esther’s people, were threatened with extinction, Mordecai (Esther’s uncle) begged for her help. She was initially too scared to do so, but with these famous words, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this,” (Esther 4:14, ESV) Esther agreed to go to the king. Here we see that Esther had a job to do, a God-given job to do, and it must be done. Esther went to the king and stood waiting for him to receive her. She did not barge in. She did not demand an audience. She stood there to do her calling. The king held out the scepter to receive her, “Then Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter,” (Esther 5:2, ESV). In this she showed her position; she did not do her job with pomposity and grandeur, but in humility and submission.
John the Baptist was a humble man. He was the greatest prophet since Elijah. He embodied the spirit and power of Elijah. People flocked to him. He never let his popularity go to his head. But he also did not back down from his God-given mission. He stood against the Pharisees and Sadducees. He even rebuked King Herod for his adultery. Yet when the Messiah came, and began to draw crowds greater than his, his response was “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease,” (John 3:29-30, ESV, italics mine). John’s disciples had become incredulous and jealous over Jesus’ popularity, but not John. He understood his place, and gladly stood there. When it was time for him to leave, he did so in joy knowing that someone greater was there to carry on the work. He thought more of the mission than himself. He thought more of the people than of himself.
Of course there is no one greater than Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality of God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” (Philippians 2.6-8, ESV).
That’s the same word used in James. Humility is lowering oneself. Jesus, God the Son, became human. Immortal took on mortality. Not only did He die, but He died on the cross. His humility took him ever lower, for the glory of God, and the good of others.
In James 4:1-5, we read James asking what caused all the quarrels and fighting. His answer was that the people were going after what brought them pleasure. They were not focused on God’s glory, nor were they focused on each other’s good. Repentance humbles the believer. They lower themselves for the glory of God and the good of others. Repentance is not about selfishness and self-seeking pleasures. It’s not about manipulation or self-deprecation. It about finding its delight in God.
Paul continued to write that after his humility: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” (Philippians 2.9-11, ESV).
After His humility, God exalted His Son. Look at James’ promise: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you,” (James 4.10, ESV). That is the same word—exalt—that Paul used of Jesus. I’m not saying that God is going to put us above everything and everything will call us Lord. I am saying that the promise is just as sure. He who exalted His Son, will exalt all who humble themselves in His sight.
Repentance turns from self-seeking pleasures, self-deprecating pride, manipulation of others, and seeks God’s glory and the good of others.