The Intrinsic Link Between Obedience and Humility

I love it when you read something you’ve read a million times, but this time you see something you never saw before.  This time I was reading Philippians 2 and came across this little gem in verse 8: “He [Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”  Note the “how” here.  Jesus humbled himself.  How?  “By becoming obedient.”  It makes sense, but I hadn’t really thought about it before—obedience and humility are intrinsically connected.

Maybe it’s obvious.  A proud person isn’t likely to take orders from someone else, at least not graciously.  But a person who is truly humble will find it easy, natural even, to submit to authority and obey.  So humility makes obedience a lot easier, but this verse indicates that obedience was the way in which Jesus humbled himself.  In other words, it seems that obedience was the means to humility.

It may seem to you that I’m debating the chicken and the egg, but I think this is actually very helpful.  You see, it can be hard to just “be humble.”  How do you do that?  How can I be humble?  Humility seems like it’s something I should feel, but how on earth can I conjure that feeling?

We used to have this annoying little chant at Kanakuk Kamp…annoying but remarkably effective: “Act enthusiastic and you’ll be enthusiastic!”  Some obnoxious counselor who was way too perky and felt the need to bring us all up to her level of spazzy energy would start it.  We would be “forced” to join in.  I can still remember it, more than 20 years later.  I can remember how I would begin to say it, resentfully.  (You know that verse, “do all things without grumbling or complaining”[1]?  Well, I wasn’t being obedient to that one!)  Then as I said it, over and over and over and over…along with said spazzy counselor (make that counselors, because there was always more than one…it was a requirement to work at Kanakuk—all counselors were, of necessity, perky little spastic balls of energy), and as I “did” it, because, as the chant states, you have to “act enthusiastic”… it was true—I became enthusiastic by degrees.  Each repetition seemed to raise my enthusiasm a few notches at a time.

I may have started out resentfully, but by the end, I was enthusiastic enough to rival any of the obnoxious, spazzy counselors.  Why?  It wasn’t because I felt like it.  I didn’t.  I was tired and hot and annoyed.  There were plenty of times that I, model camper that I was, wanted to tell them where they could put their enthusiasm, truth be told.  The chant was right, though.  It was in the doing that the feeling came.  Act it and you will be it.  Acting it and choosing to do it came long before feeling it.  Not only did it precede it as a forerunner, but it brought it along in tow.  Action was like a tow truck, dragging the desire along behind it.  Action is the spark plug which gives life to feeling and desire.

Would you believe, years later, I was that obnoxious counselor who was way too perky and felt the need to bring all the tired, worn out, annoyed campers up to my  level of spazzy energy—and so I became the one starting the annoying but oh-so-effective chant: “Act enthusiastic and you’ll be enthusiastic!”

What does this have to do with humility?  A lot, actually.  The question at hand was how to make ourselves feel humble.  The same way we used to make ourselves feel enthusiastic at camp—by acting enthusiastic, only in this case by acting humble.  That may not be very helpful, because we have some wacky ideas about humility.  For some reason we think that humility means that we think poorly of ourselves, when really humility is that we don’t think of ourselves at all.  (Philippians 2:1-11 gives more insight on this: “value others above yourself,” “not looking to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” like Jesus who “made himself nothing” and took on the “nature of a servant.”)

When we chanted “Act enthusiastic and you’ll be enthusiastic,” it was pretty clear how to “act enthusiastic.”  Not only is it an easy word to apply to just about any circumstance (especially if you’re at camp!), but we also had our counselors leading the way by example.  If I started chanting “Act humble and you’ll be humble,” besides seriously lacking any real “ring” to it, it wouldn’t be very clear as to how to apply “be humble” to whatever circumstance you were in.  This is why I thought Philippians 2:8 was such a little gem!  Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient.”  Obedience is the acting humble which brings about being humble—it’s that tow truck and spark plug all in one.  Our chant could be “Act obedient and you’ll be humble,” except that it’s still not very zippy.

Tommy Nelson, a favorite pastor of mine, used to say, “It’s better to be an adjective than a verb.  It’s better to be humble than humbled.”  Did you know that, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble”?[2]   We don’t want God to have to humble us.  He will oppose us and humble us if we are proud.  But, if we are humble, he will give us grace and even exalt us when the time is right.[3]  We humble ourselves just as Jesus did, by becoming obedient.  Our obedience is a statement of humility—we are saying that God is bigger and wiser and better than we are, therefore we trust his judgment and yield to his lead.  Whether or not we “feel” it initially, as we do it we are acknowledging a truth that supersedes our feelings.  In that very act, we are humbling ourselves to truth, and to Truth himself.

Jesus became obedient, “even to death on a cross.”  That is how far he was willing to obey, and consequently how humble he was willing to become.  He humbled himself to the point of dying a gruesome death for our sins.  How about you?  What is Jesus asking you to become obedient to, even to…even to that?  What is that for you?   What is your “even to”?  If you are struggling to be humble, then might I suggest that you begin with becoming obedient…even to that thing, whatever that thing is.  When you are willing to be obedient even to that, then you’ll find that your obedience was both the tow truck bringing in humility, and the spark plug which gave it life.

Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.  Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.  1 Peter 5:5-6

Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.  James 4:  5-10

-by Stacey Tuttle-

[1] Philippians 2:14

[2] 1 Peter 5:5

[3] I peter 5:6