The Humility of God

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Matthew 11:29

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who,

though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:3-8

“God is humble.” Have you ever in your life heard or thought of such a thing? Is it even true? Some people might initially balk at the suggestion, instead insisting that God’s final and ultimate purpose is glorifying Himself and that this is entirely opposite of humility. Yet it is not clear that this is Biblically accurate. For if we know anything about God, according to Scripture, we know that He is revealed most fully and perfectly in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And, as I just quoted, Jesus calls Himself “humble.” Paul uses the mind of Jesus as the prime example of humility. So there are only two possibilities: either humility is a trait of Jesus unique to His humanity, or humility is in fact a trait of God.

So was humility only a part of Jesus’ earthly life? Was it only a result of His becoming a human being? This seems questionable on multiple grounds. For one, humility is treated in Scripture as a virtue, an element of good character. Yet Jesus’ character in His earthly life was not something that came purely from His human existence, but corresponded in every way to His goodness as the eternal Son. While we can certainly acknowledge that Jesus did say and do things as a human which do not directly correspond to anything in His divine life (I doubt, for example, that using the restroom expressed His divine character, though maybe that’s a limit of my imagination), it seems difficult to suggest that any of the positive traits He applied to Himself or any of the character He expressed can divorced from who He is as God.

Another reason to be skeptical that Jesus’ humility is restricted to His humanity is that Philippians 2 treats it as underlying the Incarnation. When Paul seek to inspire us to humility here, he does not point first to how humble Jesus was on earth, as if He only became humble because He became human. Rather, he starts by pointing out that Jesus’ act of becoming incarnate, His very choice to become human, was already a humble act. The choice to become human is not itself a choice made by Jesus in His human nature, since He did not have one until He chose to have one! Yet He already expressed humility by choosing to become a human being. Therefore humility characterizes Jesus even in eternity as the pure God, the one is entirely and completely the image of the God the Father Almighty and the exact expression of His nature. Since there is no God behind the back of Jesus, we know that God is humble.

This brings us, then, to a couple of questions. The first is one which may be percolating in some minds right now is simply how it can be that God is humble if He in Scripture often seeks to glorify Himself. Many in fact argue that God’s first and most fundamental purpose in absolutely all things is to glorify Himself. While I tend to think this is a bit reductionistic and goes beyond what Scripture actually teaches, it certainly can’t be denied that God in Scripture often does seem to act for His own glory. So how can God seek His own glory and be humble (or love, for that matter, cf. 1 Cor. 13:4-5)? To understand this, I believe we need to see the Trinitarian shape of God’s glory and love. Love does not seek its own, to be sure, but it does always seek its beloved’s. And no one loves the Son more than the Father, or the Father more than the Son. There is no love greater than the love of God in the Holy Spirit. We understand from Scripture that the Son glorifies the Father, the Father glorifies the Son (John 17:1-5), and the Holy Spirit does not speak of Himself but of the Father through and in the Son (John 15:26).

Even this, though, does not fully seem to account for the self-glorification of God. After all, even though God exists in three persons, there is also a sense in which it is right to treat Him as a single, undivided Subject and Actor. So it may still be worth asking just how a humble God glorifies Himself from the perspective even of His oneness. To this end I might suggest an analogy. Imagine a humble, soft-spoken but absolutely excellent doctor. He feels little impulse to brag about his impressive skill or medical successes, even though he certainly would be speaking pure truth if he did. Yet one day he finds a man in a severe medical emergency on the side of the road. The man is proud, confused, and skeptical of the doctor, willing to simply risk it on his own rather than submit to the instructions the doctor provides. So the doctor begins explaining and demonstrating his medical expertise and skill with a flurry of technical terms, deft use of his resources, and stories of great feats he has accomplished in the operating room. He exalts himself and humbles the man, not for any selfish or egotistical purpose but precisely because he is the man’s only hope for life. Without him the man will die, and he must make the man understand.

While I doubt this is a flawless analogy and assume someone could find a fault or two, I think it has some merit. God doesn’t just glorify Himself because He craves glory from tiny creatures or because He desperately needs the adulation like some kind of megalomaniac, but rather spreads His glory across the world so that all people will see Him and find eternal life in communion with Him. For Psalm 22:26-27 declare, “Those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him,” and John 17:3 adds, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

With all this in mind we can see no real contradiction between God’s self-glorification and His essential humility. So we can return to the simple words of Christ and accept them as God’s own self-revelation: “I am humble in heart.” God is not an egomaniac. He is not a narcissist. He is not an arrogant tyrant running around to make more of Himself than He needs to. He is glorious, but without pretense or a need to exalt in His glory over us. Just as Karl Barth once said, “God does not need to make any fuss about his glory: God is glorious. He simply needs to show Himself as He is, He simply needs to reveal Himself. That is what He does in man.” Indeed, He expresses His glory by becoming one of us, and ultimately in humbling Himself all the way to the Cross to give us life. God is most glorified on Calvary, precisely where He is most humble, even humiliated. This is our God, whose “I AM WHO I WILL BE” climaxes in His most despised and lowly moment in giving His own self for us. This is the God who is love, the God who is Jesus Christ. And rather than actually give you the takeaways, I think they can speak for themselves. I instead suggest that you simply meditate and pray. The glory of this humble, self-giving God should tell you all you need to know.

The Humility of God

2 thoughts on “The Humility of God

  1. How can God who is so glorious even humble himself to become a creature of his own creation and be killed by his own creation? That in itself is glory.

    1. Indeed. This is in fact a point Barth emphasized. All that God is, glory included, should be understood in light of their appearance in Jesus. God’s glory is expressed in His humiliation on the Cross, and this is the kind of glory that God wills to have before us.

So what do you think?