In a culture that so often rewards the proud — a world quick to admire and applaud the prideful, a world eager to bestow the label “great” on these same individuals — humility occasionally attracts some surprising attention.
Take, for example, the bestselling book Good to Great. Since 2001, this leadership manual from Jim Collins has become one of the most popular and influential in the business world. I rarely meet a leader who hasn’t read it. The book is driven by this question: Can a good company become a great company, and if so, how? To find the answer, Collins and a team of researchers spent five years studying eleven corporations that had made the leap from being merely good companies to being great ones.
Later, I had the chance to hear Jim Collins speak on this topic to an audience of pastors and business leaders. In his presentation, Collins identified two specific character qualities shared by the CEOs of these good-to-great companies.
The first was no surprise: These men and women possessed incredible professional will — they were driven, willing to endure anything to make their company a success.
But the second trait these leaders had in common wasn’t something the researchers expected to find: These driven leaders were self-effacing and modest. They consistently pointed to the contribution of others and didn’t like drawing attention to themselves. “The good-to-great leaders never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes,” Collins writes. “They never aspired to be put on a pedestal or become unreachable icons. They were seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results.”
When Collins interviewed people who worked for these leaders, he says they “continually used words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings; and so forth” to describe them.1
In God’s Gaze
Here, it appears, is an open acknowledgment of humility’s value — a recognition that humility works, that it goes far in building respect for those who have it and inspiring trust and confidence from people around them. Amazingly enough, humility sometimes attracts the world’s notice.
But here’s something even more astonishing: Humility gets God’s attention. In Isaiah 66:2 we read these words from the Lord:
This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.
This profound passage points us to an altogether different motivation and purpose for humility than we will ever find in the pages of a secular business manual. Here we find motivation and purpose rooted in this amazing fact: Humility draws the gaze of our Sovereign God.
If we understand the background of this passage, the meaning grows even richer. Here God is addressing the Israelites, a people with a unique identity. Chosen by God from among all the nations on earth, they possessed both the temple and the Torah — the Law of God. But they didn’t tremble at His word. In a sense, they had everything going for them except what was most important. They lacked humility before God.
So in this passage, God in His mercy is drawing the Israelites’ attention away from their prideful assumption of privilege as His chosen people and away from their preoccupation with the trappings of religion. These things don’t attract His active and gracious gaze. But humility does.
God Helps Those…
The eyes of God are a theme running throughout Scripture. Take, for example, the familiar words of 2 Chronicles 16:9, “For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him.” Obviously God doesn’t have physical eyes; God is spirit (John 4:24). He doesn’t need physical eyes, because He’s also omniscient. Nothing escapes His notice. He’s aware of all things.
But though He’s aware of everything, He’s also searching for something in particular, something that acts like a magnet to capture His attention and invite His active involvement. God is decisively drawn to humility. The person who is humble is the one who draws God’s attention, and in this sense, drawing His attention means also attracting His grace — His unmerited kindness.
Think about that: There’s something you can do to attract more of God’s gracious, underserved, supernatural strength and assistance!
What a promise! Listen to this familiar passage again for the very first time: “God…gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Contrary to popular and false belief, it’s not “those who help themselves” whom God helps; it’s those who humble themselves.
This is the promise of humility. God is personally and providentially supportive of the humble. And the grace He extends to the humble is indescribably rich. As Jonathan Edwards wrote, “The pleasures of humility are really the most refined, inward, and exquisite delights in the world.”2 We want to position ourselves to receive and experience those exquisite pleasures.
What Is Humility?
For me, Jim Collins’s book was an encouraging reminder that even in a world that celebrates the proud, humility is still valued. But books like Good to Great have severe limitations; they can take us only so far in understanding humility because they’re not rooted in a biblical worldview. Our definition of humility must be biblical and not simply pragmatic, and in order to be biblical it must begin with God. As John Calvin wrote, “It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.”3
That’s where the following definition can help us: Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.
That’s the twin reality that all genuine humility is rooted in: God’s holiness and our sinfulness. Without an honest awareness of both these realities, all self-evaluation will be skewed and we’ll fail to either understand or practice true humility. We’ll miss out on experiencing the promise and the pleasures that humility offers.
But using scriptural truth, we can evaluate our lives honestly, and find out if we're growing in the humility that draws His gaze and attracts more of His grace.
Do You Have It?
So let’s ask ourselves: When it comes to the values we live by, what will others say about us one day? Will they testify that humility characterized our lives?
So many human ventures, so many grand designs of mankind, have been undermined because humility was lacking on the part of those involved. Yet humility holds out an amazing promise to those who will embrace it: God gives grace to the humble!
What are you building with your life? A marriage? A family? A business? A church? A career? In all your ventures, are you aware of your need for God’s grace to give your efforts lasting value? Do you long for God’s providential help and blessing? Then let’s allow the promise of humility to shape our lives and choices, so our children and others will one day look back and say of us, They had that. They had humility. They had what mattered.
1. Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 27.
2. From the March 2, 1723, entry in Jonathan Edwards’s diary, Memoir of Jonathan Edwards, http://www.tracts.ukgo.com/memoir_jonathan_edwards.pdf (accessed August 3, 2005).
3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 38.
C.J. Mahaney leads Sovereign Grace Ministries, a church-planting ministry with a growing international family of churches. He also is the author of several books and a contributor to the Together for the Gospel blog. This column is adapted with permission from his book, Humility: True Greatness (Multnomah Publishers, Sisters, OR,).