What Is the Meaning of Humility in the Bible?
You may have heard the saying that the difference between confidence and arrogance is humility. You have likely also heard people use phrases like, “humble brag,” or “I don’t mean to toot my own horn.” Truthfully, they do mean to toot and a brag is not humble. We know this because the person proceeds to share an accomplishment, something that makes them feel special. They simply do so with some reservation, not asking you to get on your knees and worship them, but wanting you to express some admiration nonetheless.
If you want to prove whether or not this is true, next time someone uses either phrase, just look at them and say, “Okay.” They may think they’re being humble, but they must not be familiar with the word’s meaning, not the biblical meaning at least. People are correct when they say there’s a difference between confidence and arrogance. That dividing line is indeed humility. Confidence says, “I have skills and I recognize them.” Arrogance says, “I have skills and others must recognize them.”
Why does humility differentiate confidence and arrogance? The answer - humility changes how we view ourselves. When we are humble, our goal is not to exalt ourselves, especially over other people.
Are we supposed to think less of ourselves or think of ourselves less? Don’t we mostly talk about ourselves on social media? Are we expected to be humble at all times? Should our resumes be humble or our Linkedin profiles? Is getting a consensus on the word humility even possible? Asking these questions of the world is bound to give us a variety of different answers. Asking these questions of the Bible will give us something much more definitive.
Through verses and examples, we will see how Scripture presents the idea of humility and whether or not that idea matches the world. So let’s ask the question, what is the meaning of humility in the Bible?
How Does the Bible Define Humility?
The word humility appears various times throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. Where we read about humility, we see that this trait is something God desires for His people. Humility is beneficial for us, for God, and for those around us. There is no verbatim definition given in Scripture like we would find in a dictionary. However, through the word’s usage, we can glean a good understanding.
For example, in one passage we discover how to practice humility.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)
In another chapter, We learn that God blesses the humble.
“He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.” (Psalm 25:9)
If we had to find a definition for humility we can look at another book in Scripture.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
Based on these three verses, the world’s definition of humility both overlaps and differs from Scripture. Wordly definitions for humility include a lack of arrogance; a feeling of inferiority, and having a low rank.
In the Bible, arrogance is also a sign that someone lacks humility. A haughty spirit precedes a fall (Proverbs 16:18)l Haughty is another word for arrogant. Or consider that Jesus made Himself low in rank within society. This is apparent through His ministry, how he taught His disciples to serve one another as He served them. He told them that the greatest of them would be the lowest (Mark 9:35).
Jesus did not preach inferiority, not in the sense of self-worth. Jesus did not teach people how to be abused by others. Rather, He taught us how to be lowly in nature so that we could forgive those who persecute us. He taught us how to rebuke and move on from offenses (Luke 17:3). Offering forgiveness to someone is not a sign of inferiority. God forgives us, but He isn't inferior. And teaching us to rebuke means we shouldn’t accept all kinds of treatment.
There are some clear similarities, with some distinctions, between scriptural and worldly definitions for humility. Consequently, we can see that the aforementioned phrases “humble brag,” or “I don’t mean to toot my own horn” are not indicative of even the world’s humility. These statements instead mask a notion of pride.
3 Character Examples of Humility in the Bible
As Christians, we can spend time talking about the Bible’s definition of humility but we should also look for personified examples. Scriptural examples reveal how we can live with the type of humility God desires for us.
“But I have trusted in your faithful love; my heart will rejoice in your deliverance. I will sing to the Lord because he has treated me generously.” (Psalm 13:5-6)
David is seeking the Lord’s guidance in this emotional-wrought chapter. He acknowledges his own powerlessness by asking hard questions of God. He doesn’t have the answers, but he knows God does. Furthermore, he is confident God will answer his prayers. These verses follow an emotionally-charged text, but in these last lines, we see someone confident in the Lord. David is presenting himself to God as someone who is low in rank, someone who is not exalting himself above others.
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me—nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)
Jesus lived a life of humility, maintaining a low rank in society. He lived as a servant, a carpenter by trade. In His ministry, he urged followers to live as He did. One key lesson was following God. In this verse from Luke, we see a submission to God’s will. This is a reminder that though we may desire one thing. God could have other plans. The humble person will submit to God’s plan, just like Jesus did.
“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation.” (Romans 12:16)
In his letter, Paul gives followers of Christ a reminder to not be arrogant. Here he uses the word proud. Moreover, Paul gives one example of how to be humble. We should let others consider us wise instead of us trying to proclaim that quality ourselves. This doesn’t mean we should aim for being foolish, but rather, we don’t need to walk around proclaiming our wisdom to everyone. The same is true for other gifts and skills. Whether we are smart, artistic, beautiful, other people can share those details, but we should not boast about such.
Why Is Humility Important to the Christian Walk?
Without humility, we cannot expect deliverance from the Lord. Without humility, we won’t lead lives that put other people before our own wants and needs. Scripture gives helpful examples of humility, through aphorisms and through character examples. By using these templates, we too can model our lives after what God wants.
Being a Christian does not mean our own wants and needs are unimportant, but being Christian does mean we have an obligation to follow God. We live not to serve ourselves but to serve Him, and serve other people according to His wishes.
Humility keeps Christians from walking their own path, from living life how they see fit instead of God. Humility helps Christians ensure that they are prioritizing other people, not just themselves. If we lived according to our own desires, what need would a Christian have for others? By seeking humility, we acknowledge who God is and His authority over our lives.
With so many references to humility, only by studying Scripture will we fully understand the concept. Though, separating humble behavior from what’s arrogant is not as hard as we may think. One prioritizes other people, the other doesn’t. One acknowledges a need for our Lord, the other doesn't. As Christians, if we are striving to live according to Scripture, then we need to make sure we choose humility.
If destruction befalls the arrogant, then we want to avoid that. If God blesses the humble, then we want to reap that blessing. Today, if you struggle with pride, decide to make a change now. Choose God and others over self. The change will be worthwhile.
“Humility is the fear of the Lord; its wages are riches and honor and life.” (Proverbs 22:4)
Photo credit: Unsplash/Naassom Azevedo
Aaron D'Anthony Brown is a freelance writer, hip-hop dance teacher, and visual artist, living in Virginia. He currently contributes work to iBelieve, Crosswalk, and supports various clients through the platform Upwork. He's an outside-the-box thinker with a penchant for challenging the status quo. Check out his short story “Serenity.”