How Humility Can Safeguard You
“Gird yourselves with lowliness of mind toward one another, . . . Keep your senses, be watchful.”—1 Pet. 5:5-8.
1. What inclination do many humans have, and to what can it lead?
HAVE you noted the inclination of humans to attach undue importance to themselves? Many have the tendency to be assertive, and to draw attention to themselves by their personal bearing, their speech or their style of living. Their ambitious, overconfident attitude may eventually lead to their experiencing an unpleasant letdown, even as the ancient Bible proverb observes: “Before a crash the heart of a man is lofty.”—Prov. 18:12.
2, 3. (a) What did Jesus observe while attending a banquet? (b) How did Jesus teach a lesson on humility on that occasion?
2 On one occasion when Jesus Christ accepted a Pharisee’s invitation to a banquet, he noted that the guests had this lofty heart attitude. The Bible says: “He marked how they were choosing the most prominent places for themselves.” (Luke 14:1, 7) So Jesus made use of the occasion to teach a lesson in humility. He gave the guests the following illustration:
3 “When you are invited by someone to a marriage feast, do not lie down in the most prominent place. Perhaps someone more distinguished than you may at the time have been invited by him, and he that invited you and him will come and say to you, ‘Let this man have the place.’ And then you will start off with shame to occupy the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and recline in the lowest place, that when the man that has invited you comes he will say to you, ‘Friend, go on up higher.’ Then you will have honor in front of all your fellow guests. For everyone that exalts himself will be humbled and he that humbles himself will be exalted.”—Luke 14:8-11.
4, 5. (a) From what can humility safeguard you? (b) What illustration did Jesus give to persons who trusted in themselves that they were righteous?
4 In what clear and simple terms Jesus showed how humility can safeguard a person! (Prov. 16:18) But not only can it save you from suffering possible embarrassment before humans, it will save you from the adverse judgment of God, of whom it is said: “God opposes the haughty ones, but he gives undeserved kindness to the humble ones.” (Jas. 4:6; Luke 20:45-47) Jesus indicated God’s estimation of self-exalted, self-important ones when, on another occasion, he was speaking to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and who considered the rest as nothing.” (Luke 18:9) To these persons, he gave an illustration about a Pharisee and a tax collector, explaining:
5 “The Pharisee stood and began to pray these things to himself: ‘O God, I thank you I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give the tenth of all things I acquire.’ But the tax collector standing at a distance was not willing even to raise his eyes heavenward, but kept beating his breast, saying: ‘O God, be gracious to me a sinner.’ I tell you, This man went down to his home proved more righteous than that man; because everyone that exalts himself will be humiliated, but he that humbles himself will be exalted.”—Luke 18:9-14.
6. (a) What attitude did Jesus frequently encounter? (b) What questions does this raise?
6 As we read the Bible, it is remarkable to note how often Jesus encountered persons who thought they were superior to others, and how often he warned such ones about the danger of their I-am-more-important-than-others attitude. Again he did so when speaking to the crowds and his apostles in Jerusalem just a few days before his execution. He said: “Do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers. . . . Neither be called ‘leaders,’ for your Leader is one, the Christ. But the greatest one among you must be your minister. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:1-12) But for whose benefit particularly did Jesus again emphasize the need of humility? Whom was he especially trying to help and safeguard?
ATTITUDE OF THE APOSTLES
7. Why should it not be surprising that people are inclined to be proud and to seek prominence?
7 It is important to note that, due to inherited imperfections, humans are inclined to be selfish and to think more of themselves than they ought to think. (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 12:3) In addition, the world tries to cultivate in us the view that our family, race or nationality is better than that of others. It also encourages us to try to get ahead, and to outshine others, regardless of the methods used. So it should not be surprising that people are disposed to seek position and prestige. Oh, persons may deny such a quest. “I don’t want power,” they may say. But what do their actions show? Did Peter, James, John or any of the other apostles, for example, manifest a desire to have a position of prominence? Well, what happened one day when, together with Jesus, they were traveling home to Capernaum?
8, 9. (a) What argument did Jesus’ apostles get into on the road to Capernaum? (b) How did Jesus on that occasion teach his apostles that they had a wrong attitude?
8 This is how Mark recorded what occurred: “Now when [Jesus] was inside the house he put the question to them: ‘What were you arguing over on the road?’ They kept silent, for on the road they had argued among themselves who is greater.” Luke also recorded this incident, but evidently neither he nor Mark was present. (Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48) However, the apostle Matthew was there, and no doubt he was put to shame because of his having taken part in the argument. Though Matthew omits mentioning the argument, he describes how Jesus, on that occasion, taught them a lesson in humility, explaining:
9 “So, calling a young child to him, he set it in their midst and said: ‘Truly I say to you, Unless you turn around and become as young children, you will by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens. Therefore, whoever will humble himself like this young child is the one that is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens.’” (Matt. 18:2-4) What a fine way to impress upon his disciples the value of humility! Little children naturally look up to their elders and consider them superior. The apostles needed to turn around and become like that. Did they? Did their attitude change?
10. Later, what request did James and John make of Jesus, and what was the reaction of the other ten apostles?
10 It was not long afterward that the apostles accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem for the eventful final week of his life. On their way to the city, Mark records what happened: “James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, stepped up to him and said to him: ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever it is we ask you for.’ He said to them: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ They said to him: ‘Grant us to sit down, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’” Perhaps this request reminds you of the dinner guests at the banquet who were choosing the best seats for themselves. “Well, when the ten others heard about it, they started to be indignant at James and John.” The other apostles did not approve of this behind-the-back attempt of James and John to secure a superior position in Christ’s government.—Mark 10:35-41.
11. (a) What wrong viewpoint did the apostles have? (b) How did Jesus try to straighten out their thinking?
11 James and John, as well as the rest of the apostles, were viewing matters from an erroneous worldly standpoint. Perhaps they thought back to when Israelite kings of the Davidic line ruled hundreds of years before. They may have assumed that the Messianic king Jesus Christ also would have an earthly government with men of high position and rank. They perhaps had personal ambitions to serve in such high official capacities. In any case, they had not learned the lesson in humility. Therefore Jesus tried to straighten out their thinking, telling them: “You know that those who appear to be ruling the nations lord it over them and their great ones wield authority over them. This is not the way among you; but whoever wants to become great among you must be your minister, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all.”—Mark 10:42-44; Matt. 20:20-28.
12. Whom did Jesus particularly have in mind when he urged the people to be humble and not to be called ‘leader’?
12 In view of this thinking of Jesus’ apostles, we can be sure that he particularly had them in mind when he told the people in Jerusalem a few days later that they should be humble, and not set themselves up as ‘teachers’ or “leaders.” (Matt. 23:8-12) Because of the apostles’ repeated bickering, Jesus may have determined to emphasize even more strongly their need of humility. The opportunity presented itself two days later when the twelve gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem to celebrate their last Passover together.
13. (a) In Eastern lands, how did a host customarily show his guests hospitality? (b) So, what opportunity did this give the apostles when they assembled for their last Passover together?
13 As the apostles were not guests, but merely had the use of the room, no servants were there to wash their feet. In Eastern lands, where people generally wore sandals or went barefooted, it was an act of hospitality on the part of the host to have the feet of visitors washed when they entered his house. The task was generally assigned to the lowest servant of the household. Thus, the young woman Abigail showed true humility when she addressed the servants of David: “Here is your slave girl as a maidservant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.” (1 Sam. 25:41; Luke 7:44; 1 Tim. 5:10) The apostles, therefore, had a fine opportunity humbly to provide this needful service, but apparently the spirit of rivalry was so strong in their hearts that not one of them volunteered. As a result, they proceeded to eat the meal, contrary to custom, with unwashed feet.
14, 15. (a) What meaningful service did Jesus perform for his apostles? (b) What lesson was Jesus thereby inculcating, but what shows whether the apostles then got the point of it?
14 The apostle John recorded what then occurred: Jesus “got up from the evening meal and laid aside his outer garments. And, taking a towel, he girded himself. After that he put water into a basin and started to wash the feet of the disciples and to dry them off with the towel with which he was girded. . . . When, now, he had washed their feet and had put his outer garments on and laid himself down at the table again, he said to them: ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You address me, “Teacher,” and, “Lord,” and you speak rightly, for I am such. Therefore, if I, although Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash the feet of one another.’”—John 13:1-14.
15 What a fine way to instruct his apostles in humility! You would think that they would have gotten the point. He was teaching them an attitude of mind—one of humility, one that would make them disposed to perform the lowliest of tasks in behalf of others. Yet what happened? As the evening progressed, Luke explains: “There also arose a heated dispute among them over which one of them seemed to be greatest.” (Luke 22:24) Can you imagine that! After all these efforts of Jesus to teach them humility, they still did not get out of their mind the idea of rank, and of some having positions superior to others. Their whole culture, dominated by the proud Pharisees and Sadducees, evidently had contributed to warping their attitude so much that they could not appreciate that all of them were brothers, equal in station.
16. (a) What comments of Jesus doubtless laid the basis for the argument? (b) How did Jesus patiently continue to try to help his apostles?
16 Jesus’ references to God’s kingdom that night doubtless laid the basis for this argument about who seemed to be greatest. (Luke 22:16-18) It is truly an outstanding evidence of Jesus’ patience and forbearance that he did not get angry with his apostles and strongly reprimand them for their selfish desire for distinction, and to have the most prominent places with him in his Kingdom glory. Rather, he again patiently told them, no doubt with an appealing tone to his voice: “The kings of the nations lord it over them, and those having authority over them are called Benefactors. You, though, are not to be that way. But let him that is the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the one acting as chief as the one ministering.”—Luke 22:25-27.
VITAL TO LEARN THE LESSON
17, 18. (a) Why was it vital that the apostles learn humility? (b) The overconfident attitude of the apostles contributed that night to what?
17 It was so vital that they learn this lesson of humility. Their very lives were at stake, as well as the lives of the Christian flock. How so? Well, consider to what their attitude contributed that night. Jesus warned them: “All of you will be stumbled in connection with me.” But the apostles protested that this would never happen. They felt ready for any eventuality, and so each said: ‘Even if we should die, we will never disown you.’ And in Peter’s retort, we catch a strong hint of the rivalry that existed among them: “Although all the others are stumbled in connection with you, never will I be stumbled!”—Matt. 26:31-35.
18 Well, we recall what happened. All the apostles failed their Master miserably. They were inattentive, neglecting to listen to his repeated instructions. And finally they fled in fear, leaving Jesus to face the mob that came to arrest him. And Peter denied three different times even knowing his Master! Peter had, in effect, said: ‘All the others may have weaknesses in their faith, but not I—I will never fail you, Lord.’ But his overconfident, I-am-more-faithful-than-they-are attitude contributed to a terrible crash for Peter. How vital it is to learn humility! Did the apostles eventually learn?
19, 20. (a) What evidence is there that the apostles learned humility? (b) How, evidently, was the early Christian congregation presided over, and what does this indicate as to the attitude of the apostles?
19 Yes, they did. Jesus’ loving patience with them was richly rewarded. An evidence of this is the forthright, honest way in which they recorded Jesus’ teachings on humility. We can just imagine how badly they must have felt when they thought back on how they had acted. Nevertheless, they wanted others to benefit from their mistakes and particularly from the fine instruction that Jesus provided them. Further evidence that they learned the lesson well is their own counsel encouraging humility. For example, the apostle Peter later wrote: “All of you be like-minded . . . humble in mind.”—1 Pet. 3:8.
20 Still other evidence that they finally learned humility is found in the Bible book of Acts. From reading it we can see how the apostles worked together in unity to build up the Christian congregation. None of them ambitiously sought prominence or prestige, nor did any act as though he were chief among them, trying to make his word law. Rather, evidently a body of men, including even other elders besides the apostles, decided on important matters affecting the Christian congregation. The disciple James, half brother of Jesus, who was not an apostle, apparently presided when the decision was made regarding circumcision. (Acts 15:6-29; 12:1, 2) This suggests that there may have been a rotation of presiding elders, with one acting as chairman on one occasion and another at another time. A spirit of true humility developed among the apostles.
THE LESSON EMPHASIZED—WHY?
21. How did the apostle Peter emphasize the importance of humility?
21 The apostle Peter, years later, felt the need to emphasize the importance of humility, and did so in the first of his inspired letters preserved in the Bible canon. In 1 Pe chapter four he mentions the sufferings that Christians can expect to undergo for their faithfulness to God, and then says: “Therefore, to the older men among you I give this exhortation . . . Shepherd the flock of God in your care, not under compulsion, but willingly . . . neither as lording it over those who are God’s inheritance, but becoming examples to the flock. . . . But all of you gird yourselves with lowliness of mind toward one another, because God opposes the haughty ones, but he gives undeserved kindness to the humble ones. Humble yourselves, therefore . . . Keep your senses, be watchful. Your adversary, the Devil, walks about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour someone.”—1 Pet. 5:1-8.
22. Why, after mentioning the sufferings of Christians, did Peter use the word “therefore” in prefacing his exhortation to elders?
22 Why did Peter, after mentioning the sufferings of Christians, say, “Therefore, to the older men among you I give this exhortation”? It is for the reason that if elders lack humility, this attitude can add to the suffering and burdens under which Christian brothers may already be laboring. But the humble attitude of elders is refreshing, and makes it easier for brothers to show endurance. (Isa. 32:1, 2) So Peter admonishes elders ‘not to lord it over those who are God’s inheritance, but to become examples to the flock.’
23. (a) What comments of Jesus may have influenced Peter to exhort elders not to lord it over the flock? (b) With what quality should elders be girded, and with what results?
23 Evidently Peter recalled Jesus’ comments about worldly rulers who “lord it over them,” and who “wield authority over them,” and that he said: “You, though, are not to be that way.” (Mark 10:42-44; Luke 22:25-27) No, Christian elders should not be like the proud Pharisees who told others what to do, but then were unwilling to lift one finger to do these things themselves. (Matt. 23:3, 4) Rather, they should set the example; they themselves should be willing to do whatever they ask others to do. They should, along with all other Christians, ‘gird themselves with lowliness of mind.’ In keeping with the meaning of the Greek word enkombóomai, translated at 1 Peter 5:5 “gird yourselves,” they should securely ‘tie upon themselves as by knots’ this humility. As a result, they will never consider themselves above menial tasks, such as cleaning the Kingdom Hall, or above sharing in all features of the Christian congregation’s preaching activities.
24. In what ways might elders lord it over the flock?
24 At the same time, those who gird themselves with humility will not arrogate special comforts or privileges to themselves, as though they deserve better things than those received by others. At Christian assemblies, for instance, could it not be, in effect, lording it over their brothers if elders secure for themselves special meals and the best work assignments, while allocating to their brothers what is inferior? Or would it be setting the example for the flock if they went to the head of the cafeteria line and obtained their meals ahead of those who had been waiting longer? True, there may be emergencies, due to urgent work assignments, when it may be necessary to go to the head of the cafeteria line or to eat at a different time or place than others do. Yet these are matters to think about seriously. Why?
25. (a) Are those with special abilities or privileges of service superior persons? (b) What counsel, then, is it vital for Christians to heed?
25 For one reason, when a person receives authority, he may especially be inclined to think that he is a better, more deserving person than others. But is he? He may have certain abilities that qualify him as a Christian elder and to handle an assembly operation, but these abilities do not make him a superior person. (1 Tim. 3:1-7) Jehovah God does not consider the elder, or any other human with special abilities, to be superior to his brothers. How vital it is, therefore, that the person should be heeding God’s counsel to exhibit “lowliness of mind considering that the others are superior”! (Phil. 2:3) This humble frame of mind will safeguard a Christian from the terrible crash that pride can bring.—Prov. 16:18; 18:12.
26. How can lack of humility on the part of the elders endanger the flock?
26 Also this humble attitude of the Christian elder will protect the flock. The “sheep” can easily be stumbled and turned away from the Christian congregation if the elders arrogate to themselves special privileges, seek prestige or prominence, or in other ways show a proud, haughty spirit. God’s Word urges: “In showing honor to one another take the lead.” (Rom. 12:10) But if the flock see the elders, who are supposed to serve as examples, honoring themselves with the best of things and acting in a high-handed, arrogant way, how will the flock be affected? They are bound to be hurt. The sufferings that they endure because of being Christians will be increased, and this could lead to disaster.
27. How can elders keep their senses and keep the Devil from devouring them and the flock?
27 Is it any wonder, then, that the apostle Peter warned: “Keep your senses, be watchful. Your adversary, the Devil, walks about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour someone”? If a Christian elder cultivates a proud, haughty spirit, he may open the way for the Devil to succeed in devouring him, and also members of the flock. So elders, seek to avoid even the appearance of being high-minded or superior. Gird yourselves with humility. Be approachable, kind, tender and compassionate, as when a nursing mother cherishes her own children. (Eph. 4:32; 1 Thess. 2:7, 8) Always look to the example and teachings of Jesus Christ, and do your best to imitate him.—Phil. 2:5-8.
28. What fine prospect is there for the future, and where do we get a foretaste of this?
28 Just think how fine it will be when all persons living exhibit lowliness of mind and consider that others are superior to them. What refreshment and peace there will be! Even now, within the Christian congregation, we are receiving a foretaste of this blessing of being associated with humble, unselfish men, women and children. Are we not encouraged, then, to gird ourselves with humility? It can safeguard us, preventing us from being devoured by the Devil, and assist us to survive the “great tribulation” and to live eternally in God’s fast-approaching righteous new order.—Ps. 133:1-3; Rev. 7:9-14.