The Indispensable Virtue
William P. Farley
A few years ago I led a Bible study for a group of singles. I gave them
a list of topics and asked the group to rate them in order of their
greatest need. The results were a pleasant surprise: Their number one
desire was increased intimacy with Christ. That response was consistent
with my experience relating to other believers over the years. Most of us
want a deeper relationship with God.
Although the spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, and Bible
study should lead to deeper union with Christ, by themselves they will not
do so. Each of these activities helps us grow closer to God, but we need
something else. Spiritual maturity cannot happen without one crucial
God initiated me into this virtue in a dramatic way. In October of 1993,
He arrested me with Is. 66:2 : “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble
and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” I wanted a deeper
relationship with God, and I felt impressed that this verse had something
to do with it. But I didn’t understand the connection between humility and
trembling before God’s Word. So I prayed, “Lord, please make this verse
real to me.”
Five days later my wife and I were driving down the Oregon coast. While I
was meditating on 1 Corinthians 13 , another verse caught my attention.
“Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”
(v. 12 , emphasis mine). I realized that God saw spiritual darkness in me
to which I was blind, that He loved me despite this spiritual cancer, and
that someday He would let me see it as He saw it. I prayed again, “God,
please open my eyes to this evil in my heart.”
As we followed Highway 101 south, I sensed a connection between Is. 66:2
and 1 Cor. 13:12 . So I prayed a third time: “God, show me the connection
between these verses.”
A few minutes later my wife began talking about a movie she liked.
Irritated by the intrusion of such a trivial topic into my meditation, I
condescendingly belittled her opinion. Instantly, three life-changing
words knifed into my consciousness. They weren’t audible, but they came so
suddenly and were so completely nonvolitional that I lurched behind the
“There It Is!”
“What was that?” I wondered. Then I realized that God had spoken to me. So
I asked, “What is it?” An overwhelming sense of the moral ugliness of
it—my arrogance and pride—washed over me. For the first time, I saw this
sin in God’s light.
My next sensation was the profound conviction that God had loved me for 45
years despite this besetting sin He abhorred. For a moment, He let me know
myself as He knew me. It was painful to see my pride as God saw it. Yet I
was glad for that glimpse. I wept for my sin, and I wept because of God’s
indescribable love. Those three words changed my life.
Once home I began to study Is. 66:2 . What follows is the fruit of that
meditation. The bottom line is this: The indispensable virtue for intimacy
with God is humility. If you witness, serve, pray, and study your Bible,
but don’t grow in this virtue, God will still oppose you. The Bible warns
us, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Jas. 4:6 ). God
opposes us by hiding Himself from us; and He demonstrates His grace to us
by drawing us into deeper relationship with Him. He draws near to the
humble (Ps. 138:6 ).
Humility is the chief thing in the Christian life. You can’t love without
it. You can’t obey without it. You can’t serve without it. “Humility is a
great and most essential thing in true religion,” wrote Jonathan Edwards.
“The whole frame of the gospel, everything appertaining to the new
covenant, and all God’s dispensations towards fallen man, are calculated
to bring to pass this effect.”
Humility is not self-hatred or lack of self-confidence. Rather, it is the
ability to see yourself through God’s eyes. A humble person increasingly
sees himself as he really is: “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked”
(Rev. 3:17 ). Ironically, such humility lays the foundation for
contentment and healthy self-esteem.
In contrast, pride is spiritual blindness. Unfortunately, pride is also
the sin to which we are most blind. In a demonic catch-22, pride causes us
to chase our spiritual tails. I could not see my pride because I was full
of it. Pride is a spiritual veil blinding us to the truth about ourselves.
Isaiah 66:2 says, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite
in spirit, and trembles at my word.” There is an important progression
here. Humility always metamorphoses into something more beautiful; it is
the fountainhead of the other virtues. In this verse, we see how humility
leads to real contrition and then deepens into trembling at God’s Word. It
sensitizes us to Scripture, motivating and equipping us to hear.
Paul’s humility led him to work out his salvation “with fear and
trembling” (Phil. 2:12 ). David’s humility led him to “rejoice with
trembling” (Ps. 2:11 ). Humility enhances our love for God’s Word. With
living faith, we joyfully tremble before the Scriptures and are eager to
obey, seeking God’s encouragement and correction.
Pride, on the other hand, metastasizes into something more dreadful. It is
the cancerous root of most vice. Instead of contrition, pride leads to
self-righteousness; instead of trembling at God’s Word, self-righteousness
can actually cause us to despise it. This can happen even to
When Nathan confronted David about his sin with Bathsheba, he asked, “Why
did you despise the word of the Lord?” (2 Sam. 12:9 ). David’s pride
deceived him into believing he could get away with adultery and murder. In
the same way, when we’re deliberately disobedient, it’s because we don’t
take God seriously. We, too, have despised God and His Word because we
feel we’re beyond His judgments.
Why is humility the key to intimacy? Since humility results in trembling
at God’s Word, it brings us into real communion with God. It sensitizes us
to His voice. It opens our ears to His instructions and deepens our
gratitude. It leads us into greater dependence upon God because we know
our desperate need for Him.
Therefore, the Bible tells us that God esteems the humble (Is. 66:2 ). He
dwells with the “contrite and lowly” (Is. 57:15 ). He blesses the poor in
spirit (Mt. 5:3 ). He gives grace to the humble (Jas. 4:6 ). He guides the
humble and teaches them His way (Ps. 25:9 ).
Humility is indeed the key to intimacy with God. This truth has tremendous
implications for personal spiritual growth.
First, it affects our approach to the Bible. Humility is the necessary
foundation for life-shaping encounters with Scripture. Occasional boredom
with God’s Word is normal. But if apathy is a long-term pattern, the
problem could be deep-seated pride.
The proud do not need God. Therefore, they have little need for His Word.
They may attend church and go through all the religious routines. In the
end, however, they feel quite competent to take care of themselves. They
do not know the depths of their sinfulness or their need of His unlimited
grace. “He who is full loathes honey, but to the hungry even what is
bitter tastes sweet” (Prov. 27:7 ). The greater your humility, the more
you will extract spiritual food from the Bible.
Second, humility’s central role in spiritual growth gives us a new
perspective of our temptations and failures. Because humility is so
important, God will let us fail our way into true self-knowledge. Have you
ever asked God to deliver you from some sin but seen no results? God often
lets us stew in our problems to deepen our humility. Our need for humility
is sometimes greater than our need for deliverance. That was Paul’s
To keep me from becoming conceited …there was given me a thorn in my
flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the
Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient
for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
—2 Cor 12:7-9
If God humbled the great apostle this way, how much more will He humble
you and me?
Third, a proper understanding of humility sheds new light on lingering
feelings of inadequacy. I expected to feel better about myself as I
conquered problems over the years. Instead, I have felt increasingly
inadequate and sinful as I have drawn closer to God.
I have learned that this is a positive sign. So have many of the great
saints. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Such is the nature of grace, and of true
spiritual light, that they naturally dispose the saints in the present
state to look upon their grace and goodness little and their deformity
great.” John Berridge, the great 18th-century English preacher, said, “As
the heart is more washed, we grow more sensible of its remaining
defilement; just as we are more displeased with a single spot on a new
coat than a hundred stains on an old one.”
In moments of inadequacy, we can take heart. A growing awareness of our
sinfulness could be a sign of growing humility and a foretaste of deeper
intimacy with God. In A.D. 55, Paul wrote, “For I am the least of the
apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle” (1 Cor. 15:9 ).
Seven years later he wrote, “I am less than the least of all God’s people”
(Eph. 3:8 ). Five years after that, he wrote to Timothy, “Christ Jesus
came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim. 1:15
Notice the downhill progression from the “least of the apostles” to “less
than the least of God’s people” to the “worst” of sinners. Every saint
growing in intimacy will feel this way, and a deepening sense of God’s
love, grace, and joy will accompany feelings of lowliness.
Fourth, when we realize that humility leads to intimacy with God, it has
tremendous implications for how we minister to others. One fundamental
goal of discipleship is to help people grow in humility. We do this by
teaching the moral glory of God and the sinfulness of men. This is not a
popular message. But no one can understand the love of God until this
foundation has been laid.
For many, however, the goal of ministry has become enhanced self-esteem.
We want to make people happy, not humble. We think people need to feel
good about themselves rather than good about the God who alone has taken
the initiative to save them from their sins. Our culture, too, tells us
that man’s primary problem is low self-esteem.
In contrast, the Bible tells us our problem is too much self-esteem. “An
oracle is within my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked,” wrote
David. “There is no fear of God before his eyes. For in his own eyes he
flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin” (Ps. 36:1-2 ,
Why do our efforts at evangelism often fail? Perhaps it’s because we
assume people have a felt need for God, when they seldom do. As David
said, most people think too highly of themselves to see their need for
God. Successful evangelists recognize this and skillfully bring their
listeners face to face with their overwhelming spiritual poverty. Edward
Payson, a 19th-century New England preacher, wrote:
This is the reason why so many reject the Savior. They will not come to
Him because they do not feel they need Him; and they do not feel that they
need Him because they are blind to their own sinfulness.
We don’t need or love God until we have been humbled. God is only intimate
with the person who has been thoroughly humbled, who sees himself from
God’s perspective. Although God loves the arrogant—as He loved me—He will
not be intimate with them until they are humbled.
Fifth, focusing on humility highlights an inherent danger of the spiritual
disciplines. When we take secret pride in our Bible reading, prayers, and
service, these practices can escalate our arrogance and actually separate
us from God. In the end, our exertions to find God become the very wedge
that distances us from Him. This is what happened to the Pharisees. Their
spiritual pride angered Jesus in a way no other sin did. That is why the
spiritual disciplines, by themselves, can never create intimacy with God.
How then can an earnest believer grow in humility? First, we must admit
that we are proud even if we can’t see obvious evidence of our arrogance.
“Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults” pleaded David (Ps.
19:12 ). Likewise, James wrote, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he
will lift you up” (Jas. 4:10 ). Confess your pride even before you see it.
Second, seek the knowledge of God. Knowing Him produces humility. It is
only in His light that we see ourselves accurately (Ps. 36:9 ). We are
humble by looking at God, not ourselves. With this in mind, John Calvin
opened his Institutes with these words:
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom,
consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves… Man is never
sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state
until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.
Everyone who sees God in His majesty will also see himself with clarity.
Seek to know God in the beauty of His holiness. Pray for spiritual
illumination. You cannot see God or yourself without His aid. “No one
knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to
reveal him” (Mt. 11:27 , emphasis mine). Fortunately, God is eager to be
found. “If you seek him, he will be found by you” (2 Chron. 15:2 ).
Finally, immerse yourself in God’s Word. It is the spiritual mirror in
which we see ourselves with clarity. “Anyone who listens to the word but
does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror”
(Jas. 1:23 ). What does this mirror reflect? It reflects my foolishness in
contrast to God’s wisdom, my selfishness in the light of God’s love, my
weakness in contrast to His strength. This mirror reveals my immense need.
Isaiah was humbled in the light of Christ’s glory (Jn. 12:41 ). From this
perspective he penned these words:
“This is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name
is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is
contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to
revive the heart of the contrite’”
God dwells with the humble. Pursue God and you will find humility. Pursue
humility and you will find God.
On Your Own
1. It’s easy to recognize pride when it parades as arrogance and boasting.
However, pride is anything that relies on self rather than on God.
Self-sufficiency hides in all kinds of places:
“No, thank you, I can handle it myself” may really mean I’ll be
self-sufficient by taking care of my own problems.
“Oh, I could never teach a class—I’m not very good at it” can often be
translated I’ll be self-sufficient by never stepping into a place where I
need God’s help.
What are some other ways in which self-sufficiency disguises itself?
2. We generally cling to sin because we get something out of it. What are
the immediate benefits of self-sufficiency?
3. While the benefits of humility may seem obscure, what are its rewards,
according to these verses?
Prov. 11:2 , 29:23 ; Jas. 4:10 ; 1 Pet. 5:5
4. What step could you take this week to replace a self-sufficient
behavior or attitude with humility?