The Wisdom of Humility
I’ll never forget going to my very first pastor’s conference back in my early 20’s. My friend Jay and I both had our hearts set on bring pastors and we drove all the way to California to join thousands of other men at a conference hosted by a well known preacher whom we were big fans of at the time.
We were young and inexperienced, but the church treated each one of us really well, and being in that environment around all of those seemingly important people, I think I might have started to feel a little important myself.
Well, all of that changed the second or the third day of the conference. I was standing in the bookstore, trying my best to look knowledgable as I perused all of these thick theology books. I set my last book down and turned to exit the bookstore back out into the courtyard, and I took a very confident step right into a large glass wall that I hadn’t noticed was there because, well, it was glass.
My skull made very good contact with the wall, making a very loud noice, and suddenly the bookstore got really quiet as dozens of eyes pointed right in my direction as I stumbled around and tried to recover.
A guy close to me said, “Are you okay?”, and ignoring the growing goose egg on my forehead, I responded with, “Yes, I think the only thing I hurt was my pride.” And then he smiled and said, “Well, you’d better do that a few more times then.”
This morning, we’re considering what the book of Proverbs has to say about pride and humility, and I’m sure that each one of us could submit a story that would fit as a good opening illustration. Humour aside, I’m sure we have all seen the destructive nature of pride at work in the lives of others and, if we're honest, in our own lives at one time or another. And I'm sure we've also seen the attractive beauty of humility at work in the lives of others, and hopefully, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in our own lives at times.
And so I hope we come eager to hear what God has to say to us today about the dangers of pride and the wisdom of humility.
The outline for this morning is there on your handout. We’re going to start by considering three truths that Proverbs teaches us about humility and pride. And then we’re going to consider four specific ways for us to cultivate and practice humility in our daily lives.
What Is Pride?
But before we get to that, I want to just make sure that we first understand what we are even talking about as we begin to think about “humility” and “pride.” What do these words even mean?
One of the main words for “pride” in the Hebrew Bible has the basic meaning of being lifted up. A proud person thinks they are or tries to be above others in one form or another.
Another word we’ll see in our passages today is “arrogance,” and this word points to someone who presumes too much about themselves. They don’t think about others, and they don’t think that God’s laws apply to them.
“Haughty,” another word we’ll see today, points both to that sense of being above others, as well as an unwillingness to learn from God or other people.
Together, these words point to someone who thinks way too highly about themselves, and imagines that they are in a separate class from other people and even from God Himself.
And “humility” is the opposite of this. The word for humility has to do with lowness, even in the sense of being afflicted, like the way we might use the phrase “laid low.” Someone who is humble is not trying to be above others. They know that they are low—especially compared to God. They know they are needy and dependent on God and others.
Another Hebrew word for “humility” is also connected to the idea of modesty, in so far as not wanting to draw a lot of attention to yourself.
So a proud person wants to be high, above others, not needing God. A humble person knows that there is only one Person who deserves to be high and lifted up, and so they are content to be low and unnoticed and needy.
A. THREE TRUTHS
And so, with those basic ideas in our minds, lets turn to these three truths that Proverbs teaches us about humility and pride.
1. Pride is Typical of Fools, Scoffers, and the Wicked
The first truth is that pride is typical of, or connected to, fools, scoffers, and the wicked, these three characters that we spent time considering last week.
We see the connection to fools in Proverbs 30:32: “If you have been foolish, exalting yourself…” Lifting yourself above others is what fools do. It’s certainly what scoffers or mockers do, according to 21:24: ““Scoffer” is the name of the arrogant, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride.” And finally, 21:4 connects haughtiness and pride with wickedness and sin: “Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin.”
So right out of the gates, Proverbs does not leave us wondering about pride and haughtiness. It’s sin, and it’s the domain of fools and scoffers and wicked people.
Now last week, we heard what happens to people who choose foolishness and scoffing and wickedness. They will face God’s judgement. And that leads us into our second truth today:
2. God Hates Pride and Will Punish It
And once again, Proverbs does not mince words on this file. “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 16:5).
There’s that word “abomination” that we heard last week. It describes something offensive and detestable. That’s what an arrogant heart is like to God. It is supremely offensive to Him.
And it’s not hard to think of why. God is the only exalted one. He created us in His image, not to compete with Him, but to reflect Him and bring Him glory. As He said in Isaiah 48:11, “How should my name me profaned? My glory I will not give to another.” And so when puny humans try to lift themselves up in pride, God not only hates it, but He will deal with it.
That’s what 16:18 points to: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). This verse is often paraphrased as “Pride comes before a fall,” but you can see it’s actually more edgy than that. Pride goes before destruction. The person walking around in pride, whether they know it or not, is walking into destruction.
If you think about pride or haughtiness as trying to lift yourself up, this Proverb tells us that it won’t work. Like that Greek legend about the two men who tried to fly to the sun, God is going to melt those wax wings and send the arrogant person crashing and burning. Like 15:25 says, “The Lord tears down the house of the proud but maintains the widow’s boundaries.” God defends the righteous poor, but He Himself is actively working against the prideful.
Four more Proverbs spell this same principle out: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2). “Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor” (Proverbs 18:12).
The next verse is particularly important because it speaks to the prideful act of trying to cover up your sin. Isn’t that where pride often shows up—when we’ve blown it and messed up, and we don’t want anybody to know because we want them to think highly of us?
But Proverbs 28:13 tells us that “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” The path of pride just won’t work.
One last verse sums up this whole second truth: “One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor” (Proverbs 29:23).
Trying to be high will actually bring you low. Pride will always be a failed project because God Himself is personally opposed to the proud.
3. Humility is Better In Every Way
That’s our second truth. But I’m so glad that there’s a third truth, which points us to the path of humility. Here we find that humility is better than pride in every way, because just as much as God is opposed to the proud, so He is full of grace and favour for the humble.
Isn’t that wonderful? God doesn’t just look at the humble and say, “Well, there you go, you know your spot.” No, when He sees a person who knows their place and has humbled themselves under God’s mighty hand, God reaches out to that person to give them what they know they don’t deserve.
We’ve been pointed in that direction by the last few verses. Look at 18:12 again: “But humility comes before honor.” Those who humble themselves, who know their place, will actually receive honour. Same as 29:23: “He who is lowly in spirit will obtain honour.”
The next two Proverbs on your handout flesh out this truth that humility is the path to true greatness. 15:33: “The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.” “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4).
God loves to show grace and mercy and even honour to those who know that they don’t deserve such things. The lowly in spirit certainly aren’t pursuing their own honour. They know who God is and so they know who they are. And that is exactly the kind of person God can honour, because in the end, the honour all comes back to Him. Like 1 Samuel 2:30 says, “those who honor me I will honor.”
And so we see that humility actually results in the very thing that pride was chasing after. When we try to make ourselves high, God will knock us down to size. But when we choose humility, God can actually honour us.
And so, humility is better than pride in every way. Which is exactly what the final two proverbs here tell us. “Better to be lowly and have a servant than to play the great man and lack bread” (Proverbs 12:9). It’s better to be lowly but actually have what you need than to be proud and poor. And the final proverb takes it even further when it says, “It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud” (Proverbs 16:19).
Humility is so valuable that it would be better to be humble and poor than proud and rich. And why? Because, as we’ve seen, God cares for the humble. He will honour them and take care of them. Humility is better in every way.
B. FOUR LESSONS
So those are the three main truths that Proverbs tells us. Pride is the way of fools; God hates and is opposed to pride, and humility is better in every way.
Now at this point, perhaps we might have some questions. We’ve seen some ideas, but what does this look like in real life? What does it look like to actually practice humility instead of pride? And how can we work to maintain humility instead of giving into pride’s seduction?
And Proverbs gives us answers to those questions. In this next section, we’re going to consider five specific lessons which show us how to practice and cultivate humility in the course of our life.
1. Take the Low Spot
Here’s the first one: take the low spot. As 25:6-7 tells us, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”
This is almost the exact same lesson repeated by Jesus a thousand years later in Luke 14:8-11, when he talked about choosing a seat at a wedding feast. It’s also the lesson lived out by Jesus as He chose the low place of the cross, and as a result was exalted by God to the heights of glory.
What might it look like for you and I do put this into practice? A modern example might be walking into the lunch room at work and grabbing the empty seat right next to the boss, and having him turn to you and say, “Actually, that spot is reserved for the person I’m having lunch with today.”
How much better to sit at the next table, and have him call over and say, “Why don’t you grab a seat over here with me.”
Choosing to take the low spot is great way to practice humility, by treating others as more significant than yourself. It’s also a way to cultivate humility, as you intentionally remind yourself that the world doesn’t revolve around you.
Now maybe you don’t have any important people in your life that you’re trying to impress. But are there ways you can deliberately leave the best for others as a way to practice humility?
Maybe even around here on a Sunday morning. Maybe, if you’re young and healthy, it means parking in the back, so that there’s more spots available in the front for guests or those who have a harder time walking. Maybe it means sitting closer to the front so that there is more room at the back for families or newcomers.
And I know we’re moving a little bit away from the context of this proverb here, but what I’m pointing to here is the many opportunities we have to treat others better than ourselves by taking the low spot.
2. Leave Your Reputation to Others
The second lesson from Proverbs is that we should leave our reputation to others. In other words, don’t toot your own horn. If you’ve done something good, don’t draw attention to it. Let someone else do that job.
There’s three specific proverbs that teach us this lesson. First is 25:27: “It is not good to eat much honey, nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory.” (cf. Proverbs 25:14). A bit of honey or sugar is nice, but you know the feeling when you have too much. Your head hurts and your stomach aches and your heart races and you think, “I shouldn’t have done that.”
Similarly, it’s not bad to want a good reputation. But you shouldn’t chase the sugar rush of your own glory. Do your job and let other people notice if God wants them to.
27:1-2 says it directly: “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.” Don’t toot your own horn. And finally, 27:21 says “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and a man is tested by his praise.” The sense there seems to be that what other people say about you is the real test of who you are, instead of what you say about yourself.
These days, it’s easier than ever to toot our own horns. Social media makes it really easy. “Look at all of these great things that I did!” And as long as we say we’re thankful and #blessed, then it’s not bragging, right?
The message of Proverbs is simple: don’t do that. If you did something great, let other people talk about it. And if they don’t, then enjoy knowing that God sees and notices. And that shouldn’t bother you if your heart is truly set on seeking His glory instead of your own.
3. Compare Yourself to God
The third lesson is probably the most important, in terms of cultivating a humble heart. And it has to do with comparing yourself to God.
Now you might be thinking, “That sounds crazy. Who am I to compare myself to God?” And that’s the whole point. When we truly compare ourselves to God, recognizing just how great He is, we’ll see just how small we are in comparison. And this is a powerful way to remember our place and fight against pride.
So, consider what 27:1 tells us: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” Some of you will have James 4:14-17 echoing in the background of your mind right now, because it’s the same idea. Don’t boast about tomorrow, because you are just a puny human. You have no idea what is going to happen one hour from now, let alone one day from now.
What a contrast that is from God. “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21). God knows tomorrow, because God has planned tomorrow, and every other day after that, and His plans will stand. We are so small compared to God. Knowing that is humility.
This same idea, of cultivating humility by comparing ourselves to God, comes out in Proverbs 30. This whole chapter is an oracle, an inspired revelation, from a man named Agur some of Jakeh. We don’t know anything else about this man. But what’s so noteworthy is that in the ancient world, other wisdom writers so often began their writings by bragging about their great wisdom and how that qualified them to say what they were going to say.
Agur takes the opposite approach. He begins his wisdom oracle by confessing just how small and unknowing he is compared to other men, and especially God.
“The man declares, I am weary, O God; I am weary, O God, and worn out. Surely I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understanding of a man. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One. Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name? Surely you know!” (Proverbs 30:1-4).
This sounds a bit like the book of Job, doesn’t it? “Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth?” In other words, who has been able to do the kinds of things that God has done? And Agur is saying, “I haven’t! I am not God! I am way smaller and way less powerful than God!”
He compares himself to God and recognizes just how small he actually is next to to God’s power and majesty.
So I encourage you to do the same. Be deliberate about it. When you’re reading the Bible, as I hope you do regularly on your own, ask two questions regularly:
What is this telling me about God? And what is this telling me about myself?
And what you’re going to see, as you ask those questions, is just how big of a contrast there is between you and God. You will discover that God is great and glorious beyond imagination. You will discover that you are small and limited and yet still loved beyond imagination. And that is how humility grows in your heart.
4. Stand Firm on God’s Word
So, we’ve seen three practical lessons so far for practicing and cultivating humility. Take the low spot. Let others praise you. Compare yourself to God. And there’s just one more stop for us this morning. One final way to practice humility. And it is: stand firm on God’s word.
And I’m getting this from Proverbs 30. Right after Agur said all those words we just read, the very next thing he writes is verses 5 and 6: “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar” (Proverbs 30:5-6).
God’s words are true. Don’t mess with what He has said. And because His words are true, you can trust Him and rely on Him.
Now this is interesting, isn’t it? That humility actually leads to confidence? Because we know we are small, and God is so much greater than we are, we build our lives not on our own words or ideas, but on God’s word.
This is precisely what Isaiah 66 shows us: "Thus says the Lord: 'Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word'" (Isaiah 66:1–2).
Humility receives and trembles at and stands firm on God’s word.
This is so different from many people in our world today who take the opposite approach. There are even people who call themselves Christians who say, “Who am I to think that I could actually understand what the Bible actually says?” And in the name of “humility,” they say that there is no way they could ever really know what God has said to us,—conveniently—they don’t have to take any stand on the difficult issues of the day. All in the name of humility.
And we just need to recognize this morning that this is not humility. That approach is actually pride in disguise. Because what they’re saying is that they know more about God and His word than God Himself does. They know more about God and His word than Solomon and the Apostle Paul and even Jesus Himself. They know more about God and His word than than thousands of years of faithful people did.
God’s word says that it was given to us to be understood and obeyed, but they know better.
It’s like me asking one of my children to go clean their room, and 30 minutes later they haven’t done a thing, and when I ask why, they say, “Dad, who am I to think that I could possibly understand what you were saying to me back there?” That’s not humility. That’s them pretending to be humble so that they can arrogantly ignore what I very clearly told them to do. And there’s so-called Christians doing this all the time today.
So please listen: it is not arrogance to stand firm on God’s word. In fact, that is deepest humility. It acknowledges that we are small and our own words and ideas are the wrong place to stand. It acknowledges that God is great and He has spoken clearly, and that its our place to humbly listen and humbly believe and humbly obey.
Now, that doesn't mean that we don’t need to be appropriately humble about our own limitations. None of us will be able to perfectly understand God’s word on our own. We need to receive the Bible together, as the people of God, and listen to each other as we work to understand it. We need to acknowledge that we do live in a different culture than the original recipients, and we need the work of scholars and teachers to help us bridge that gap to really grasp what is being said.
So we don’t just lock ourselves in our closets with a Bible and pretend we know everything. It is wise to use study Bibles and commentaries and to listen to wise teachers and to study the Bible together with the church.
We also want to keep our attitudes in check even as we do all of that. This is not our truth. We never want to use the Bible as a tool to just help us be right or win arguments. This is God’s word, and we must come to it with the deepest humility.
But as we do that, we will find ourselves standing firmly on what God has said. Because that’s the only humble response to the words of our Creator.
So don’t let people push you around and tell you that you’re being arrogant when you are simply standing on what God has said. Especially when it comes to hot-button issues of the day, like human sexuality, we must not surrender to those who think they know better than God.
Let’s sum this point up, and tie this whole message together, by putting it this way: humility is not the opposite of confidence. Humility is the opposite of self-confidence. But proper humility will always lead us to true confidence because humility will lead us to being confident in the Lord.
Jeremiah chapter 9 states this so well when it says this: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord’” (Jeremiah 9:23–24).
And that’s why we’re going to end today by singing “My Worth is Not in What I Own,” a song that speaks about pride and wisdom and strength, and how we won’t boast in any of these things. But we will boast in our Redeemer, our humble saviour who emptied Himself and made Himself low in to die in our place, that He might bring us back up to the heights of glory with Him.
Humility will lead to confidence in that saviour. Would you make this song your prayer this morning? Would you ask God to give you true humility by helping you to boast in the Lord and Him alone?
Let’s pray for that together.