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Dec 24, 2023

Humility vs. Pride

Passage: Philippians 2:4-8

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Advent 2023--The Contrasts of Christmas

Keywords: pride, incarnation, arrogance, humility, humble


This last contrast in our Advent series looks at humility of the incarnation that partnered with people of humility in the Advent story verses those who chose pride and self. This message comes from the Advent account of Paul in Philippians 2.


Pride vs. Humility

Advent 2023—Contrasts of Christmas

December 24, 2023


Fellowship Question:  Tell someone about a person you admire for their humility…and why.


  • Last in the series of Contrasts of Christmas. Heading into the Gospel of Mark in the New Year.
  • Today: Humility and pride.  Since the Advent story is actually a study in humility, I won’t have a lot to say about pride.

Action:  take 60 seconds to try and define humility in your own words…and then pride in your own words.  (Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to share your definitions.  Just want to see if it changes in the next half hour due to our time in God’s word.)

Plenty of unhelpful or even wrong definitions and descriptions of humility:

  • From Positive Psychology.com—"Humility has nothing to do with meekness or weakness. And neither does it mean being self-effacing or submissive.” [https://positivepsychology.com/humility/]
  • That article goes on to declare, Christian humility is linked to self-abnegation [self-denial], shame, and sin and may therefore not be to everyone’s taste. [Ibid]
  • American Heritage Dictionary (is amazingly unhelpful):
    • The quality or condition of being humble.
    • The state or character of being humble; freedom from pride and arrogance; lowliness of mind; a low estimate of one's self; self-abasement.
    • An act of submission.

Some accurate statements about humility:

  • Positive Psychology didn’t get it completely wrong. “In the past decade in particular, psychologists have rediscovered the importance of humility. They have established fascinating links between humility and our ability to learn and be effective leaders, and our readiness to engage in prosocial behavior.”
  • Adopting a more humble mindset increases our overall psychological wellbeing and ensures our social functioning. Last but not least, humility is a perfect antidote to the self-fixated spirit of our age. [Ibid]
  • S. Lewis: In Screwtape Letters, Letter 14, Lewis defines pride as “minds endlessly revolving on themselves.” Lewis argues that pride is nothing but self-centeredness. Pride occurs when we’re consumed with self.
  • But the other side of pride is a less familiar concept. Lewis calls it “false modesty.” In Letter 14 he also describes it as “self contempt” and “the denial of truth.” False modesty has many forms and it can look like self-abasement, shame, compulsive guilt, people-pleasing behaviors, ” [https://blogs.bible.org/humility-the-art-of-self-forgetfulness/]
  • It’s false Why? Because it’s not true humility. It’s pride disguised as humility. You see, low self-esteem is still self-centeredness. It’s still pride. Whether I have high self-esteem or low self-esteem, I’m still consumed with…SELF. And when my focus is on me, then it’s not on where genuine humility calls us to focus.

To enable us to get a truly Christian definition of humility, we need to go briefly to a different description of the Advent than what we have in the Gospels.  It is one I will revisit briefly in our Christmas Eve service this afternoon.  We find it in Philippians 2:4-8.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Notice a few things about humility that may run counter to common contemporary concepts of humility:

  • 3—Humility “values others above ourselves”. It’s not a devaluing of ourselves; it is a revaluing of others. 

Q:  How much do we value our own interests, concerns, issues of life, preferences and lives?  Apart from a work of God, almost utterly and completely. 

  1. Babies—we begin life as utterly self-focused.
  2. Hopefully we grow out of that total self-absorption as we learn to live in a family…then school…then with peers and society…and a host of human relationships that invite us to enter into the issues and needs of others: marriage, parenting, work, friendships, etc.

Paul will go on here to use God himself as the most perfect example of humility in the person of Jesus Christ. He will show HOW Jesus “valued” others (us) above himself. 

Doing that does not mean that Jesus devalued himself.  Jesus didn’t think less of himself or his deity or his divine qualities of holiness or mercy or love when he came to earth to rescue us.  He didn’t think we were better than him.  But he chose to expend himself for us rather than protect himself from us.  Knowing what we needed before a single one of us ever realized how desperately we needed Him, Jesus chose to give our condition as sinners priority over His contentment in heaven with the Father and Holy Spirit. 

Def:  We could actually define humility, then, as focusing upon others well-being above our own.

APP: Paul will go on to tell us a bit of how we actually “value others above ourselves”.  But for now, can we just acknowledge that God puts other people in our lives…usually people with needs…because He wants us to grow in the humility of Christ.   Every person in our lives is an invitation to humility.  That doesn’t mean we should try and meet every need that comes our way.  Jesus didn’t heal every blind or lame person.  He didn’t feed every person wanting food.  But the entire tenor of his life, whether his relationship to the Father or to human beings, was to value them above His own comfort and concerns.  People in our lives are that opportunity.

  • WHO has God put into your life at present who God may be inviting you to show concern and compassion? Children? Spouse?  Brother or sister in Christ?  Someone facing issues that need the help of others.  Anyone with the life of Christ in them will feel that pull to make someone else’s concerns our concern. 
  • We will need the life of Jesus in us to embrace the humility it will take to be in that kind of giving, self-sacrificing, other-serving relationship rather than enjoying life designed around your own preferences.

Genuinely humble people are other-concerned people.

ILL:  It had been a long day on Capitol Hill for Democratic  Senator John Stennis. He was looking forward to a bit of relaxation when he got home. After parking the car, he began to walk toward his front door. Then it happened. Two people came out of the darkness, robbed him, and shot him twice. News of the shooting of Senator Stennis, the chairman of the powerful Armed Forces Committee, shocked Washington and the nation. For nearly seven hours, Senator Stennis was on the operating table at Walter Reed Hospital.

Less than two hours later, another politician was driving home when he heard about the shooting. He turned his car around and drove directly to the hospital. In the hospital, he noticed that the staff was swamped and could not keep up with the incoming calls about the Senator’s condition. He spotted an unattended switchboard, sat down, and voluntarily went to work. He continued taking calls until daylight. Sometime during that next day, he stood up, stretched, put on his overcoat, and just before leaving, he introduced himself quietly to the other operator, “I’m Mark Hatfield. Happy to help out.” Then U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield (Oregon) unobtrusively walked out.

The press could hardly handle that story. There seemed to be no way for a conservative Republican to give a liberal Democrat a tip of the hat, let alone spend hours doing a menial task and be “happy to help out.”

[Heaven Bound Living, Knofel Stanton, Standard, 1989, p. 35]

Paul continues:

not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

This verse gets to the heart of C.S. Lewis’s discussion of humility and pride.  Thinking more… and more often… about the true needs and issues of others around us will, of necessity, require that we not spend so much of our time and energies thinking about our own needs and issues.  And that will be determined by the gods you serve.

ILL:  2 parallel train tracks—the god we choose to serve determines whether we grow in humility or in pride. 

  • People who make themselves the god of their own lives are not going to be humble people. They will, instead, deify their own interests and concerns, not those of others. 
  • On the other hand, if Jesus is my God, I will start by spending more of my time thinking about Him—what He wants, His will for my life. That will lead me away from constant thoughts about myself and most certainly lead me into what is on Jesus’ heart—the needs and concerns of a lost and dying world…the needs and concerns of those He has put around me to love…the needs and concerns of others.

So, it is not surprising the Paul turns to Jesus and His thought-process in the incarnation at Christmas to call us into the HOW of humility.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Now he will proceed to call us into the very thought process that made Jesus truly THE most humble person ever to grace the planet. 

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
This is where many people misunderstand true humility.  Humility is not denying who you are.  It must begin with acknowledging who you are, recognizing reality so that you can take that reality and use it for the blessing of OTHERS.  Because Jesus knew he was God, he knew he could do things no one else could do to rescue human beings.  He knew that His participation in the Trinity was something that could hold immeasurable blessing for us…IF “his own advantage” was not the focus of His existence. 

            This is so unlike everything we know in human experience.  We toil and strive, work and labor to gain additional advantages in life—friends, wealth, job promotions, grades, excellence in sports or the arts.  And when we are able to achieve even some little measure of “success” that gives us an advantage over others, rarely does that advantage lead us to be more determined to use it for the blessing of others. 

            But that IS the very nature of God. 

If experiencing always and forever an untroubled, painless, evil-absent existence had been God’s driving nature in eternity past, God never would have created a universe and populated it with angels who could become demons and saints who could become sinners.  God never would have made another being of any kind that could rebel…or freely love…or ignore…Him.  God didn’t need anyone or anything else to be complete.  But His humble, other-oriented character, even in/among the godhead, moved Him to use who He is to think far beyond himself to a world of people who would need a self-sacrificing God.  The universe we live in was built by the only God who does not function to constantly stoke “his own advantage.” 

            rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
The God of by whom everything exists made himself nothing so that He could become the servant of all.

Humility lets go of status so it can lay hold of service.

ILL:  William Borden

  • Born to one of the wealthiest millionaire families in Chicago.
  • After high school, parents sent on a round-the-world trip for a year. There he encountered many missionaries that lit a fire in him for service of Christ.
  • Returned to U.S. to attend Yale. Higher criticism had taken over.  Spiritual deadness.  Started morning prayer and Bible study groups.  Year ended with 150 of the 1,300 students.  By senior year, 1,000! 
  • Father died his freshman year >> left him one of the wealthiest young men in the country.
  • Founded the Yale Hope Mission helping the poor. Sometimes he would quietly write out a check for a large amount and entirely fund various ministry organizations he was involved with, but at other times he would spend hours praying with friends for needed funds, feeling like it wouldn’t be honoring to God for him to simply support all Christ’s work apart from prayer and faith. 
  • Attended a missions conference where Samuel Zwemer, missionary to Muslims, spoke. Challenged him about 15 million Muslims in China without a single missionary.  He made no attempt to cover the high price that might be demanded, declaring, “Of course it will cost life. It is not an expedition of ease nor a picnic excursion to which we are called…”   Borden was hooked. Ever on the lookout for a challenge he had found a challenge of the highest order. He began considering a ministry to the Muslims of northern China. In one of his notebooks he later wrote: “In every man’s heart there is a throne and a cross… If Christ is on the throne self is on the cross… If Jesus is on the throne you will go where He wants you to go…”
  • Went to seminary at Princeton. Graduated and left for China via Egypt to learn Arabic. Had determined not to marry as he knew the life he had chosen would probably mean the death of any woman.  
  • His 3rd month in Egypt, he contracted spinal meningitis and died. The world was shocked.  Many called it a waste of life.  But the repercussions touched thousands of young people and moved them into mission service. 
  • Found in his Bible upon his death were three now famous phrases:
    • While he was in school, having made his decision to forsake a comfortable life of wealth and ease in the U. S. he had written, “No reserves.”
    • After graduating from Yale, with many offers of important positions coming to him, he wrote, “No retreats.”
    • And below these two phrases, written shortly before he died, were the amazing words, “No regrets.”

Borden was simply following in the path of humility of Jesus.  Christ has always loved serving the will of the Father.  And because the Father’s will has always been the saving of lost sinners, when the Father and the Son determined that taking on humanity and dying for sinners as the perfect Lamb of God, nothing including becoming the Servant of His own creatures was too much for the Messiah. 

            Which is why God went looking for a bunch of humble souls to partner with in His coming in human flesh.  Here’s where the “Christmas Contrast” comes out in living color. 

            Lack of humility or pride is not, thankfully, in as great abundance in the Christmas story as people of humility are.  The most evident people lacking humility are those in the story who had the most human power, stature and authority.  Not all, but most. 

  1. Chief among the un-humble would be…King Herod (Mt. 2).  Already one of the rare humans of the time who had almost unchecked authority and power over others, Herod is the anti-Christ—the exact opposite of Christ, in this story.  Overly impressed with his genuinely mediocre authority (especially in comparison with Christ), Herod resorts to lying, deception, flattery and genocide in an attempt to obliterate any competition to his status.  He’s not interested in serving anyone but himself.  His is a universe of 1.  And there isn’t even room for God in that universe.  Every action he takes is designed to hold onto what he tenuously has in the moment of wealth, power, authority and prestige. 

Even in his arrogance, God sends to Herod men he could and should have been more like.  The Magi—wise, probably wealthy, certainly seekers of God and men delighted to see God invading human history, show up on his palace-step to let him know that God is on the move among the Jewish people.  Rather than become like the ruler God is sending, his pride and lack of other-interested humility moves him to seek to kill innocent children under his rule rather than think about helping them discover their divine destiny. 

  1. Then there are his “counselors”—the Jewish chief priests and teachers of the Law whom King Herod summoned in order to put together his deadly plan to thwart the purposes of God ( 2:3-4). Matthew tells us that Herod wasn’t the only person in Jerusalem “disturbed” by the Magi’s declaration of one “born king of the Jews”.  “All Jerusalem” was troubled in the same way Herod was.  “ALL” here doesn’t mean every person in Jerusalem.  It can refer to those in authority and power.  The fact that Herod calls for the Jewish powerful seems to indicate that the “chief priests and teachers of the Law” were of the same mind as Herod on the matter.  Worship a “king of the Jews”?  No thank you.  That could mean a letting go of their power, position, prosperity and privilege…just the thing the real “King of the Jews” would spend his life doing…and for which they, like pagan Herod, would kill Him.  Pride always sees others as threats, not fellow travelers to be joined and assisted on the journey.   

But let’s end today’s study by looking in the mirror of the truly humble servants of God in the Christmas story.  They are as obvious as they are prominent.  But in them we see what humility really is and how it behaves. 

            While God in the Christ-child is the leading hero of humility in the Christmas story, the supporting actors and actresses are remarkable in their own right.  Most of them hale from humble circumstances:  carpenters, shepherds, young women—people of very limited means, limited position and limited power. 

            The Magi of Matthew 2 are the exception here.  That is encouraging.  In this world of confused people, it is nice to see that not every rich or powerful person is destined to a life of arrogance and pride.  While most seem to go that way, thankfully some of privilege heed the call to humility.  Again, the most important factor in a humble life is your choice of god you will worship and serve. 

  • Magi: these wise men from Mesopotamia (Persian/ Babylonian empire) had come from the former center of Jewish scholarship during the captivity.  They must have had some teaching about the expected Messiah.  In all probability, they knew the prophecies of Daniel, especially chapter 9.  Knowing that an “Anointed One” would come…and apparently having already become worshipers of God…they come to the Nativity with one desire in mind:  to worship the king they believed God was sending.  Unlike Herod who worshiped himself, these men of prestige were worshipers of God…as, we shall see, were all the other genuinely humble players in the Christmas story.

APP:  A life of humility begins and ends with the God you worship.  Choosing any god but the Humble God of Christmas will not lead you into humility.  But if Christ is God of your life, then he will bring with Him his humility that moved him to let go of heaven’s glory so that he could rescue you and me on earth.

Truly humble people cultivate a life of surrender to God first.

            Once we have chosen to put the humble, holy, God of all on the throne of our lives, it should not surprise us too much that he will ask us to join Him in letting go of what we are prone to want to hang onto so that we can serve other’s needs and interests before our own. 

            Think for a moment about what people like Elizabeth & Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, Anna and Simeon, and even the shepherds had to “let go of” in order to grasp humility and God’s call to humbly serve others.

  • Elizabeth & Zechariah: While Elizabeth got to embrace a baby, a child, she had longed for her whole life, to embrace God’s call upon her life at an advanced age, she had to let go of whatever plans she had for normal, senior living.  Aging is challenging enough.  But the constant demands of a newborn on the declining strength and health of an older woman truly meant that Elizabeth had to let go of a lot of her ”own interests” in order to serve the interests of God and His plan.  (Letting go of the dream every parent has of seeing their baby grow into adulthood, marry, have a family and enjoy grandparenting.) 
  • Zechariah—most first-born boys took the name of their father. Zechariah knew this would not only be their firstborn but their last-born.  Yet when God said, “Name him John”, Zechariah let go of his “own interests” and embraced those of the God he love…so that the purposed of God could be realized for other people. 

APP: are we humble enough to walk a lifetime with God even when our deepest desires go unfulfilled?  And when God does grant us some of what we long for, are we so God and other-focused that we are able to receive with joy changes and adjustments to what we had normally expected? 

From the senior end of the humility spectrum, we are taken by Luke’s Gospel account of the Nativity to Mary & Joseph.  Humility does not depend upon wealth or class or influence.  From all we know, both Mary and Joseph had none of that other than being descendants of David’s line.  But like all young couples, they still had dreams of a wonderful courtship, a happy marriage and a respected family. 

            The entrance of God in human flesh through the womb of Mary all but obliterated some parts of those dreams.  A happy engagement?  I can’t imagine a more stressful and troubling experience than having to tell your fiancée that you are pregnant… and not by him but by some mysterious and miraculous work of God.  Integrity, purity, trust and believability were all on the line for Mary.  While being “highly favored” by God, I doubt that it felt terribly favorable to exit Nazareth hurriedly, spend 3 months with your elderly, pregnant cousin Elizabeth and then return pregnant to your husband-to-be and hometown, only to have to try and explain to Joseph all that was going on. 

            Mary’s response to angel Gabriel was a response of humility:  “I am the Lord’s servant.  May your word to me be fulfilled.”   Those are the words of a humble young woman who is first of all focused on submission to God and then willing to endure whatever sacrifice and loss of her plans so that the deepest needs of her nation and the world could be met.  Humility hangs onto God and the interests of others more tightly than it holds to its own interests. 

            Joseph:  much the same applies to him.  Deeply confused and most certainly hurt by the developments with Mary’s pregnancy, even before the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream to bring him up to speed, he demonstrates that humility that considers others as more important than himself.  He balances truth and grace—being “faithful to the law” that could have punished Mary severely, he embraces the humility of compassion and grace, determining to divorce her “quietly.”  His own hurt is not his dominant emotion. Rather his concern for Mary and ultimately his longing to submit to God’s will leads him to look away from his issues and consume himself with caring for what God was doing in and through the little family under his care. 

            I’ll end with Anna, a senior-saint in the Temple on the day that Jesus was dedicated.  Her humility had allowed her to let go, some 60 years earlier, of her dreams of sharing life with her husband.  After just 7 short years of marriage, she had been widowed, probably in her early 20s.  Where pride would have demanded God treat her better, humility drove her to God and a deeper relationship of worship of Him.  She spent her days and nights as close to the presence of God as she could get—praying and fasting in the Temple in Jerusalem.  We can be sure that those 60+ years of intense worship of God were not just about what she wanted.  In fact, Luke 2 tells us that her heart was for the “redemption of Jerusalem”.  Her prayers undoubtedly had been for a much bigger agenda than her own concerns.  Here was a woman whose humility moved her to be an intercessor for her people and the nation. 

Young and old, rich and poor, men and women…and God.  This is the contrast of humility in a world of self-absorption.  All of them embraced two fundamental pillars of God-like humility:

  • They all had chosen to surrender their wills and lives to the will of the heavenly Father.
  • That fundamental step of humility made them people who daily lived out humility by caring more for the lives of others than their own.

As Mary said in her Magnificat song to Elizabeth in Luke 1,

50 [God’s] mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.

At this time in our nation when so much pride blinds so many to our humble God and Savior, may we be the people of genuine Christ-like humility wo day after day choose the interests, needs and lives of others over our own.