How I Perfected Humility

Topical Scripture: Genesis 11:1-9

A major in the military was promoted to colonel and received a fancy new office. As he entered it for the first time, sitting in the nice new chair, a knock came at the door. He said “Come in,” then quickly picked up the telephone as a corporal walked in.

“Just a minute,” the colonel said to the corporal. “I have to finish this telephone call.” Then the colonel began speaking into the mouthpiece: “Sorry about the interruption, General. Yes, sir, I will take care of that. Yes, I’ll call the President after I finish talking with you, General.”

The colonel ceremoniously put the telephone down, turned to the corporal, and said, “What can I do for you?” The corporal replied, “Well, Colonel, I just came in to connect your telephone.”

Pride is the genesis of all our sins. Unfortunately for those of us who attend worship services on Sundays, we learn how to mask our pride before others. How I Perfected Humility is the title of our next book.

But beware: “You will be as God” is the first temptation in human history (Genesis 3:5) and the heart of all the others. We build our Towers of Babel that we might “make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).

But the opposite results. Pride turned Adam and Eve against each other. Cain felt himself inferior to his brother, so he murdered him. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery for the same reason. The religious and secular authorities crucified Jesus out of jealousy for their own power and status. Whenever we try to supplant God, we end up scattering ourselves over the earth.

What was your last problem with someone? Was pride in the middle of it? In what way do you feel isolated, alienated, “scattered” from those you care about? Mother Teresa said the greatest epidemic of our Western culture is not AIDS or leprosy, but loneliness. As we continue our walk through Genesis, today we’ll find its cure.

Diagnose the problem

First, we must be clear about the problem theologically. The Scriptures use several words for “pride.” At their heart, they all mean “to be lifted up.” Pride is good when it lifts up God, when we glorify him and tell him that we are proud to be his children. Pride is good when it lifts up others, when we tell our children that we are proud of them.

Pride is sin when it lifts us up, when we exalt ourselves over God and others. When we put our personal agendas ahead of loving God and our neighbor, when we live to impress people with ourselves more than with God, when we define success by popularity and possessions more than by obedience to God and service to others, we build our own Tower today. If I am teaching this message to impress you with myself, I’m laying bricks for my own Babel.

Why is such self-exaltation and self-promotion such a sin?

  • It supplants God: “Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2).
  • It causes us to hurt others, to make them a means to our end: “In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises” (Psalm 10:2); “Pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence” (Psalm 73:6). When we come first, everyone else comes second and is a means to our end.
  • It hurts us: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2); “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Self-reliance always leads to failure, for we are failed human beings.
  • And so it leads to the judgment of God, at Babel and where you live: “Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin!” (Proverbs 21:4).
  • Why do we put ourselves before God and others?

The “will to power” is the basic drive in human nature. We all want to be God, to be “president of the universe,” as John Claypool admitted.

In addition, pride and power are the expectations of our culture. How does our society define success? Performance, achievement, drive, initiative. The “self-made man.” When last was a truly humble person elevated as a role model for our youth? We are to be driven, perfectionistic, prideful, or we are not a success.

Most of all, pride covers our perceived inadequacies. We know our failures and weaknesses. Rather than admit them, we compensate for them. We act in prideful ways, to convince others that we are what we pretend to be.

Who is susceptible?

  • Religious leaders: “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector'” (Luke 18:11).
  • Religious people: Job is described at the beginning of the story as “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). Yet he later claimed, “I am pure and without sin; I am clean and free from guilt” (Job 33:9). If it happened to Job, it can happen to us.
  • Followers of Jesus: Paul chastised the Corinthian Christians, “Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you” (1 Corinthians 4:18).
  • Churches: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17).
  • Anyone who believes that he or she is not.

Study the disease

Next, we come at the issue biblically. What do we do with this alienating, isolating impulse which has created an epidemic of loneliness in our world? Let’s walk through our story together.

Our text begins, “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech” (v. 1a). We are now six generations from Noah; as many as 30,000 people are alive on the earth. They have “one lip” and “one speech” so far, as we might expect.

“As men moved eastward,” out into the uninhabited world, “they found a plain in Shinar and settled there” (v. 2). This is the flatlands between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, in the heart of modern-day Iraq. The area was especially fertile in those days, so that grain harvests typically yielded 200 to 300-fold, and palm trees grew all over the land. They had no enemies as yet, and so did not need to settle in mountains where they could protect themselves. So this was a perfect location.

“They said to each other” (v. 3a), no exceptions or dissenters. “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly” (v. 3b), literally “burn them to a burning,” making them stronger than sun-baked bricks. They used “tar for mortar” (v. 3c), a kind of bitumen found throughout the region which literally glued the bricks together. Millions of these ancient bricks have been found; they are typically a foot square and two to three inches thick and are perfect for building tall structures.

They had this purpose in mind: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (v. 4a). Today we still use their phrase “make a name for ourselves.” We already “have” a name, given by our parents. We “make” a name by our own efforts and success. In this way we seek to leave a legacy, a permanent mark on this world, lest we be “scattered over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4b).

Remains of their tower still exist. It was designed to be approximately 300 feet square at the base, with seven levels of decreasing size, and was intended to reach 290 to 300 feet in height. Think of a football field cubed, and you’ll have the idea. It was by far the largest building in the ancient world for generations.

But compared to the greatness of God it was so tiny that he had to “come down” to look at it (v. 5).

He knew that such pride would lead only to further rebellion and destruction, so he chose to “confuse their language” and defeat their plans (v. 7). And then he “scattered them from there over all the earth” (v. 8), the very thing they tried to prevent by their own egotistical actions. He could have crushed them, destroyed them with fire, or devastated them with disease. This was an act of grace, to keep us from hurting ourselves further.

As a result, the place is called “Babel” (from which we get “Babylon”), an ironic word play. The Assyrians used the word for “gate of god”; the Hebrews used it for “confusion.” Whenever we try to build the former, the latter results.

Accept the cure

Finally, we consider the issue practically. How does our story help us with our problem? It suggests these clear steps.

First, refuse self-exaltation:

  • “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil” (Proverbs 3:7).
  • “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 26:12).
  • “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight” (Isaiah 5:21).
  • “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2).

Know that everything which tempts you to self-exaltation is the sin of pride. As Oswald Chambers says, “Beware of anything that puts you in the superior person’s place.” You’re only building a Tower of Babel, and your plans will be defeated.

Second, see yourself as the valuable child of God: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. . . . If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26, 29). When you know your worth before God, you won’t be so motivated to seek it from us.

Bill Glass, the former NFL star and now prison ministry leader, says that the most common denominator behind bars is the absence of a father. We each need to know that our father loves us, that he likes us, and that he wants us. Your Father loves you, likes you, and wants you. Don’t measure yourself by the size of the towers you’re building, but the God who loves you.

Third, seek to glorify God in all you do. When we seek his glory, we cannot seek our own at the same time. J. I. Packer was right: it is impossible at the same time to convince you that I am a great preacher and that Jesus is a great Savior. Measure your success today by the degree to which other people think more of God because of you. Ask how you can glorify him with your abilities, gifts, resources, and accomplishments. How can you turn someone toward him this week?

Last, value humility as the path to God. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who know their need of God, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3; cf. NEB). Martin Luther was right: “God creates out of nothing. Therefore, until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.” Ask God to help you stay humble before him, surrendered to his will, seeking his glory alone. Every day of his life, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones prayed the same prayer, “Lord, keep me from pride.” When last did you make this your prayer?


We’ve considered our subject theologically, biblically, and practically. Let’s close not with our heads but our hearts. In various trips to England I have been given the opportunity to stand in a number of elevated pulpits, as is the style on the Continent. They remind me of a young preacher just out of seminary, climbing the steps to the pulpit for his first Sunday in his first church.

Head held high, notes and Bible in hand, he was proud and dignified. But he tripped on the last step, Bible and notes flying. He tried to shuffle them back into order, but he was too embarrassed to think. He tried to preach his sermon but stammered and stuttered. Finally he quit, shoved his disheveled notes into his Bible, and descended the steps, head down.

An elderly woman on the first pew said to him, “Young man, if you’d gone up the steps the way you came down, you’d have gone down the way you went up.”

C. S. Lewis, as usual, says it better than I can: “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

“If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed” (Mere Christianity).

Do you think you are humble today?

The Key to True Humility

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:5

Summer will not begin officially until June 21, but don’t tell that to the kids who are already out of school. Nearly one hundred million of us will take a family vacation this year; two-thirds of us during the summer. Since 87 percent of us own outdoor grills, we will do a lot of barbequing.

As I mentioned last week, Americans will eat seven billion hot dogs between now and Labor Day. We’ll eat 150 million of them just on July 4. However, according to a recent survey, 43 percent of us are afraid to find out what’s in them.

In our high-tech world, it seems we know less and less about more and more. When I owned a 1965 Mustang, I could do nearly all the maintenance myself. I wouldn’t even know how to change the oil on the car I drive now.

Do you understand how talking into the rectangle we call a cell phone connects you to people on the other side of the world? How that device can download the entire internet to your hand? How Wi-Fi actually works? How speaking into a microphone produces sound your ears can hear? How your ears actually work?

Living in a world as complex as ours is a humbling thing. And that’s a good thing, actually.

A. W. Tozer: “For the Christian, humility is absolutely indispensable. Without it there can be no self-knowledge, no repentance, no faith and no salvation.” St. Augustine: “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”

C. S. Lewis adds: “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”

To see the Someone who is above you, choose humility. Jesus said it this way: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). What does it mean to be “meek”? Why do we need to be “meek”? Why is “meekness” the key to true success? What does it look like in your life this week?

Value humility as God does

“Blessed” means to have a sense of wellbeing that transcends all circumstances, the kind of blessing only God can bestow. “Are the meek”—the Greek word is praus. It has several hues within its spectrum of meaning, but it reduces to the idea of humility before God.

Such people will “inherit the earth,” being blessed by God in every way. Not just part of the earth, but all the blessing God might give. No conqueror has ever won what God promises here.

But we try. We try to inherit the earth through our performance, possessions, and perfectionism. By trying harder to do more, have more, be more. And so genuine humility is hard for many of us.

Like many of you, I am a performer by nature. It is my natural personality to want you to like me, to be impressed by me, to affirm me. Many of us are this way. We live in a performance-dominated culture, where we are rewarded for what we can produce. But it’s hard to want to impress people and be humble at the same time. Performing makes biblical humility hard.

On the other hand, many of us also struggle with self-esteem issues, making the wrong kind of humility easy.

Consider this profound statement by psychologist Paul Tournier: “I believe there is a great illusion underlying both the despair of the weak and the unease of the strong—and the misfortune of both. This great illusion is the very notion that there are two kinds of human beings, the strong and the weak. The truth is that human beings are much more alike than they think … All … in fact, are weak. All are weak because they are afraid. They are afraid of being trampled underfoot. They are all afraid of the inner weakness being discovered. They all have secret faults; they all have a bad conscience on account of certain acts which they would like to keep covered up. They are all afraid of other men and of God, of themselves, of life, and of death” (quoted in Ten Habits for Effective Ministry, 21).

Many of us feel badly about ourselves, leading to a self-punishing, demeaning kind of humility. A performance-centered society and low self-image both make biblical humility hard for us.

But listen to what Jesus said about such humility. He described himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29 NIV). He promised us, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). He warned us, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). And he taught us, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14–15).

The blunt fact is that we cannot be “blessed” by God unless we value humility as he does.

See yourself as God sees you

But valuing humility doesn’t mean that we know how to experience it. Here’s the second biblical step: see yourself as God sees you.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones defines “praus” or “meek” as “a humble and gentle attitude to others which is determined by a true estimate of ourselves.” To be “meek” or “humble,” develop a “true estimate” of yourself. Learn to see yourself the way God does.

So, how does God see you? As a redeemed sinner. A person who sinned and fell short of his glory; a person whose sins cost his Son his life; a person worthy of eternity in hell. And also a person he loves so much he gave his Son to die in your place, to pay for your sins, to purchase your salvation. A sinner redeemed by his love.

A rabbi once said, “A man should carry two stones in his pocket. On one should be inscribed, ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ On the other, ‘For my sake was the world created.'” Both inscriptions are true.

Imagine yourself a condemned criminal on death row, scheduled for execution. All appeals are exhausted; the final hour has come. You are strapped to the gurney, and tubes are inserted in your arm. The doctor is about to administer the lethal injection when the phone rings. The governor of the state is coming over.

But when he arrives, something unprecedented occurs. He does not pardon you. He insists that your sentence be carried out. But he then orders the guards to remove you from the table. He takes off his coat and lies on your gurney. He rolls up his sleeve and orders the doctor to connect your tubes to his arm. He receives your injection; he takes your punishment; he dies for you.

For the rest of your life, you will be a ransomed sinner, a condemned criminal. But you will also be someone loved beyond words by someone of great standing, of enormous power, of the highest significance.

This is exactly who you are.

When we see ourselves as God does, our twin problems with humility are solved. We are set free from performance anxiety, the intense “drivenness” to impress people with our value because we are valued by the Lord of the universe. And we are set free from debilitating, demeaning, demoralizing humility because we are valued by the Lord of the universe.

You are a person of indescribable worth, not because of who you are but because of whose you are. See yourself as God does, and you’ll be freed for genuine humility.

See others as God sees them

Value humility as God does and see yourself as God does. Now you’re ready for the third step to biblical humility: see others as God sees them.

Greek scholar Fritz Rienecker has this definition for “praus:” “The humble and gentle attitude which expresses itself in a patient submissiveness to offense, free from malice and desire for revenge.” To be “meek” is to “submit to offense,” no matter how others have offended you.

To do this, we must see others as God sees them. As people of infinite worth, for they are the creation of God. As sinners just like us, saved by God’s grace as we are. To be humble before others, do not judge them as better or worse than you are. Choose to pardon them when they hurt you, for God has pardoned you. Release your anger, or need for revenge, or pain.

When we do this, we are free to be humble before every person we know. Not just before those people we judge to be superior to us, those who humble us with their abilities or success. But also before those we consider inferior to us, those we judge and criticize and condemn. We can be humble before the lowest sinner, when we see him as God does.

Two quotes challenged me this week: “Only God is in position to look down on anyone.” and, “Any experience which makes me feel superior to other people is not of the Lord.” See others as God sees them, and you’ll be humble before every person you know.

See your gifts as God sees them

Here’s the last step: see your gifts and abilities as God sees them.

James Montgomery Boice defines “praus” as strength under control. He illustrates the word this way: a powerful stallion, strong and fast, completely bridled and submitted to the control of its master. To be “meek” is not to depreciate the stallion’s strength, speed or abilities. It is to submit them to the control of their master.

How does God see your abilities? As his gifts, entrusted to you to be used for his glory.

It is not biblical humility to debase yourself. Neither can you be humble when you exalt yourself.

It is biblical humility to embrace and affirm the gifts, abilities, opportunities, education, and experiences God has given to you, and then use them to glorify your Lord. Develop them fully and engage them completely.

One of my mentors said to me, “The Holy Spirit has a strange affinity for the trained mind.” Develop fully all that God has given to you. But yield it to the control of God and use it for the glory of God.

Mother Teresa, the tiny Albanian nun, became the world’s most famous Christian next to Billy Graham. But her goal was just the opposite. From the time she first entered ministry, her life purpose never changed. In her words, she wished only to be “a tiny pencil in the hand of God.” And what he wrote with her gifts changed the world.


Do you value humility today as Jesus does? Do you see yourself as he does—a redeemed sinner, loved for whose you are? Do you see others as he does—fellow sinners, equal in value with you as your sisters and brothers? Do you see your abilities as he does—gifts to be used in his will for his glory?

Then you are “praus,” “meek.” And you are “blessed.”

Here is one of the finest faith commitments I know, from a Muslim who became a Christian and prayed: “O God, I am Mustafah the tailor and I work at the shop of Muhammad Ali. The whole day long I sit and pull the needle and the thread through the cloth. O God, you are the needle and I am the thread. I am attached to you and I follow you. When the thread tries to slip away from the needle it becomes tangled and must be cut so that it can be put back in the right place. O God, help me to follow you wherever you may lead me. For I am really only Mustafah the tailor, and I work at the shop of Muhammad Ali on the great square.”

Whose “thread” are you?