What situations in life come to mind when you think of the word ‘humble’?
I think of a high school student ten year older than all his classmates, having dropped out of school once before, but now doing his utmost best to graduate, to save up enough money to get a flat so that he can get married to his girlfriend.
I think of a young married couple intentionally choosing to work as cleaners to support themselves while training for ministry, partly so as not to burden the church, but mainly to learn dependance on God as they prepare to their hearts and minds for mission.
I think of a brother giving his testimony at baptism, confessing honestly his struggles with private sins. As he named them one by one, you could hear gasps coming from the congregation.
To be humbled is to be brought low. In status. In position of life. To be humbled is to be brought low in your own eyes and in the eyes of those around you.
It can be painful, as in the case of an illness stripping away your health, your youth, your looks. But most often, it is simply embarrassing. Losing your job can make you feel like you have lost your dignity, perhaps even, your whole identity.
And yet, Ephesians 4:2 says to us as Christians to be completely humble. More than a choice, it is a command. We must be completely humble and gentle, bearing with one another in love, Paul says.
If anyone, Paul knows what it means to be brought low in life. He begins in verse 1 with and introduction: “As a prisoner for the Lord, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” Here is a pastor, who is, at the same time, a prisoner. Rather than be embarrassed about his current situation, Paul is all the more insistent because of his current situation: As a prisoner for the Lord. “It is because I am a prisoner of Jesus Christ that I am urging you to be completely humble.” In fact, nowhere in the whole letter does Paul say, “Remember how I planted your church? Remember how I personally trained up all the elders for two whole years?” We read that in Luke’s record in Acts 19 and 20. But not here. We assume that Paul is writing as their founding pastor, when again and again, Paul asserts that he is writing as Christ’s prisoner. He even says to them, I am in prison for your sakes. For your benefit. “For this reason, I Paul, a prisoner for the sake of you Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:1, cf. 3:13)
In other words, his humility marks his authenticity.
Paul says, “Live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” He is not talking about scoring straight A’s in school, or being all that you can be. He is not talking about making full use of your gifts or realising your full potential in life. No, he is saying, “Be humble. Love one another.” You are not auditioning for X-Factor. God is not looking for the best and the brightest worthy to be in his kingdom. No, God is calling you to live a life marked by sacrifice, by servant-heartedness - but most importantly - by submission to Jesus Christ as your only Lord and Saviour.
Three components make up that command in verse 2: (a) Be completely humble and gentle; (b) Be patient; (c) Bear with one another in love.
1. Be completely humble and gentle
The first (“to be completely humble and gentle”) is not so much a command but the characterization of the command. The command, as we have seen, is found in verse 1 - “Live a life worthy of God’s calling” - but then, the characterisation of that command carries on into verse 2 with, “by being completely humble and gentle.”
Why is this important? Because God’s calling is more clearly seen through changed character than changed circumstance.
You see, we tend to think that God affirms his calling in our life by changing the circumstances of our lives. So when we get that promotion, we think it means that God really wants me to excel in this job. When our ministry grows, God must be blessing us as a church. Or conversely, when I get demoted, God must want me to leave my job. Or when attendance numbers drop, God must want me to switch to the more vibrant church down the road. You see this in the kinds of things we pray for when we ask God to “open doors” so as to reveal his will; to let us know which path to take in our decision-making according to his will.
But God’s calling is seen not in changed circumstance. Verse 2 tells us: It is seen in changed character. You live a life worthy of the calling your have received by being completely humble and completely gentle.
I am told that in the Old Testament, this combination of “humility and gentleness” occurs 250 times, standing in contrast to the “proud and arrogant” - a description not only of those who oppress the “lowly and poor” (ie. the humble and gentle) but also a description of those who set themselves up against God in disobedience and defiance against his commands.
The lowly and poor naturally turn to God. They instinctively ask for God’s help. And he responds by hearing their prayers and lifting them up (James 4:6, cf. Prov 3:34). The proud and arrogant, on the other hand, have no need for God. In fact, the reason why they are oppressive to the poor is because they are oblivious to God.
So for Jesus to say to his disciples, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs in the kingdom of God… Blessed are the meek (or gentle) for they will inherit the earth,” (Matthew 5:3 and 5) he is describing the character, not the circumstance, of God’s true people. One day, their circumstances will change. They will inherit the earth. They will receive all the blessings of the kingdom. But right now? You recognise them from their character. They are lowly. Meek. Gentle.
What situation in life is God using right now to teach that to you those valuable lessons of humility? What circumstance might God put you in for you to be able to say, “This is good for my humility”?
An African brother shared with me how surprised he was to see so many rich and educated people in church. “All these Cambridge students and professors are here worshipping on a Sunday! Back home, it’s only the poor who come to church, not the rich.” I said to him, “You have now spent four years in Cambridge. When you go home, will your friends see someone who is four year’s smarter smarter than before, four year’s richer than before and four year’s more successful than before?
Or will they see someone four year’s more humble, four year’s more loving and four year’s more servant-hearted than before?”
Every circumstance in life will lead us either one of these directions - towards greater pride and arrogance; or towards deeper humility and self-forgetfulness. Towards arrogance or gentleness. It’s not that God can’t use blessing and wealth to teach us these lessons. The church that my African marvelled at was truly blessed and is truly faithful with their blessing. Yet it is not for nothing that Jesus warns us, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:16-30) God knows our hearts. He knows that we often learn the lessons of humility when we find ourselves in humble circumstances.
The combination of the words “humble and gentle” are helpful in pointing us towards God and one another. They establish how we are to relate to God and to one another.
Before God, we are humbled because of our sin. That’s a good thing, actually - to have our eyes open to our own wretchedness, forcing us to lower ourselves to where we truly are in relation to a holy God who hates sin and who stands in judgement over our sin. We have rejected him again and again as God. We ignore him as if he did not exist. James says to Christians - and I must stress this, he is writing to fellow believers and not non-believers when he says, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:8) He continues, “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.” (James 4:9) And why does James want believers to come to a point of such deep anguish of sorrow and repentance? The answer is: Humility. Humility before gracious God. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:10)
This leads to the second element of gentleness, that is, in relating to other people’s sins. The old English word, “meekness”, makes you think of someone like Ned Flanders from the Simpsons; essentially a pushover (always being taken advantaged of by his neighbour, Homer). But meekness or gentleness, in this context, is relational. That is, you are being gentle with someone in dealing with their sin.
The best person to learn meekness/gentleness from is Jesus. He says, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Adding, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Why? “For I am gentle and lowly in heart.” (Matthew 11:28-29) We go to Jesus burdened with our worries - burdened with our guilt and shame and sin. Why? Because he takes our sin upon himself. But also, notice verse 29, because he is gentle and lowly in heart. Meaning, he is tender in dealing with us in our weakness. You hear those words and doesn’t something in you go, “Yes, there’s no other place I’d rather be than with you, Jesus.”
And that’s the way need to deal with others when they are struggling with guilt and shame. Do they see in you someone they can trust to love them and not condemn them?
A student was giving his first sermon and asked me for advice on how best to prepare. He was surprised when I said to him, “Be gentle.” He knew his bible (and I knew that he knew his bible). But I wanted to impress upon him the importance of loving his brothers and sisters to whom he was addressing God’s word in the bible. Especially in dealing with sin (he was preaching on Romans), we want to be all the more clear to whomever we are speaking, that they are not alone in their fight with sin nor in their struggles with temptation nor in their guilt and shame. We want to “restore him gently” (Galatians 6:1); to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and in so doing, “fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:3). (Read on the following verses and see how Paul naturally progresses to deal with pride and arrogance). It is remarkable how Paul counsels Timothy in the pastorals to be kind, not quarrelsome and to instruct gently as the Lord’s servant (2 Timothy 2:24, 25). Pastors, are you gentle in dealing with the sins of your congregation?
With God, we rightfully humble ourselves before him. Jesus did. On the cross, he humbled himself to the point of death, submitting himself to the will of his Father. Humility means lowering yourself under another’s authority. We are saying to God, “You have every claim over every part of my life.” And in due time he will lift us up - as he did with Jesus, raising him and exalting him to his right hand - so he will with us. If will but humble ourselves before him now.
With one another, we lower ourselves for the sake of our weaker brothers. That is how I would define gentleness, or meekness: You are willingly and sacrificially lowering yourself to make yourself accessible/available to their situation in life, so that you can help them to bear their burdens. We do this naturally with kids, don’t we? You talk to a six-year-old by bending down and speaking directly to them with words that are simple yet loving. Paul says, we need to do this with one another.
Be completely humble and gentle.
2. Be patient
The second component to verse 2 is the call to be patient. Essentially, Paul is telling us, quite frankly, that loving your brothers and sisters in Christ is a hard process. It takes time. It will test your patience. (In Cantonese, we would say, “Teng Chui”)
I met a couple of graduate students working on PhD’s in theology, an effort that will occupy four years of their lives in painstaking study of the bible and ancient manuscripts. I asked them if they would be willing to exchange those four years of study with four years of ministry, but to just one individual. You don’t get a degree at the end of it. There would be no impact in journals and publications. And no one would see all the work you’ve done. Yet all your time and effort would be invested in that one person.
The blood drained from their faces.
But isn’t that what we are called to do with our spouses? With our children? To devote, much, much more than four years to these individuals, to love and care for them. And the joy and satisfaction of having done far surpasses any high-impact paper you could produce at the end of academic stint, even in a place like Cambridge.
And that is what Paul calls all of us to do here, in saying, “Be patient.” Literally, it reads “with patience,” again, another characterization trait expanding upon the original command to live a life worthy of God’s calling.
It will take time.
Quantity time - and not just quality time - is what is needed for any relationship to grow and flourish. Older bible translations use the word “long-suffering”. Not the most flattering description of Christian relationships, but a helpful one. Long-suffering.
Because, by practical implication, it is saying that we should stay in relationship with our Christian brother or sister precisely when it gets on our nerves. The most loving thing you can do to help strengthen and stabilize your church community is simply to spend time with them; to commit to stay with them. This is true of pastors: Your congregation is not a stepping stone to another bigger, more vibrant, more challenging ministry. But just in case I am being too critical of leaders, I think that this is all the more true for us as church members, especially if you have been here longer than the leadership in your church. Do your years and experience in church reflect a greater generosity in spirit? Are you slower to speak and quick to listen (and forgive)? Or are you that cranky old guy who sits at the back of council meetings who keeps saying, “Back in my day…”?
Walk in a manner worthy of the calling you have receive, Paul says, by being patient. After all, God is patient in dealing with our sinfulness. How many times have we been stubborn in resisting his will? How many times have we been slow in coming to repentance? Yet he continues to work in us, by his Spirit, that fruit of salvation seen in our repentance confession of sin, as well as, in our own patience and tolerance with others.
3. Bear with one another in love
Finally, the last component is love. We bear with one another out of love for one another.
This is not description of love you expect from two newlyweds, who might say, “Oh, how cute he is!” Or, “She’s the most amazing, beautiful woman I know. I love her to bits!” Rather, this is more like what Britain’s oldest married couple, Ralph and Phyllis Tarrant, did say when they put their long-lasting relationship down to “getting on with each other, exercise, avoiding cigarettes and a tot of whisky each night.”
Love bears with one another’s quirkiness, insecurities, annoyances and such. More accurately, love bears with one another’s sinfulness. You are loving the unlovely.
Bearing with one another in love is unnatural. It means God is calling you to love the very people you don’t naturally get along with; with people you don’t have “chemistry” with. Otherwise, it would be meaningless for Paul to command us to “bear” with them. To be patient with them. To humble ourselves and be gentle with them. Everything inside of us might want to scream at them, avoid them, criticise them and condemn them. I suggest to you, if anyone in your church or bible study comes to mind at this point, those are the very people God is calling you to love.
“By this all people will know you are my disciples,” Jesus says, “If you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) Love is more than affection. It is visible action that makes the world sit up and go, “These guys are weird. They must be Christians.” Jesus loved his enemies. Jesus died for sinners. “Just as I have loved, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34)
Love is not affection. Love is action. It is one thing to post on your Facebook page how much your love your wife, your kids, your bible study group, your church gatherings or your pastor. But understand this: the world will see it as publicity - as yet another marketing stunt - on how “lovely” your wife, your kids, your bible study, your church and pastor is, not how “loving” they truly are.
Love is action, by which I’m not referring to flowers or gifts or grand gestures. No, if we are to love as Jesus did, loving someone means first and foremost, forgiving someone. It means sacrificing our good for that someone. It means patience. It means humility. It means bearing with one another in love. So rare and unnatural is such love, that for Christians, it is to be what marks us out in this world as Christians. Our love for one another.
Conclusion: In-built opportunities for humility
I was at a talk this afternoon by a well-known speaker and pastor. His last point touched on humility - specifically, the importance of cultivating humility amongst church leaders. The question from the floor was: How do we do this? And how did this well-known speaker and pastor guard his own heart from pride and arrogance?
He said (and I paraphrase), “The pastors who are here will know that there many in-built opportunities for humility that come with the job. Being a pastor is not glamorous.” I think he said that because many who turned up today thought that it was. Perhaps few aspired to be as famous (or perhaps, the more acceptable term is “faithful” or “effective”) as this pastor. But according to him, God has built into his church and his communities, opportunities for us to humble ourselves and to naturally guard ourselves from pride.
In other words, your bible study group is there to keep your pride in check. Your church community is God’s appointed training ground for you grow in holiness, in humility and in submission. It isn’t glamourous. People will test your patience. Loving your brothers will take up considerable time. When you face one of those moments that test your patience, when you hear those trying words from a brother or sister that seem to cut you down a few notches, keep reminding yourselves, “This is good for my humility. This is good for my humility.”
Why? Because it will be worth it. Live a life worthy of the calling you have received. God is calling you to be partners with him in an eternal investment secured by Jesus on the cross: his church. It will be worth it to see the lives of those you love grow in holiness and submission to Jesus. But actually, it’s even bigger than that.
Imagine God using your life to display the worth of his Son. But that is precisely what God calls us to do! To live a life worthy of the gospel; worthy of the salvation we have received in Jesus Christ our Lord. How? By being completely humble and gentle. By our patience with one another. Through our bearing with one another in love.