I once knew a man who, for some reason or other, was never able to correctly pronounce the word ‘humility’? He always pronounced ‘humility’ as ‘humbility’! I have to confess that I rather liked this mispronunciation. It always seemed to me to convey a better understanding of the true meaning of ‘humility’.
Humility was high on Jesus’ agenda for ‘How to Live Life to the Full’. Luke tells us that on one occasion when Jesus was invited to dinner he ‘noticed that all who had come to the dinner were trying to sit in the seats of honour near the head of the table, [so] he gave them this advice: “When you are invited to a wedding feast, don’t sit in the seat of honour. What if someone who is more distinguished than you has also been invited? The host will come and say, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then you will be embarrassed, and you will have to take whatever seat is left at the foot of the table! “Instead, take the lowest place at the foot of the table. Then when your host sees you, he will come and say, ‘Friend, we have a better place for you!’ Then you will be honoured in front of all the other guests. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”’ (Luke 14:7-11). Jesus not only taught the importance of humility but also demonstrated it when he took the place of a servant and washed his disciples feet (John 13:1-17).
Learning to be humble is not easy, however. I recently read some words of Mother Teresa that both helped and challenged me. She suggested that ‘We best learn humility through accepting our humiliations cheerfully!’ The implication here is that we only really learn to be humble as a direct result of experiencing humiliation ourselves … and responding to those times of humiliation positively rather than negatively. I am not suggesting here that we allow ourselves to go through life totally abject, downtrodden, defeated and deflated. But I certainly believe that those times when we feel we have been humiliated – which we all experience from time to time – can have a positive contribution in shaping our lives for the better, not least in this area of learning humility.
Like you, perhaps, I have been humiliated several times in my lifetime: my initial failure to achieve a good number of ‘O’ Levels at Grammar School as a teenager; the failure of my first marriage; not being awarded my PhD after nearly ten years of hard work; having to stand down from the pastorate of my last church following Julia’s illness … these are just a few personal examples, and the memories remain painful. Some of our humiliations are self-inflicted, some are caused by others, and sadly some have been at the hands of fellow Christians and the Church.
What I am experiencing at the moment is not exactly something that I would describe as ‘humiliating’ but it is definitely what I would describe as a ‘healthy humbling’. I have known for a while that this time would eventually come … but now that it is here it is still difficult for me to deal with. For more than 40 years I have been used to being (in the right way) ‘at the centre of things’ as far as ‘ministry’ is concerned … but now I find myself very much ‘on the edge’ of things. Julia has received, and has accepted, a call to the Pastorate of Knaphill Baptist Church, Woking, and … whilst I know this is right, and we have shared the journey prayerfully together, and I intend to support her in this new ministry to the best of my ability … I have felt very much a peripheral figure throughout. Although Julia and I see ourselves as a ‘team’, the church’s call is to Julia, not to me … and at times throughout this particular journey I have felt myself to be almost outside of everything that has been going on. Julia and I have been seen by others very much as a ‘team’ down through the years we have been together. At Dorchester Baptist Church (where we have been members for the last five years) we are ‘Julia and Jim’, joined at the hip, part and parcel of the same package, so it is proving a very strange experience to find myself very much on the fringe of things.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining about this turn of events. As I said earlier, it was inevitable that the time would come when I would have to step out of the picture and allow Julia to truly be herself in her own right and exercise the significant ministry God has called her to, and equipped her for. What is more, I am learning a lot through this whole experience, not least about what it truly means to be humble. The thought that has repeatedly come to mind during this period is ‘She must become greater, I must become less!’ This, of course, is a reflection on the words of John the Baptist concerning Jesus, when Jesus first came on the scene: ‘He must become greater; I must become less’ (John 3:30). Up until that time, it was John the Baptist who had been ‘centre stage’. He was the one with the ‘ministry’! He was the one whose preaching attracted the crowds! He was the one who baptised people in their hundreds! But now Jesus, the Promised Messiah, the Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, had arrived on the scene and it was he who must now have the pre-eminence not John the Baptist. I am not suggesting that giving pride of place to Jesus was easy for John the Baptist. Judging by his later doubt about Jesus (Matthew 11:3) John the Baptist obviously struggled to accept being relegated to a lesser place … but he finally got there!
Humility was also costly for Jesus himself. Writing to the Philippian Church, the Apostle Paul (probably quoting a hymn of the Early Church) encourages his fellow Christians in Philippi to ‘Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8). C S Lewis, the renowned Oxbridge scholar and Christian apologist, suggests somewhere that ‘True humility is not thinking less of yourself … it is thinking of yourself less’!’ On the cross Jesus was still essentially who he had always been – Son of God, God in his own right, co-equal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit – but in the Incarnation he deliberately chose to humble himself: to take human form; to become a servant, a bond-slave if you will; and to die the most agonising of deaths on a cross! And, what is more, he ‘accepted these humiliations cheerfully’ in order to save us … not least from ourselves!
For me, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Communion Service (whatever name you want to give to this sacrament) is supremely the place where all this is brought sharply into focus for us. I recall attending a devotional evening at Spurgeon’s College nearly 50 years ago when I was a student there. The guest speaker was a rather elderly Minister, who also officiated at the Communion towards the end of the evening. Normally the loaf used at the Table was partially cut through underneath so that the person presiding at the Table would be able to ‘break the bread’ easily. Unfortunately, on this particular evening, the person who prepared the Communion had forgotten to do this. As a result, when this rather elderly Minister attempted to break the bread it proved very difficult for him to do so. Our initial reaction to this elderly Minister struggling to tear the loaf apart was one of horror. ‘How terrible! It is so humiliating for him! It will ‘spoil’ the meaning of this act!’ In reality, however, rather than ‘spoil’ Communion, it ‘made’ it! It really brought home to all of us something of the real ‘cost’, the real ‘struggle’ that Jesus went through to make salvation possible for sinful people like you and me.
The cross, however, was not the end of story for Jesus! As the Apostle Paul goes on to tell us, in the same passage from his Letter to the Philippians I referred to earlier, ‘God highly exalted [Jesus] and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, so that at name of Jesus every knee shall bow … those who are in heaven, those who are on earth, and those who are under earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11). And any kind of ‘humiliation’ that you or I go through in the course of life need not be the end for us either! In fact such experiences, however hard they may be for us at the time, can often prove to be the making of us.
When the converted Saul of Tarsus suddenly bursts on to the scene as a preacher of the Good News he is seen to be in partnership with another, more mature, Christian in the church in Antioch, a man called Barnabas. Together they are commissioned by the church in Antioch to take the Gospel message out to those who have never heard. At the beginning of their joint ministry they are always referred to as ‘Barnabas and Paul (as Saul has now become known)’ (Acts 13). But within a very short time their roles are reversed as it becomes clear that Paul is the one who has a ‘special anointing’ on his ministry. In the very next chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we see that they are now being referred to as ‘Paul and Barnabas’ (Acts 14). Was this hard for Barnabas to take? We are not told, but one suspects that since Barnabas was known to be a real ‘encourager’ of others (Acts 4:36), he was probably only too pleased to see his protégé develop in such a wonderful way! I was reminded of this recently when I heard of an older Minister, who in his day had exercised a very effective preaching ministry, who had stepped down from much of his public ministry and became more of an ‘encourager’ of other younger Ministers. He still got ‘invites’ to churches and conferences, but more often than not took other younger, gifted preachers with him and got them to do most of the preaching and teaching!
So, just as the advent of Jesus was not the end of John the Baptist’s usefulness; nor the cross the end for Jesus; nor the emergence of Saul of Tarsus as Paul the Apostle the end for Barnabas; nor the development of gifted younger preachers proved to be the end for the older Minister I have just mentioned … so God still has a bright future for you and me! Whatever any of us may have been through in the past, whatever we may actually be going through in the present, however ‘humiliating’ and hurtful some stuff may have been, this is not end for me or for you! Writing to the Christians in Rome Paul reminds us that ‘in everything God is working for the good of those who love him, the good of those called to fulfil his purposes for them’ (Romans 8:28). What we read here is meant to be understood by us as more of a promise than an exhortation. God is working something out, despite the circumstances we may find ourselves in, in order to fulfil the plans and purposes he has for all those who love him!
I do not know what God has planned for me in the future once we move to Knaphill in December. What I do know for sure, however, is that God hasn’t finished with me yet. It may not be the kind of pastoral ministry that I have been involved in previously … but I still have a ‘ministry’. I may now officially be on the ‘retired’ list of Baptist Ministers but God has not ‘retired’ me from service no more than he does any of us who name the Name of Christ. I am looking forward to supporting Julia in her new ministry, but am equally excited about the ‘new doors’ that God is going to open for me as well! God has not finished with me yet … and God has not finished with you either! We need to draw a line under the past (bad and good), learn to leave it at the foot of the cross, and move on into the ‘bright tomorrow’ that God has for every one of us!
Through the love of God our Savior,
All will be well;
Free and changeless is His favor;
All, all is well.
Precious is the blood that healed us;
Perfect is the grace that sealed us;
Strong the hand stretched out to shield us;
All must be well.
Though we pass through tribulation,
All will be well;
Ours is such a full salvation;
All, all is well.
Happy still in God confiding,
Fruitful, if in Christ abiding,
Holy through the Spirit’s guiding,
All must be well.
We expect a bright tomorrow;
All will be well;
Faith can sing through days of sorrow,
All, all is well.
On our Father’s love relying,
Jesus every need supplying,
Or in living, or in dying,
All must be well.
~ Mary B Peters (1813-56)