HH Godfrey Gregg D.Div
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.–Matthew 11:29
From Vice to Virtue
It has been said that the greatest of all differences between ancient and modern morality is not the introduction of new virtues, but the changing of the order of the old ones. In this sphere, as in other spheres, Christ has put down the mighty from their seats. He has taken the little one of ancient ethics and made it as it were a thousand. And so it is said our Christian morality is not generically different from others; the difference is mainly one of emphasis. Now in this, there is a large element of truth, and of very fruitful and suggestive truth. No one will ever understand the Saviour who forgets how largely He wrought by rearranging. But there is one point at which it is not true, and that the most important point of all perhaps–it is not true in reference to humility. Humility was not a virtue in the old world. Humility in the old world was a vice. It was a thing abhorred and accursed, utterly unworthy of the gentleman. And the amazing thing is that in Christendom it has not merely ceased to be a vice, but has been given the primacy of virtues. To be humble was once to be contemptible: now to be humble is to be blessed. It was once rejected as a thing of shame: it is now sought for as a grace of heaven. In every communion of Christendom, however deep the cleavages between them, the queen of Christian graces is humility.
The Infinity and Eternity of Christianity Should Humble us
Now for this Christian glorying in humility, there are two reasons which suggest themselves. The first is the expansion given to live by the revelation of our faith. Had you lived in a little room, and then be brought under the open heaven, can you not picture how your thought would change in that amazing moment of expansion? Seeing the sun and moon in all their beauty, and the azure heaven, and the myriad stars, you would be silent and wonder and adore. Feelings hitherto repressed would waken; thoughts would rise and soar into the infinite. In a world so high and wonderful and great there would be known the surge of aspiration. And that is exactly what our faith has done in giving life its infinite horizon: chords which were silent have begun to vibrate. Life is not less mysterious since Christ came; it is far more mysterious since Christ came. He has made it high as heaven and deep as hell and touched it to the issues of eternity. And so has been born our Christian aspiration, which neither Greek nor Roman ever knew, and humility is the other side of aspiration. Make life a finite and measurable thing, and inevitably you foster self-complacency. Make it an infinite and eternal thing, and humility ceases to be a thing of scorn. It is the fitting attitude of mind and spirit for one who stands in the light of immortality, and whose true horizon is the eternal God.
And yet that reason, though a very real one, is after all but a secondary one. The primary reason is not our new horizon; it is the personality of Christ. When you meet a person for the first or second time you may receive from him varying impressions. But gradually, as acquaintance ripens, one clear and definite impression comes. And so as men meditated on the Lord, and came to know Him through such meditation, one feature took precedence over all. It was not His courage, although He was very brave; it was not the eloquence with which He spake. It was not even that mighty power of God with which He healed the sick and raised the dead. Clear and conspicuous above all other qualities, the crown and inspiration of them all, stood out the perfect humility of Jesus. Men found it in every action which He wrought; they lit on it in every word He uttered. They traced it in a thousand subtle touches that are more delicate than speech and action. And it was that large and overwhelming impress, forever deepening as they brooded over it, which altered the conception of mankind. All the humility of Christendom really runs back to that of Christ. If it is the distinguishing virtue of the saint, it was first the distinguishing virtue of the Saviour. And that is why to understand humility we must study it in the Person of our Lord, which is what I propose to do. Let me use first the method of exclusion.
Christ’s Humility Was That of Authority
To begin with, then, the humility of Jesus was certainly not a mean and grovelling spirit. The bitterest enemy of the Redeemer has never taunted Him with that. In one of his pathetic letters, the poet Keats says, “I hate humility.” You have only to read the context of that letter to discover what he meant by that. He meant that grovelling and cringing spirit which Heine called the virtue of a hound, and which is immortalized in English literature in the portrait of Uriah Heep. That is what Aristotle would have called humility. That is what Cicero would have called humility. And there are multitudes still who have a lurking feeling that if this is not the truth it is very near the truth. And I want you to learn how utterly astray are all such conceptions of humility if the standard of humility be Christ. Christ never grovelled before man or God. He never cringed to any living creature. There was a dignity about His bearing which never forsook Him in His darkest hour. It made itself felt among the hardened soldiery, cast its subduing power upon Pilate, touched the Roman centurion with reverence, and awed the clamorous rabble in Gethsemane. I, therefore, learn that true humility has nothing to do with cringing or with fawning. The moment you associate it with that, you dissociate it from the Person of the Lord. For He was a King, and had a royal bearing, and moved among His fellows with authority, and all the time His humility was perfect.
Christ’s Humility Was Not Self-Depreciating
Going a little further, we must note that the humility of Christ was not self-depreciation. It was not the habit of belittling Himself, or the work which God had given Him to do. There were some things which Christ made very light of; things He refused to reckon as important. But there was one thing which He never once made light of, and that was the work which was given Him to do. On the contrary, He always magnified it and used the loftiest terms in speaking of it, associating it forever with His glory. Other teachers call men to their message; Jesus called men to Himself. The self-assertion of our Saviour is the most magnificent self-assertion in all history. And yet He tells us in this single glimpse which He gives us into the secret of His being, that He is meek and lowly in heart. Clearly, then, the humility of Christ was not any belittling of Himself. It was as far removed from pride on the one hand, as from self-depreciation on the other. And it is needful to remember this, for we are often tempted to think that we are humble when all the time we are but doing dishonour to the faculties or the work which God has given us.
Christ’s Humility Did Not Arise from a Sense of Sin
Going deeper still, there is one other thing which I beg you very carefully to note. It is that the humility of Christ did not arise from any sense of sin. In your experience and in mine, there is nothing so humbling as the power of sin. You have had seasons, and I have had seasons when sin has humbled us into the very dust. And that experience, oftentimes repeated, and in a measure always present with us, has led us to connect the two together. Now most unquestionably God meant it so. It is a blessed hour of true humility when we cry, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” But to understand the meaning of humility, in all the depth and compass of its glory, we must never forget that it was first exhibited in One who had no sense of sin at all. The one thing that you cannot find in Christ is any trace of a scar upon His conscience. There was not one single shadow of remorse. There was not one single whisper of regret. Many a cry of prayer was on His lips and went ringing heavenward among the hills, yet the one prayer He never prayed was, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” The point to note is that our Lord was sinless, and yet was the perfect exemplar of humility. Utterly untouched by moral evil, He was humbler than man has ever been. And that should teach us that this queenly grace is something nobler than the fruit of guilt, however, the consciousness of guilt may deepen it.
The Humility of Christ Is as a Child’s Trust
What, then, was the humility of Christ? Has He Himself thrown any light upon the matter? There are two incidents which at once suggest themselves as teaching us everything we want to know. On one occasion the disciples had been arguing as to who is greatest in the Kingdom. They came to Jesus with their difficulty, and the answer which they got was very beautiful. For Jesus beckoned to a little child, and set him down right in the midst of them, and said, “Whosoever, therefore, shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” There is the living example of humility as Jesus understood humility. And what is the spirit of a little child: is it not a spirit eminently trustful? It trusts a father’s wisdom without questioning; confides unfalteringly in a mother’s care; rests in happy security on this, that there is someone arranging and providing. There is nothing mean or grovelling in that. In that, there is nothing of self-depreciation. A child is not humble because it knows its guilt. It is humble because it is a child. It is humble because it trusts so utterly because it leans its weight upon a father because it answers so unswervingly to every movement of another will.
Now that, I take it, in its essence, is the humility of Jesus Christ. It is not primarily a relationship to men; primarily it is a relationship to God. It has been noted that in the Gospels you do not read about the faith of Jesus; what you do read of in the Gospels is the humility of Jesus. And the reason for that is that our Lord’s humility, when you come to understand its inner meaning, is just His faith in its most glorious exercise. Moment by moment He learned the will of God. Moment by moment He responded to it. The faintest whisper of His Father’s voice was answered in unquestioning obedience. And this not only when that will be sweet, and reached Him amid the fields of Nazareth, but when it came to Him in the garden of Gethsemane. That was not courage, though it may look like courage. It was not heroism, though you may call it so. It was the perfected spirit of the child whom Jesus took and placed among them all. That was humility as Jesus understood it–loyal, loving, unquestioning submission, not only when the submission was a happy thing, but when it led to the garden and the cross.
And you see at once, taking that view, how it explains a great deal which was dark before. It helps us to see the humility of Christ where otherwise we might be blind to it. When a man is humble he is always humble. His humility makes itself evident in everything. You must be able to trace it through his whole activity if it is a real and genuine humility. And yet there are moments in the life of Jesus when it would be difficult to call Him humble, in the usual interpretation of that word. Think of His withering anger at the Pharisees. Think of His driving the traders from the Temple. Is that humility–that withering anger; or has Christ forgotten to be humble now? No, He has not forgotten to be humble: it is you and I who have forgotten something; forgotten that the humility of Christ is His absolute fidelity to God. Do you think it was pleasant to Jesus to be angry so? Do you think He delighted to wither and to burn? A thousand times rather, we may say with reverence, He would have been seated in the home at Bethany. Had He consulted Self He would have been with Lazarus, or among the hills, or in the fields of Galilee, but He withered and burned, and drove the traders forth because He consulted nobody but God. In other words, He was never more a Child than in those hours when He seemed least a Child. He was never humbler in His Father’s eyes than in His awful and imperious majesty. For then you hear, clear as a trumpet note, “I come to do thy will, O God,” and that was the humility of Jesus. Take that view, and it irradiates everything. It gives a unity we never felt before. Christ is no longer humble in His suffering, and something else in His denunciation. He is as humble when He scorns the Pharisee as when He talks with the woman by the well; as humble when He commands, “Take these things hence,” as when He cries upon the cross, “Father, forgive them.”
Christ’s Humility Was That of a Servant
And then there is the second scene which is needed if our thought is to be adequate. It is that scene, forever memorable, in which Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. Need I recall it? You all know it perfectly. You see it before you even as I speak: how Jesus laid aside His garments, and took a towel, and girded Himself and washed His disciples’ feet. And He did it “because He came from God, and because He was going home again to God”–that is to say, all filial life in God must issue in lowly and in loving service. First the child, you see, and then the servant. Take both together and you have humility. First the child, the filial trustful confidence; and then, as the fruit of that, the servant’s office. And that is exactly what you find in Jesus, whom the prophet calls the Servant of the Lord, and yet says that a little Child shall lead them. Perfect loyalty to the Father’s will issuing in lowliest service to the brethren–that was the humility of Christ, and that is the humility He wants in us. There is nothing cringing in it, nothing mean. It is trustful, active, eminently blessed. It is the crowning grace of every Christian character and makes the wilderness blossom as the rose.