Gary Wilkerson

The Trait that May Transform the World

“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility” (1 Peter 5:5, ESV). In seven straightforward words, Peter envisioned what may bring a transformative makeover to the church of Jesus Christ. His simple command raises the question “What if every member of Christ’s body throughout the world walked in complete humility all the time? How different would the church’s impact be? How attractive and healing would the gospel come across to a lost, broken and hurting world? What glory would God receive if the church’s predominant trait was humility?”

I believe humility has gotten a bad reputation through no fault of its own. Some Christians picture humility as letting themselves be run over by others. Some picture it as dressing in robes and sandals like Saint Francis and forsaking everything about the world. Others think humility is about not offending people, but that’s just man-pleasing rather than God-honoring. None of these images goes to the heart of what humility is. I believe Peter’s call for humility suggests how the church could prophetically reveal to the world God’s own servant nature. Let me explain.

Humility is realized only in relationships.

Humility isn’t a self-directed trait. It has a functional reality in our walk with one another and with the Lord. By design, humility is relational, and its effect is powerful. An interaction between my wife and a neighbor provides an example.

Kelly and I live in a development of patio homes, and behind our residence is a wonderful green open space. A few days after we moved in, our next-door neighbor invited my wife over for tea. What a great gesture, we thought, until our neighbor revealed her agenda. She told Kelly, “I’m afraid of dogs, and I don’t like you walking yours in the open space behind my home.”

Kelly assured this neighbor, “Please, don’t worry. I’ll take our dogs outside our front door and we’ll go around to the open space.” My wife practices this kind of gracious humility regularly.

When she told me about our neighbor’s request, though, I was infuriated. I said, “What horrible arrogance! Here, give me the dogs.” I was ready to take them behind the neighbor’s property and have them howl and poop and do everything within our covenant rights. Then I realized I was supposed to preach on humility that week.

Since the fall of humankind, we have wrestled with pride over being told what to do. We don’t want anything to derail the plans we want for ourselves. The truth is I hardly ever walked the dogs; Kelly usually took on that chore. I only wanted to do it once so I could assert my rights. Kelly’s humility turned out to win our neighbor’s heart. The woman was so floored by my wife’s loving grace that sometime later she told Kelly to bring the dogs over any time. Our neighbor’s fear of dogs may have been real, but the servant-love of God in Kelly’s spirit overrode it. Yes, humility has transforming power.

I used to think that “pride of rights” was mostly an American thing, then I preached at a pastors conference in Poland, talking about the pride of the flesh and how it pervades the U.S. mindset. Afterward, the lead pastor challenged me with a hearty laugh. “Gary, do you not believe there is a Polish flesh, a German flesh and an African flesh?”

I believe that a negative concept about humility has crept into our thinking as Christians.

If we’re honest, most of us would admit that we think, “Humility will get me nowhere. It will kill all my dreams.” This is true even among Christians. The apostle Paul taught the opposite. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:5-7).

What Paul said about humility is profoundly countercultural. The world despises and mocks humility, yet Peter says God exalts those who walk in it. This doesn’t mean that operating in humility is easy. Actually, it is impossible to walk in humility apart from Spirit-given grace. According to Peter, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5, my emphasis).

Note how this verse is double-edged. Our humility is Spirit-empowered, while at the same time God resists our pride. In short, if we operate in flesh-driven desire and effort, God will stop his blessing in our lives in order to lovin­gly deal with our pride. He doesn’t do this solely for the sake of correcting us; he does it also because he seeks to reveal his nature through us. That requires a transformation that only his amazin­g grace can accomplish. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6).

Peter laid out three ways that Christians are to lead by humility.

“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, (1) not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; (2) not for shameful gain, but eagerly; (3) not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3, my numbering and emphases).

According to Peter, for an elder to exercise proper leadership, he does so not under compulsion but willingly. Have you ever seen a Christian “try” to be humble by gritting their teeth? It’s laughable! (I know because I’ve tried it.) Humble leadership is never achieved through self-driven efforts. Our source is the Spirit himself.

Second, we should be eager to serve in humility, not covetously or “for shameful gain.” As the Spirit transforms our heart, humility becomes a delight we pursue eagerly. Any drive for an earthly reward melts away in the pure, bright light of humility.

Third, humility isn’t “domineering” over others. On the contrary, it is about serving others. How many times have you felt subservient to a pastor’s mission that lacked the spirit of Christ? Missions are good only when they’re fulfilled under the high calling of Christ. That calling is to put the needs of others above our own. Humility can’t simply be imported and injected into a mission; it must be built into the very heart of the mission, acting as the fuel that energizes it.

I have mentioned how all humility is relational. Think for a moment about the concept of “one another.” A simple search for this phrase in the Bible yields over 250 entries. “Love one another,” “honor one another,” “esteem one another” – the list is powerful, and of course it is all about relationships. The briefest look at some of these passages makes clear that humility can’t become a reality unless we put others’ needs ahead of our own.

Peter connects humility with trust.

So, how do you face your relational struggles? How do you resolve your conflicts and handle feelings of woundedness? Do you entrust these things to the Lord? You’ve heard the verse, “Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you.” The context for this is Peter’s passage on humility. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7, my emphasis).

Note the sequence of four phrases in this verse: Humble yourselves; mighty hand of God; casting all your anxieties on him; he cares for you. Peter’s message is clear. It’s easier to turn our cares over to the Lord when we connect his power, wisdom, and majesty with his relentless love for us. If we’re to clothe ourselves in humility, we have to know something of God’s mighty hand on our behalf.

If we think he’s going to fail us, however, it’s hard to step into the garments of humility. In our effort to protect ourselves, self-driven pride kicks in. That pride leads to turmoil, worry and sleepless nights. Peter points out how Satan uses those anxieties to work his way into our lives. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith…” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

If you want a peaceful, anxiety-free, ‘care-less’ life, turn to the Lord’s mighty hand. No matter what problem you face, you can sleep in peace. The enemy may prowl about looking for an entry point to inject doubt and fear, but Peter says your trust in God shuts Satan down. Our theology affects our behavior, and when we’re rooted and grounded in the reality of God’s mighty hand, our foundation remains firm.

Imagine the joy, power and glory that filter out of a church which humbles itself as Jesus did.

I would love to attend such a church. There would be no agenda, no pride, no devouring enemy able to sow seeds of discord, no fear of our dreams being derailed as we put others’ needs before our own. God’s mighty hand is in charge of our advancement in life, and he brings about any exalting as we obey his call to humility. Therefore, there is no need for wrestling or worry.

Trusting his mighty hand is a first step in clothing ourselves in humility. When we do this, we see his work in our lives as never before. As his church we will awe the world with service worthy of our Savior. Amen.