Vol. 10 — No. 17 April 27, 1969


The Difficult Virtue of Humility

Luke 18:9-14

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall he exalted.

Beloved in Christ, who has high regard for the lowly in heart:

It is well that at least once a year we hear the parable of the Pharisee and the publican; its message is simple enough, but its observance is difficult. Therefore God has a most difficult time with us. And so we wish to speak today about—

The Difficult Virtue of Humility

One reason this virtue is so difficult to fallen man is that the loss of it was first among the sins of men and angels. As the Reformer called humility the mother of all virtues, so the loss of this, our mother, is the source of countless ills, their roots deep grown in pride. The tragedy of this deep loss was put so well in words by Tryon Edwards, poet:

“Humility, the fairest, loveliest flower
That grew in Paradise, and first that died,
Has rarely flourished since on mortal soil.
It is so frail, so delicate a thing,
’Tis gone, if it but look upon itself;
And they who venture to believe it theirs
Prove by that single thought they have it not.”

But what is there worthwhile that is not difficult? Or have we, too, begun to adopt the attitude so common in our day that things we want must come easy, or we have no interest in them?

Difficult or easy, the divine rule stands, as Scripture plainly says, “Before honour is humility.” Proverbs 15:33. The difficulty appears when man will not accept the sovereignty of God. Man himself wants to be “as gods,” as the Serpent tempted our first parents with that thought. He had already tempted a host of the angels with that same thought of pride, and then with their help he “raised impious war in heaven,”until “him the Almighty Power hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky, with hideous ruin and combustion, down to bottomless perdition; there to dwell in adamantine chains and penal fire, Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.” (Milton: Paradise Lost). Yes, pride goeth before a fall; and “before honour is humility.”

We ask again, why is humility so difficult? We can only answer that it is a part of the mystery of iniquity. It is there, and it has been there ever since our first parents chose to disobey God. It is part of the human condition. And to be in the human condition is to be dead in trespasses and sins, as Scripture so clearly teaches. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned,” as St. Paul by inspiration of God teaches the Corinthians. I Cor. 2:14.

Now, if God had done nothing to break through this spiritual blindness and spiritual death of man’s, that would be the end of it. In his proud rebellion and desire to go his own way, fallen man would go his own way to eternal death and separation from God. That would be the end of it.

But God did not let that be the end of it. “O Israel, God said, “thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help.” Hosea 13:9. And you know what God did to help. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” John 3:16ff. He sent His Son For redemption, for paying to God the price of man’s ransom, so that God’s violated righteousness has been completely satisfied. The liberty of the condemned has been purchased, not with gold or silver, but with His innocent suffering and death, and with His holy and precious blood. As an act of pure justice, God declared the whole world justified.

Then God sent His Holy Spirit as messenger of the news to all the world; and with that Good News God gives us in the same moment the power to believe it and rejoice. And this is where humility comes in: the humility just to take it and to be made over into children of God.

Now, when we see that the vast majority do not have this humility, this willingness to take God’s salvation add to he made over by His Spirit into children of God, we begin to wonder why God does not begin to take some other kind of direct action, such as this: since God is all-powerful, why does He not forcibly change people so that they will take it and be saved? That sounds very simple.

And it is too simple. Then men would be machines, who only do what they must. God did not make men machines. He gave them the dignity of being made after His own image, holy and righteous, and free to choose to be holy and righteous in His glorious presence for ever. Then pride came in, and men chose to disobey God, and in disobeying him, to think they would be equal to Him—they lost their humility, the key to happiness.

God gave mankind a second chance: He opened the way back to Paradise, setting up the highway of His salvation straight through the world abounding in all wickedness and evil and death and damnation. “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you,” He said by Moses, “that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live; that thou mayest love the Lord thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him, for he is thy life. Deut. 30:l9-20.

You see, God has made a rule for Himself: He will not change people by force. He will beg them and He will beseech them, as both Jesus and His apostles pleaded with them with tears in their eyes: “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Is. 55:6f. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Matt. 11:28. “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help.” Hosea 13:9.

Sometimes we might wonder why God does it this way. Sometimes we may be tempted to wish that He had done otherwise. But God would rather have a world and an eternity of free beings than a world of beings who are automatic machines. It is as Jesus said to those Jews which believed on Him: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free…If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” John 8:31.32.36. This is the glorious liberty of the children of God, of which His Apostle speaks so fervently. And the more you think of it, the more you will see the superiority of His wisdom.

But here is where humility comes in. Jesus told a parable to some people that trusted in themselves that they were righteous and did not need any salvation from God; they would walk alone; they were not as other men are: “extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” Always willing to justify themselves! Up against the standard of God’s law, they were competent, confident, self-reliant, and masters of their own destiny. No humility in all that. Yet we indicated that humility is the key.

The key to understanding humility is seen in the publican. It seems that he had no desire to compare himself with anyone; he certainly is not reported as saying that he was happy not to be like the Pharisee up front, who seemed to pray, but in reality stood there boasting. The explanation is that the publican was there alone with his God. He did not so much as lift up his head; he compared himself with no one. He was alone with his God! And when that happens, then humility is born. When your view is closed to everything around you, and you see yourself under the microscope of God’s all-seeing eye—then one thing alone remains to be said, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Then you have experienced the judgment of God, and you cast yourself gladly upon His mercy, to save you, and to make you over into His image, even as by the working of His Spirit in you.

The mother of all virtues has come back, and you have surrendered to the reconstructing power of the God who has redeemed you. You have as little to say for yourself as had the publican in the temple. You will understand so well the sacred Proverb, “Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips.” Prov. 27:2. The wise head that has learned the reproof of life has a way of keeping silent, just as deep waters tend to run still and quiet. All you need to do is stir them, as we saw a week ago, and they will reveal their depths to you. Beautiful indeed is the quiet strength of a humble soul that has found its firm foundation in the mercy and salvation of its God!

“I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant,” said Jacob when he realized that whatever he had received was all by the grace of God.” Gen. 32:10. “Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt,” said Moses as he faced the greatest task, perhaps, that has ever in this world been given to a man with empty hands. Ex. 3:11. “Who am I, O Lord God? and what is my house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?” said David when he was exalted from the sheepcote to be king in Israel. II Sam. 7:18. “When thou wast little in thine own sight, wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel, and the Lord anointed thee king over Israel,” said Samuel to the Saul who was bursting with his own pride, but in that moment rejected by God. I Sam. 15:16.

And there you have the clue to every man’s failure: pride in doing as he himself chooses in the face of God’s will which he knows would have him do otherwise. Oh, what a difficult virtue is humility! How hard for flesh to say, “Thy will be done!”

Don’t make the mistake of saying, “Christians are humble.” Christians are sinners, and sinners are proud; proud sinners want their own way. The old Adam of Christians is just as proud as the old Adam in unbelievers. The Christian’s problem is to remain humble, obedient and yielding to the Word and Will of God. Pride is the plague of the believer’s heart, as Solomon so wisely said in his dedication prayer in the temple.

Take a few examples, if you find this hard to believe. The very night Jesus ate the last supper with His disciples, before He was to be crucified the next day, every one of them lacked the humility to do what good manners even would require: that they take a basin of water to wash off the dust from the road off His feet. They once quarreled about who should have the highest places of honor in His Kingdom. The mother of James and John wanted to get ahead of the rush by securing His promise that one of her sons should sit at His right, and the other on His left. No, believers are not suddenly humble, though they have become humble enough to accept the way of God’s salvation for sinners.

But believers can learn to be humble, if God is kind enough to be tough enough with them. St. Paul tells us that God gave him a thorn in the flesh so he shouldn’t become exalted overmuch, that is, become proud. Paul thought that the trouble which he had was too much for him to bear—perhaps it was diseased eyes with pus and soreness that made him a sight to look at. He prayed God three times to remove it, but God told him that “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Keep your thorn in the flesh; it will keep you humble, is about what God answered him.

You see, humility is so foreign to our sinful natures that God alone can give it to us. And yet God will not force it upon us. We can refuse to have it. Here, again, is the mystery of iniquity at work, as well as the mystery of grace. He will not coerce us, as man can a machine. “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power,” says the Psalmist. Ps. 110. And when you receive this grace of willingness, you must be afraid that you will lose it, or you will lose it! To work out your salvation with fear and trembling means to be afraid that you will lose it. But if you are so afraid that you will lose a diamond or a costly gem, you will so care for it that you will not lose it. If someone gave you a hundred-dollar bill as a gift or as a payment for some merchandise, you would not let it lie on the table for the children or for the wind or for some thief to make away with it.

Humility, which is the grace and virtue that clings to God for salvation, is not a thing to be trifled with. It is the virtue that is best kept if it is not even mentioned. Nothing is so dangerous to talk about as your humility. Talk about your pride all you please; get it out there where men can see it—for many people are kind enough to help cut it down. But, oh, humility

“…, the fairest, loveliest flower
That grew in Paradise, and first that died,
Has rarely flourished since on mortal soil.
It is so frail, so delicate a thing,
’Tis gone, if it but look upon itself;
And they who venture to believe it theirs
Prove by that single thought they have it not.”

And yet, says the prophet Micah, “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to…walk humbly with thy God?” Micah 6:8. Clasp your hand over the mouth of of the Pharisee in your heart; choke him, and drown him along with the old Adam daily. Realize with Ezra, “Thou our God hast punished us less than our iniquities deserve.” Ezra 9:13. “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” “In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind he in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 2:3-5. Amen.

—Pastor Martin Galstad

Immanuel Lutheran Church
Winter Haven, Florida

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