Word Study #14 — “Humility”

It’s certainly true that we/you’re not “perfect” — but we/you’re not scum, either!

It must cause real distress for our gracious Lord, having chosen, called and redeemed “a people” to populate and demonstrate his Kingdom, when he sees those people, instead of rejoicing in that calling and buckling down to work at it, preferring to wallow in lamentations about their self-diagnosed “unworthiness,” and proclaim themselves to be “wretches” and “worms”, instead of Kingdom citizens personally selected by the King of Kings!
It’s all over our hymnody: “such a worm as I,” “guilty, vile, and helpless we,” “false and full of sin I am,” “saved a wretch like me” … and so on and on.
But it’s NOT in the New Testament!
And as such, it is dishonoring to the Lord who has called us! Paul admonished the Colossian brethren (1:12) rather, to “Joyfully keep giving thanks to the Father, who qualified you all for a share in the inheritance of his people!” Do you really intend to call brother Paul a liar? Or when Jesus himself says of the faithful, (Rev.3:4) “They will walk with me in white, because they are worthy,” is he mistaken?
I don’t think so.
Some call it “humility;” I “humbly” submit that a better word would be “falsehood”!

Tapeinos (adj.), tapeinoo(v.), and tapeinophrosune(n.), the words usually translated “humility” or “to humble”, are indeed commended as attitudes and behavior becoming for the people of God. But the actual meaning of the words is poles apart from their usual demeaning English connotations.
Tapeinos was originally a geographical word, used of “low-lying” land, or low water in a river or pond. Astronomically, it referred to stars near the horizon; and physically, to people of short stature. From there, its usage morphed into ideas of powerlessness, poverty, weakness, or a lack of prestige. In a moral sense, it could have either good or bad connotations – probably depending upon the perspective of the speaker.
Tapeinoo
, the verb form, indicates a decrease in size or influence, fasting or abstinence of any kind, as well as humiliation or abasement.
Tapeinophrosune
– with the addition of a suffix taken from the verb phroneo (to have understanding, to be wise or prudent, to be sane, to know by experience, to purpose or direct one’s attention, to be in possession of one’s senses) – directed the implication to a person’s deliberate attitude of mind.

The New Testament frequently contrasts “humbled” with “exalted”. In Mary’s song, for example (Lk.1:51-53) she refers to the “putting down” of the “mighty” with the exaltation of the “lowly.” Jesus uses a similar comparison (Mt.18:4 and 23:12, and parallels in Lk.18:14 and 14:11) of “humbling oneself” — tapeinoo — leading to “exaltation” — hupsoo.
This appears to be what has led some folks to conclude that they are being asked to adopt a stance of groveling, self-deprecating worthlessness, and (proudly!) to label it “humility”! They fail to notice that
tapeinoo is used of Jesus himself (Phil.2:8), and Jesus never pretended to think he was worthless! Paul’s point is that Jesus deliberately chose to forego the privileged position that was rightfully his. He focused on Jesus’ absolute obedience to the Father’s will: simply the direct opposite of self-promotion.
A similar healthier tone is seen in the Isaiah prophecy quoted by John the Baptist (Lk.3:5). The scene is one of road construction, where hilltops are scraped off (
tapeinoo) and valleys filled (hupsoo) to create a level super-highway for the arrival of the King! This was a common practice in antiquity. It is leveling that is called-for — not degradation!

Although he did not use the word, a similar attitude is evident in Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in Mt.20:25: “You all know that the rulers of the nations (Gentiles) dominate them, and their great ones wield oppressive power over them; but it shall not be that way among you all!” and in Mt.23:12, “You are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And don’t call any one on earth Father, for your one Father is in heaven. And do not be called Leaders, because your one Leader is Christ.” Jesus himself is the only superior, among his people: he has expressly forbidden human hierarchy! How sad, that these instructions are so universally ignored!

James, in his instructions about the rich and poor in the church (chapter 2) becomes quite specific in denouncing status and favoritism in the brotherhood. Paul went to great lengths in his letter to Colossae (chapter 2) to point out the “false humility” of various pagan practices, which had been touted as representing some sort of superior “spirituality” (does that sound contemporary?!). He makes the point that such exercises are only a form of showing-off, and have no value for Kingdom living.

In his farewell to the elders from Ephesus (Ac.20:13-35) Paul listed the characteristics of his service among them, which he described as “humility” — his faithful teaching, his self-support, and his honesty before them all. “Lowliness” (tapeinophrosune), an assumption of completely level standing, is listed along with gentleness, patience and forbearance, as needful for healthy relationships in the Body (Eph.4:2).

I like the motto I copied from a friend’s desk:
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself,
it is thinking of yourself less!”
Deliberate focus upon Kingdom affairs and interests rather than our own self-interest – obedience modeled after the Lord Jesus — the absence of posturing and pretentious behavior – are worth a lot more in the service of our King, than abject servitude and songs about “wretches” and “worms”!
The observation may be coarse and ungrammatical, but it is nevertheless gloriously true:
“God don’t make no junk!”
We are created and called to be servants – even children! — of the King, citizens of the Kingdom in which there is only one superior – the King himself – and the citizens serve him, and one another, in the
true “humility” of mutual respect, honor, and love!

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