by Wilhelmus à Brakel
Love for our neighbor is the fountain of all those virtues we are to exercise toward him, but it is humility that adorns these virtues. However excellent the performance of a virtue may be, if there is pride in the person who performs this duty, such performance will reek and be entirely without luster. Therefore, a believer who in the way of holiness wishes to live to the glory of God and render the church honorable must strive to be humble.
Humility is the humble disposition of the heart of the believer—both in a personal sense and toward his neighbor. It consists in having a correct judgment concerning himself whereby he neither elevates himself above his condition, nor wishes to be elevated by others as such.
True humility is only to be found in a Christian, that is, in a believer. All humility of the unconverted is nothing but an appearance without substance, and upon close examination it will prove to be either nothing but pride or else despondency—the reason being that an unconverted person has neither life, spiritual disposition of heart, nor is he united to Christ from whom, as the Head, all virtues issue forth to His children. However, a regenerate person has the principle of life in Christ and thus also a virtuous heart—the fountain of virtues. "Let the brother of low degree6 rejoice" (James 1:9). It is the Lord who teaches humility and Christ is the example: "Learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart" —Vol. 4, Page 68— (Matt 11:29). Therefore, those who have fellowship with the Lord Jesus, know Him and behold Him, and in faith are united with Him, will learn this from Him and their humility is of the same nature as His.
The heart is the seat of their humility. The seat of humility is not to be found in our face, talk, or dress, but in the heart. It is also not solely and essentially to be found in the intellect, even though the intellect is functional in the exercise of humility in knowing the nature and beauty of this virtue and presenting it to the will as such. Instead, the essential function of humility is in the will which embraces, loves, and delights itself in this virtue. We are to be like Jesus, that is, "lowly in heart" (Matt 11:29).
Humility is a disposition of the heart. The beauty of this virtue is not something which is paraded and put on display to be approved of as such. It also does not consist in having the intention to be humble—a condition which may exist temporarily, but soon dissipates. Rather, humility is a propensity or a predisposition. The regenerate heart has a nature which is thoroughly humble—this humility being of an enduring nature. Whenever such a person engages himself, he does so in harmony with this heart and nature. All that he does has the fragrance of and is permeated with humility. The measure in which this disposition is pervasive and steadfast is commensurate with the measure of a person's exercise to be in such a disposition. This propensity, initially having been infused by God, is fortified through much exercise.
The object of humility is man himself and his neighbor.
(1) It is man himself, for due to self-knowledge he knows that there is neither excellence nor anything desirable to be found in him. In his own eyes he is a great nothing, and he views himself as such. He thus sinks away in his own nothingness as a stone cast into the water, not resting until it reaches the bottom; that is its proper position and there it will come to rest. It is likewise true that the lowest place will be the place of the humble man; there he finds rest and is in his element as a fish in water. He is able to accept the fact that others receive honor and love, enjoy themselves, and are prosperous, as long as he may be humble in himself, and in that way of humility can engage in his duty by the grace and power God affords him. He is able to end in humility when he has done something, and with that humility he can suffer and endure that which the Lord causes to come his way, either without or by the instrumentality of men—it is all well with him.
(2) The humble person also exercises his humility toward his neighbor. He acknowledges it to be the will of God that he love his neighbor, and this motivates him to do so. He perceives in his neighbor that which is eminent and desirable; he highly esteems this, honors him as such, wholeheartedly submits himself to him in that respect, and with this disposition he does for his neighbor what God commands him to do. In comparing himself to his neighbor, he appears in his own eyes as copper compared to gold, and as lead compared to silver. Being in such a frame, he honors, loves, and renders him service. "Be not highminded" (Rom 11:20); "For I say ... to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think" (Rom 12:3); "My brethren, be not many masters" (James 3:1); "In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves" (Phil 2:3).
The essence of humility consists in lowliness of heart. Pride lifts up the heart and puffs it up with vain air, and a proud person in his own conceit wishes to be honored above others. This motivates him in all that he does and is the objective of his actions. If he achieves his objective, he is delighted; but if not, he becomes peevish and wrathful. Humility, on the contrary, brings the heart low and renders it humble. Thus, the humble person will not have himself in view in his actions, and upon having performed his duty he returns to himself, humbly and quietly remaining in that place, regardless of what the outcome of his performance has been.
The other extreme in relation to humility is despondency. This comes about when we lose all courage, give up, and thus collapse as a wet rag. This is not humility; rather it is pride, for despondency comes about when we can neither achieve our objective nor perceive any way whereby to achieve it. Humility is positioned between these two vices (pride and despondency). Relative to the one, humility is a lowly and unassuming disposition, causing one to remain in the background. Humility needs but little room for herself. In that setting she is at home and does not move beyond its boundaries. Relative to despondency, humility is armed with courage and spiritual valor. The humble person engages himself as such in dependence upon the grace and power of God, doing so in his appointed station and with the gifts he has received. To be seen of men and to seek after honor and love are foreign to the humble soul. He will leave that for those who desire it. He will be satisfied with having done his duty, and if this renders him honor and love (without this being his goal), this will not lift him up. If it brings him shame and injury, he does not become despondent and discouraged. He will remain in his place, and there he will be —Vol. 4, Page 70—humble and quiet, courageously proceeding with his duty. David gives expression to this disposition: "Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child" (Ps 131:1-2). A humble person has a childlike disposition.
God is the moving cause of humility. By nature man is a creature who aspires after glory, is proud and conceited, and has high thoughts of himself. He is motivated by self, is focused on self, and is desirous that everyone's end would be to esteem, honor, fear, serve, and obey him. The heart the Lord gives to His people is different, however, for He causes Christ to be formed in them, so that, also in humility, they resemble Christ. The Lord grants them enlightened eyes of understanding by which they know themselves, are able to judge themse
lves rightly, know what their gifts are, and of what they are worthy. Furthermore, they have a love for righteousness and thus they neither desire nor seek that to which they are not entitled.
Thus humility issues forth from a right judgment of one's self. The humble acknowledge that they are made of dust and reside in tabernacles of clay. They know that they have sinned and come short of the glory of God; are blind, miserable, naked, and wretched, and that they are thus abominable, hateful, and intolerable before God, angels, and men. They know they are not worthy that the heavens cover them, the sun shines upon them, or that they walk upon the earth, enjoying the fellowship of men, having a piece of bread to eat, and having clothing for their body. Rather, they are worthy of having been cast into hell long ago. Such is their judgment of themselves, and they acquiesce in this—even though it condemns them. They thus perceive how wrong it would be for them to elevate themselves, pretending that they are worthy of something. When they compare themselves with others, they perceive themselves as being foolish, void of understanding, having a disgraceful and difficult character, and their actions as being worthy of scorn. It is thus that others would know them if they knew them as well internally as they know them externally. How should they then have any high thoughts of themselves? They deem that others would be in error if they thought anything of them or wished to render them some honor. They acknowledge that the good found in them—which they are cognizant of and highly —Vol. 4, Page 71— esteem—has been given to them by another, namely God. Since this continues to be of God, they would be guilty of the greatest foolishness if they were to covet honor, love, or esteem for something which has been loaned to them. (A beggar would invite scorn if he were to boast of an expensive garment which someone had loaned him for one day.) Yes, even if the humble person were perfect in all things, he would know that all esteem, honor, love, fear, and obedience would be due unto God. He would know that God has forbidden him to covet, strive for, and permit these matters to be attributed to him. He therefore judges it to be an act of thievery and unrighteousness to seek for this and to boast of it. This causes him to be small in his own eyes, and he is, remains, and engages himself in harmony with this disposition.
The effects of humility are twofold: The humble person neither elevates himself above what his condition is, nor does he want to be elevated above such by someone else.
First, a humble person does not elevate himself above what his condition is. God has made a distinction between people—both in the spiritual as well as the natural realm. If the Lord has truly made someone to be a Christian; if He has granted him His Spirit and His grace; and if He has bestowed on him life, light, a principle of holiness, as well as gifts to be used to the benefit of others, then such a person does not deny this, but acknowledges it. For, to deny this would be an act of pride rather than of humility, acting as if we did not receive it, whereas in truth we did. Furthermore, it would be an intolerable act of ingratitude. Thus such a person does indeed acknowledge the grace he possesses, but he does not boasts of it nor does he wish to be honored by men for it.
Also in the natural realm God has placed people in different stations, for there are government officials, citizens, parents, children, servants, the rich, middle class citizens, and the poor. The humble person will maintain and continue in the station where God has placed him, until God calls him away from it. If he is in a lowly station, he is satisfied, it being the will of God. He possesses more than he is worthy of, and does not walk away from it, but will remain with it until the Lord removes it from him; that is, if it were to please Him to do so. If such is not the case, it is also well with him. If he holds a high position which is accompanied by wealth, he will also maintain it, and seek to be faithful therein. He does not exalt himself above others because he holds this position. Rather, he is humble, knowing that he is not worthy of it. Instead, he has —Vol. 4, Page 72— come to see it as his duty to perform that function, thereby rendering honorable that office or position he holds. The denigration of one's self is not an act of humility. It is much easier to cast everything away and to subject ourselves to poverty, shame, contempt, solitude, and silence, than to preserve our position with a humble heart, and to conduct ourselves in a manner which is consistent with our position. Thus, someone can simultaneously have a high position, be rich, esteemed, and honored, and yet have a humble disposition of heart. He does not covet honor, respect, and obedience because he has this position, nor does he boast of it. He
nevertheless agrees to be treated as such, solely because it is God's command.
Secondly, neither will he desire to be elevated by others above the condition in which he is. This would give neither pleasure nor joy, but rather sorrow and grief, knowing that he is not entitled to it. He wishes to be humbled and remain unnoticed as he passes through this world. He only desires to give rather than to receive. He lets the Hamans have the knee-bends and the Herods the praises. He is happy when he can be on his own, and if someone wishes to esteem him too highly, he will convey his aversion for this, saying with John the Baptist, "I am not (he)" (John 1:21). With Peter and Paul, he will abhor any excessive honor (cf. Acts 3:12; Acts 10:26; Acts 14:14). Instead, the humble person highly esteems the good he perceives in another person. He esteems that person more excellent than he is, humbles himself in his presence, is willing to be of service to him, and is not envious if this person is honored above him, but rather rejoices in this.
The depiction of humility in its nature and circumstances will give you light in the matter, so that you can examine yourself and be convinced as to whether you possess this virtue of humility or not. There are but few humble persons—yes, humility is presently despised and made out to be dullness, melancholy, evil-temperedness, and slavishness. Nevertheless, this is the disposition with which God is pleased—the contrary of which He hates. Take note of this:
(1) You who are proud of heart and have a haughty spirit, who have great thoughts of yourself due to your ancestry, wealth, the offices you hold, wisdom, beauty, strength, artistic talent, gifts, and all that of which a fool will boast; you who elevate yourself above your neighbor, viewing him with contempt and having the notion that he must honor and revere, bow, and yield to you; you who love to be greeted in a humble and reverent manner, to be praised and elevated above others; you who are envious when another person —Vol. 4, Page 73— is elevated and honored above you, and readily cherish hatred and vengefulness against those who either do not honor you sufficiently or who despise you.
(2) You who deal haughtily with your inferiors and puff yourself up in their presence as a cropper pigeon; who raise your eyebrows, hold your head in the air, imitate a proud gait, put your hand on your side, and thus present yourself as a big bag of air, wishing that one would cry out, "Bow the knee"; or at least that everyone would yield to you, and while standing aside, would greet you in a most respectable manner.
(3) You who involve yourself in everything and speak about yourself and your accomplishments so that others may know what manner of man or woman you are.
(4) You who seek to increase your glory by boasting, decorating your house as a palace (each according to his ability) and then gloat by yourself, thinking, "Is not this great Babylon, that I have built ... for the honour of my majesty" (Dan 4:30), having the objective that others would esteem you as great, rich, and prominent. Furthermore, such will presently make themselves up as a decorated doll, and will go in public as a Bernice with great splendor (Acts 25:23; in Greek: phantasia). The entire purpose is to gain honor and glory. They avoid the company of those who are of lesser status, for this would humiliate them, but they will join themselves to those of higher social status, even if one were to make a fool of himself there.
(5) You who speak of certain persons—if they are prominent people—as being your cousins, even though the relationship goes all the way back to Noah, but refrain yourself from saying, "My cousin the shoemaker, my cousin the maid," for this would not promote your own status. And thus we could go on: Whatever one does and says all proceeds from pride and is for the purpose of self-elevation.
What a fool you are, however! First of all, since you are in reality so despicable, what will it profit you if people esteem you? Since there is in reality nothing honorable in you, what will it profit you if insignificant men honor you?
Secondly, your pride will readily be detected and you will be a stench to all who observe and notice this. People will have an aversion
for you, ridicule you, consider you to be a fool, will avoid your company, and if you are in the presence of upright people who will give you some attention and get you to talk, your proud foolishness will manifest itself and you will make a mockery of yourself.
Thirdly, the godly (who are the honorable of the world) abhor —Vol. 4, Page 74— you and do not wish to be in your company: "Him that hath an high look and a proud heart shall not I suffer" (Ps 101:5).
Fourthly, above all take note of how God esteems you and what He will do to you.
(1) God hates you. What will it therefore benefit you if you please yourself? Consider with dread what God says concerning you: "The Lord GOD hath sworn by Himself, saith the Lord the God of hosts, I abhor the excellency of Jacob, and hate his palaces" (Amos 6:8); "These six things doth the Lord hate" (Prov 6:16-17), and a proud look is mentioned first; "Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord" (Prov 16:5).
(2) Not only is God's heart opposed to the proud, but also His mouth; He reproves and curses them: "Thou hast rebuked the proud that are cursed" (Ps 119:21).
(3) God's hand is against them: "God resisteth the proud" (1 Pet 5:5); "Behold, I am against thee, O thou most proud, saith the Lord GOD of hosts: for thy day is come, the time that I shall visit thee" (Jer 50:31). And if you wish to know what the outcome and your end will be, read Mal 4:1: "For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch." It was pride which caused Sodom to be consumed with fire from heaven (Ezek 16:49); Dathan, Abiram, and Korah to sink into the earth (Num 16:12-33); and Herod to be slain by an angel and be consumed alive by worms (Acts 12:21,23). Behold, such will be the end of the proud.
You who are godly, upon examining yourself, you will perceive from the foregoing not only your deficient humility, but also how much pride yet remains in you. Humble yourself about this, be ashamed, and strive to increase in humility.
If pride is such a dreadful sin, and if such dreadful plagues are its consequences, then you who are godly ought to see to it that this sin does not cleave to you; rather, endeavor with your entire heart to be humble within and without, for:
First, you have nothing of yourself whereof you can be proud; instead, whatever can render you despicable is to be found in you. Your body is nothing but dust, stench, and pollution; your soul is bereft of the image of God, is a pool of all manner of impure monstrosities, and if another person would know all your thoughts and could observe and be aware of all the sins you have committed —Vol. 4, Page 75— in secret, would you then dare to look him in the eye if he were to look at you? You are indeed foolish, have a difficult and disgraceful character, and others excel in areas which are not to be found in you. You know this very well, for the Lord has given you light. If you thus examine yourself, how can you yet have a lofty thought about yourself or have any desire to be esteemed as a prominent person? You are convinced that you desire something unbecoming and wrongful, and that you would require something from others which is but deceit. Can you be deceived with lies? The graces, gifts, beauty, strength, riches, and whatever else you may have, God has but granted you on loan. Would you then put these on display as if they were your own? Therefore, consider yourself, and judge aright; you will then be small and insignificant in your eyes and not seek great things.
Secondly, take note of God's command; God forbids you to be proud and commands you to be humble. Consider texts previously quoted, and add the following passages to them: "Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate" (Rom 12:16); "Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness" (Eph 4:1-2); "He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but ... to walk humbly with thy God" (Mic 6:8). Does the command of God, and that which your Father enjoins you
to do, carry no weight with you? Should these not thoroughly permeate your soul? You have said so many times, "Speak Lord, for Thy servant heareth; Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" Well, God answers you that you are to be humble. Therefore, take this to heart and be humble.
Thirdly, your name as well as your relationship to the Lord Jesus obligates you to humility. You are named "Christian" after the name of Christ. Your relationship to Him is that you are His bride upon whom He has set His love. The Lord Jesus was humble—the perfect example of humility. Love ought to motivate us to be conformed to Him—more so because He establishes Himself as an example and commands us to follow Him in this: "Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart" (Matt 11:29). By nature we are intolerably proud—we who are most despicable. A Christian cannot be a Christian if he does not become humble. In order that we might become humble we need to learn how; this requires effort in order that we may all the better make progress in this. He gives us an example—yes, He himself becomes our example. Therefore conduct yourself as such and be as He is; be humble.
Fourthly, humility is a most eminent ornament. Virgins love jewelry, and a bride will adorn herself to please her husband. However, you are spiritual virgins—the bride of the Lord Jesus. I may thus —Vol. 4, Page 76— address you as such: "Put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem" (Isa 52:1). However, what is your ornament?— humility. Humility is the most beautiful ornament, and renders you pleasant before God and men. "Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of ... humbleness" (Col 3:12); "Be clothed with humility" (1 Pet 5:5); "I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit" (Isa 57:15); "Though the Lord be high, yet hath He respect unto the lowly" (Ps 138:6). A humble person is pleasing to all manner of people. One proud person cannot tolerate the other one; however, since a humble person submits himself, a worldly person will enjoy having fellowship with a humble person. And as a godly person loves Jesus, he will also love those who resemble Jesus; since humility excels in the Lord Jesus, he thus especially delights in the humble.
Fifthly, humility is most advantageous.
(1) God thinks upon such with delight and desires to help them: "Who remembered us in our low estate" (Ps 136:23).
(2) God causes them to rejoice: "I ... revive the spirit of the humble" (Isa 57:15).
(3) God's spiritual benefits are for such: "God ... giveth grace to the humble" (1 Pet 5:5).
(4) God keeps them: "He shall save the humble person" (Job 22:29).
(5) It yields all manner of temporal benefits to such: "By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honour, and life" (Prov 22:4); "Before honour is humility" (Prov 15:33); "Honour shall uphold the humble in spirit" (Prov 29:23).
(6) God comforts the humble: "Nevertheless God, that comforteth those that are cast down ..." (2 Cor 7:6).
(7) God exalts the humble: "He ... exalted them of low degree" (Luke 1:52).
(8) The humble person enjoys a sweet peace and has inner delight: "Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted" (James 1:9).
(9) A humble man is a wise man: "With the lowly is wisdom" (Prov 11:2).
(10) A humble person is valiant, for he neither seeks honor nor fears shame. Furthermore, everything suits him; he is willing to say and do it, and all that he does is pleasing to him. Therefore endeavor with much earnestness to be humble of heart.
Means to Learn Humility
Therefore, if you desire to be humble, it is needful for you to learn this. It does not issue forth spontaneously, and love for this —Vol. 4, Page 77— virtue will also not engender it unless an effort be made in this respect and one makes use of the means which are fit for this. There are three books from which we may learn humility.
First of all there is the book of sin. Examine yourself continually in the light of your falling into sin. If you take note of your falling into sin, your goal being the humbling of yourself, you will learn experientially that you are polluted, impure, wicked, atheistic, and abominable in your heart, which time and again brings forth like deeds. You thus have no reason for complaints when God brings affliction upon you, nor when men despise you, for you know yourself to be ten times more despicable than they deem you to be. You are thus neither worthy of being the recipient of the least mercy of God nor of the least favor of men. It is thus that David learned to be humble—as is to be observed in Ps 51. It will also render you humble.
Secondly, there is the book of crosses. However bitter and distasteful the cross may be, it nevertheless teaches humility if we take but proper notice of it. From it we shall learn how disagreeable, unbelieving, and impatient we are, all of which are fruits of pride. We are instructed thereby about the righteousness and sovereignty of God toward His creatures in punishing sin. It removes the pride of heart, makes it subdued and pliable—especially if it is a cross of long duration, and if we can neither avoid it nor find delight in other things. David therefore called "being chastised" being oppressed: "It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn Thy statutes. I know, O Lord ... that Thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me" (Ps 119:71,75). Therefore, submit yourself to the rod and to Him who has appointed it, and you will become humble.
Thirdly, there is the book of God's benefits and blessings. On the one hand they will humble us when we consider our ingratitude in failing to end with them in the Lord with a lively heart. They also teach us our inability to use them well, for we need strong legs to bear up under days of prosperity. The receipt of benefits renders some unhappy and they are happy when they may lose them. On the other hand, however, a believer will be deeply convinced of his unworthiness upon receiving special benefits. In humility of heart he will say with Jacob, "I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth" (Gen 32:10). When the Lord rejoiced the heart of David, he said, "And I will yet be more vile than thus" (2 Sam 6:22).
Excerpt from The Christian's Reasonable Service by Wilhelmus à Brakel