David Mathis: Humbled
Can we find humility by trying harder? Author David Mathis suggests surprising truth about what we can't do when it comes to being humble and what we can.
About the Guest
desiringGod.org, pastor at Cities Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, and adjunct professor for Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis. He is a husband and father of four and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines. Most recently, he is author of The Christmas We Didn’t Expect for Advent 2020.
Can we find humility by trying harder? Author David Mathis suggests surprising truth about what we can’t do when it comes to being humble and what we can.
David Mathis: Humbled
Dave: I’m thinking of one of my most humbling moments on stage with you, talking about marriage.
Ann: I have no idea what this is.
Dave: You don’t remember?
Dave: This is a date night we did at a church, and we were talking about Vertical Marriage. We were going back and forth, as we do on stage, about marriage; and then, we had to set up a video clip. I set up—
Ann: Is it when you made me dress up like Cher?
Dave: No, as I was setting up this video clip, you literally said to me, “That’s not the clip we’re going to show.” I’m like, “Yes, it is.”
Ann: Oh, yes. [Laughter]
Dave: Then, I said, “Roll the clip.” Then, as they started playing the clip, I literally reached over, turned my mic off; and I was so mad.
Ann: —at me.
Dave: The whole talk we were giving was “How to Resolve Conflict”; and we are, literally, having one on the stage in front of a thousand people. It was like a humbling moment, like, “I can’t even live out the truths I’m going to be teaching.”
Ann: Were you humbled because you were wrong; I was right?
Dave: If you remember—you’re bringing it up, because you do remember—[Laughter]—you were right, and I was wrong. I looked like a fool.
Ann: I’m not often right.
Dave: Of course, I was convinced you were wrong and I was right.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: But you know, this topic of being humbled is not something we talk about every day; because it’s something we don’t want. We don’t want to be humbled.
Ann: But it is necessary; like it is really necessary to know God and to walk with Him.
You and David Mathis actually got to sit down and have a discussion about his book called Humbled.
Dave: Humbled—yes—which who writes a book called Humbled? But it really is a profound look at what humbling in our life does in bringing out the richness of Christ in us: as a husband, as a dad, as a wife, or as a mom.
It was a rich time—I mean, David is really a theologian—he is with Desiring God Ministries. And he is a pastor in Minneapolis and a husband and a father. Man, he took us to some relevant places, so listen in.
Dave: Alright, David, we’re going to talk about a concept that a lot of us don’t want to talk about.
David: That’s right.
Dave: The title of your book is Humbled, like past tense; right? You know part of me wants to ask you your most proud moment in life—not your most humble—but your most proud. I’m going to tell you mine real quick; okay?
Dave: Then, I want to see if you have one that is similar. I still, to this day, since the ‘70s—so what are we?—2022—I still own the longest touchdown pass ever thrown in an Ohio high school playoff game. It’s an Ohio playoff record—
Dave: —97-yard touchdown pass. It’s the greatest/worst moment of my life, because that 97-yard touchdown was an interception.
David: Oh! [Laughter]
Dave: Go ahead and laugh, David; it’s the most humbling moment of my life. It’s funny—whenever I tell that story, like in a sermon or somewhere/I’m speaking somewhere, I’ll say it like that: “I still own….”—everybody starts cheering. And then, I go, “Well, you shouldn’t be cheering because…” In some ways, it is funny—I’m kidding; I don’t care if you laugh, because it’s just part of history—but it was a humbling moment. Even now, to say it out loud, it’s like, “Oh, I wish I could take that moment back.” To be humbled is not something we desire.
Dave: So talk to us about this concept of humility and this whole book about humbled. What’s it about? What’s it mean?
David: Well, the book began with a humbling moment for me.
David: I mean, it’s private, in a sense—I can talk about it—but it wasn’t a moment of throwing an interception. In high school baseball, I started off my career with the varsity as a sophomore with five hits in the first five at bats. And then, I missed a suicide squeeze bunt sign.
Dave: —in the same game?
David: —in my sixth at bat.
David: Two games; and the end of the second one.
But this one, this is close to home. This is recent in terms of, after reading the Bible year after year, I would come across this “humble yourself” language over and over. Ironically, I thought, “I should figure this out. Maybe, I can glean some clear steps of how I can be more humble.” I started to undertake this study of the “humble yourself” language. It starts in Exodus, Chapter 10; it’s especially strong in 2 Chronicles; in the teaching of Jesus and His apostles: “The exalted will be humbled; the humbled will be exalted.”
The first lesson that struck me—as I’ve got these texts in front of me, and slowed down enough to study them, and ask for help from the Holy Spirit—the first lesson is:
- You don’t just humble yourself. The main lesson, perhaps, in those self-humbling texts, is: “You don’t do it on your time frame.” It was a humbling moment to receive that; and say, on the one hand, to be very thankful for God’s initiative/to be thankful that He is God, and I am not God.
Dave: You say that, early in your writing, that is sort of the definition of humility—is: “He is God, and I am not,”—but help me understand what you mean by that: “I don’t humble myself?”
David: I think it’s very American; and it’s what I was born and raised in as an American—not necessarily by the church in particular—but just being raised in the ‘80s and ‘90s of: “You can do it. You have this sense of agency. Get your steps.” We almost—we can begin to apply that to humility of—“Alright, God; I’m ready now to be more humble, and I will pursue humility,”—which it’s a very good thing for a Christian to pursue humility—because God tells us: “seek humility”/”put it on.” He tells us there are blessings for the humble.
A good Christian response, to reading God’s Word, is to say, “I want to be more humble. God, make me more humble”; but the humbling lesson is you don’t just up and do it. You don’t humble yourself by your own bootstraps; you humble yourself when God’s ready.
So the first lesson is: “God takes the initiative in the humbling of His people.” You don’t wake up one day and say, “Alright, I’m going to start humility project today.” God starts the humility project with some uncomfortable, painful event that He brings into our life:
- Maybe, it is some exposure of our own sin.
- Maybe, it’s the rebuke, gracious as it may be, from a spouse.
- Maybe, it’s a painful event in our life.
- Maybe, it’s a divorce.
- Maybe, it’s the death of a friend.
- Maybe, it’s the loss of a job.
God humbles us; and then, the question comes—this is what plays out in all these scriptural texts—then, the question comes: “When you have been humbled by God, will you humble yourself? Will you receive His unpleasant work? Might you even welcome His unpleasant work—painful as it is—because you see the hand of God at work, making you into the kind of human, and soul, and Christian He needs for you to be?”
The first lesson is: “God takes the first step in humbling; and the humbling of ourselves comes in response to His, often, surprising work.”
Dave: Yes; and when I hear that, my honest reaction is: “Who wants that?” [Laughter] It’s like, “I do not…”—it’s not appealing to think—“Okay, God’s going to humble me.” It’s not even an attribute often you think about as a man.
I mean in my three decades-plus in the NFL with the Detroit Lions as their chaplain, I rarely, if ever, heard a head coach stand up in front of our team in the locker room and say, “Let’s talk about humility. That’s a character trait that I want to build into this team.” It’s like the opposite; it’s like: “Strength, and pride, and power.” Again, I’m not saying those things are evil in themselves—they can be powerful—but humility often isn’t what you think of in terms of a man winning in life. And you used the term: “As an American, I want to win,” “As an athlete, I want to win,” “I don’t want to be humbled.” When I hear you say that, I’m thinking, “Wow! Then, the Detroit Lions should have been the most humble team in the NFL,”—because we lost so much. [Laughter]
Help me understand how I would welcome that, because I think our nature is going to push back against that. But if God is humbling me, how do I receive that in a way that is going to honor God and honor who God wants me to be?
David: Well, I think our perspective—or whose eyes we have in mind with the humbling—is very important. If you are talking about a professional sports team, or an athlete, clearly nobody wants to be humbled—or you could even use the word humiliated [Laughter]—in front of the crowd/in front of the other team.
I’m talking, in particular, about coram Deo—that is the old Latin phrase—“before God.” “What does it mean to be humbled?” The humility we want to talk about is an embrace of what it means for: “Him to be God, and I am not.” I think it is a fair way to capture the heart of humility by saying: “Humility confesses: ‘He is God, and I am not; and I am happy about that.’”
It could happen in a very public context, where you are humiliated in front of the eyes of fellow humans; and in it, you see—you take it with respect to God—you realize: “This is a reminder: I’m not God; I’m creature. I am redeemed in Christ; but before God, I say, ‘He is God, and I am not God.’”
I think that is an important context in which to think about it. If we are thinking about our humbling, only before other humans, we’re not really getting the heart of what God means by humbling and what the Christian virtue of humility is: being a virtue proper to the creature with respect to his Creator.
Dave: Yes; in some ways, when I think of what you are saying real humility is—in terms of: “He is God, and I am not,”—tell me if I’m on the right track. What entered my mind was “will.” I want my will more than anything; and I know who God is—I serve Him, and I love Him—but I/honestly, I want what I want sometimes more than I think I want what He wants.
I mean, you talk about a picture in humility is Jesus in the garden,—
Dave: —before His death, saying, “…not My will…”—I mean, being honest with God—“If this cup can pass,”—I’d rather not—“but not My will; Your will be done,”—that’s a humble picture of what it looks like to bow before: “He is God, and I am not. He is in control; I am not.”
But I’ve got to be honest: I don’t often want to be there—it’s like: “No, no, no; I want this to take place in my life…” and “This to take place in my family…” “I want my kids to turn out like this…”—that humbling moment of saying, “But I’m willing to surrender my will under Your will.” Is that what you are talking about? Because that is something I want, but I am not apt to go there; it’s hard.
David: Dave, I think it is so helpful to draw in Gethsemane/draw in Jesus there—because, in Jesus, you have God, who has become fully man—so we see a glimpse there of something very profound about what it means for us, as humans, before our God.
Maybe, one of the most remarkable claims in all of the Bible is Philippians 2:8 about the Son of God when Paul says, “He humbled Himself.” Isn’t that amazing?!
David: God, Himself, in human flesh,—
David: —humbled Himself.
Dave: That was my only all-nighter in seminary, walking through that passage in the Greek, kenosis—He emptied Himself—and trying to get my brain around: “What in the world does it mean that the God of the universe emptied Himself?—took on death—not just death, but death on a cross,”—you talk about humility.
Explain that a little bit; because that is a/this is the picture of God’s humility and what we’re supposed to live out. Explain that to us.
David: What is amazing about that passage in Philippians 2 is that—you mentioned it—kenosis, self-emptying. The verb Paul uses to talk about God becoming man in the incarnation is: “He emptied Himself,”—that’s first. God becomes man by emptying Himself; and then, being found in human form, He humbled Himself.
A couple quick things there: The emptying we know is not an emptying of divine power, or prerogative, or divine attributes. It’s not Jesus emptying Himself of being God so that He comes as man and is no longer God; that’s not even possible. Paul says: “He emptied Himself, taking”—so this is an emptying by taking—“He took our humanity.” He was subjected to our sinful world, our environment, the limitations of humanity—all that He went through in being human, being roughed up, of being humbled, of going to the cross—He emptied Himself of the privilege of not going through the human experience and became man.
Now, being found in human form, Paul says, He humbled Himself. So what you see here is humbling is a particularly creaturely thing. If we were to ask the question: “Is God humble?”—that’s a tough question—because on the one hand, we think, “Well, He is not the opposite of humble.” We wouldn’t think of God as arrogant, or prideful, or conceited. But humility, I think, rightly, is a creaturely virtue: it’s a creature, before God, saying, “He is God, and I am not.”
I think I would say, of God, that humility isn’t a typical virtue that we would ascribe to the divine until He takes humanity. Then, God Himself, in the person of Jesus, shows us what humility is like.
Here is a remarkable thing. It helps us put humility in context/being humble in context. Being humbled doesn’t mean being a loser, necessarily. God may humble us through various aspects of losing and loss in our lives; but get this: The most humble, meekest human, who has ever lived, sits right now on a throne of the universe. So don’t think that humble means you can’t be King of the universe; right? God Himself, by becoming man, has shown us the fullness of humility; because Jesus Himself, in His humanity, is very aware and very conscious—beyond even us—of the glory of His Father, His obedience to His Father, His submission and love in His humanity of His Father in heaven.
We need to take into account Christ’s own humility in thinking through the various aspects of what it means to be human. It doesn’t mean—for dads, for moms, for kids—being humble doesn’t mean weak. Being humble means seeing your strength in its right proportion.
Dave: Explain that: because, really, humility properly lived out is strength; am I right?
David: That’s right. We can construe it in that kind of way in the sense that: “What’s our standard for strength?” Is our standard for strength a bench press, or a 40-yard dash,—
David: —or how much we’re the boss at work or at home? Or is it strength from God’s perspective?—which is going to have various aspects that humans are going to see as strong. It is good for daddy to be strong; it is good for a husband to be strong—but not in a way that he uses that strength to the harm of his wife or the harm of his children—or uses his power and strength to the harm of his coworkers, or the pastor who uses it to the harm of his people—but that he would use that God-given strength to bless them/to help them.
One of my sons is unusually strong, I think, for his age. Because he has a twin brother, so he can compare, at least. One thing I say, over and over again, is “Buddy, God made you strong to help people, not to hurt people.” We can say to our children, who are good with words: “Sweetie,” or “Son, God made you good with words, not to hurt people, but to help people.”
Dave: You know, as you say that: I think, when anyone takes their position of power or strength, and uses it to serve someone that doesn’t have power or strength, that is humble.
David: Mostly. You know, I’m a theologian—I can nuance this and that, and add footnotes to it one after another—but I definitely want to make it distinctively Christian in terms of: that the end goal is being determined on God’s terms—
David: —and not just the terms of the one, who is purportedly weak. The weak person is not setting the terms.
Dave: Right; right.
David: But that God Himself is setting the terms.
In our desire to make much of Him, and have our own joy spill over and multiply by the joy of others, we draw them into terms that God has established for what is good, and right, and true.
Dave: Yes, and I’m going right away to a husband/—
Dave: —family. I’m thinking, “We are called to be Jesus to our wife/to our family.” You just outlined from Philippians 2—Jesus emptied; Jesus humbled—so help us understand: “What would that look like—I guess we can say as a husband—to love your wife as Christ loved the church through the lens of humility?”
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave Wilson and David Mathis on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear more from their conversation in just a minute; but first, at FamilyLife, we believe God does some of His most amazing work in homes, just like yours. For me, that gives me a lot of hope. No matter how confused the culture is, or how bad the headlines are, God is at work; and He is not dependent on some political figure or the biggest influencer. He is using families, just like yours, to make a difference, one home at a time. That’s why we do radio broadcasts, and podcasts, and Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways, and small group Bible studies: to help strengthen families to make an impact in their corner of the world.
You can help make an impact, for even more families, by financially partnering with FamilyLife. When you give today, we’ll send you a copy of David Mathis’s book, Humbled: Welcoming the Uncomfortable Work of God. That’s our thanks to you when you give at FamilyLifeToday.com or when you call with your donation at 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Alright, now, back to David Mathis and what humility looks like for a husband.
David: For a husband, the physical and emotional strength that God has given me, to whatever degree, He means for me to have my feet—talking to Christian husbands here—to have my feet sufficiently under me—and on the rock of God’s Word, and Who God is, and Who Jesus Christ is—that I happily want to marshal what emotional and physical strength I have to help my wife.
Being a husband is not about me being on a couch and her serving my whims and making life convenient for me. God made men strong for a reason: to help others. It’s significant that the husband is typically the strongest person in the house. In Christ, we should think about—how we can use that energy, how we can use that strength, how we can use/many husbands need about an hour less of sleep than their wife—how can we use that to bless her?—to bless the family?—to be thinking of ways that we can take emotional, physical energy and resources for the good of our kids/for the good of our wife.
Rather than thinking: “To be head of this home,” or “To be the man,” means that everybody else puts their energies in service of my convenience. It’s the opposite; God made men strong so that we can do more than meet our own needs—that we have some energy extra to share and meet the needs of others—so we take a wife and have children that we generate energy to be able to share, and help, and build others up in the home—so very significant for husbands.
It has its own manifestation, too, for moms in all they do for their kids and the ways they bless their husband as well; so it’s not just a man-thing there. But to talk about physical strength is one avenue into discussing the giving of ourselves in a Christ-like way for the eternal good of others.
Dave: Yes, I’m—even as you say that—I’m picturing you, or me, or any husband on their knees, with their family, praying for their family. I’m thinking, if somebody looked in on a screen, and saw that picture—or just walked in a room and saw that—they might think it looks like weakness, like he’s begging for something/he is on his knees.
David: That’s right.
Dave: I think it’s the most powerful picture of strength ever. It’s humility to say, “I can’t lead this family,”—
David: That’s right.
Dave: —“I can’t love her,”/”I can’t love him without the power of God in my life. So I’m asking God, ‘God, give me what I don’t have to be the man/to be the woman You’ve called me to be. Would You meet me right here, where I am?’” That’s humble; but that is strength. Because it may look weak, but it isn’t at all; it’s where you are finding real power. That’s a picture of Jesus!
David: That’s right. That humble dad is aware he doesn’t run the universe. [Laughter] “The Great Head of this family and of His church is Jesus Christ, and I am a man under authority; and I am happy with that.” One of the reasons that the life-giving authority a man would have in his home would come to pass [is] through him knowing he is not in charge—it’s not authority, in and of, me and myself—“I am a man under authority in Jesus Christ; and I am here to give life, to bless, to give joy, to give help.”
Shelby: That’s Dave Wilson with David Mathis on FamilyLife Today. David’s book is called Humbled: Welcoming the Uncomfortable Work of God. You can get it at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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So what happened when Ann Wilson told Dave that she had lost her feelings for him? How did Dave respond? We’ll hear that story tomorrow as Dave Wilson talks, again, with David Mathis about our need for acknowledgement and the value of godly humility. That’s tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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