Summary: Jesus teaches us three things about humility: it starts at the bottom, it grows out of gratitude, and it is an act of faith.
“Oh, it’s hard to be humble . . .!”
Have you ever heard that little tune, “Oh, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re prefect in every way?” It’s a little tune I remember from growing up. And I read a couple of stories this week that sort of illustrate this song very well.
The first was about Henry Augustus Rowland. He was once a professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University, and was once called as an expert witness at a trial. During cross-examination a lawyer demanded, “What are your qualifications as an expert witness in this case?” The normally modest and retiring professor replied quietly, “I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion.” Later a friend well acquainted with Rowland’s disposition expressed surprise at the professor’s uncharacteristic answer. Rowland answered, “Well, what did you expect me to do? I was under oath!”
Here’s another. George Washington Carver, the scientist who developed hundreds of useful products from the peanut: “When I was young, I said to God, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the universe.’ But God answered, ‘That knowledge is reserved for me alone.’ So I said, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the peanut.’ Then God said, ‘Well, George, that’s more nearly your size.’ And he told me.”
“My heart is not lifted up”
Humility is the message of Psalm 131 and it tells us what humility is and is not. First it tells us two things that humility is not. Both have to do with how we think of ourselves. The first thing is pretty obvious. In verse one it says “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” Here it tells us to avoid prideful and arrogant thoughts (“my heart [mind] is not lifted up”) and that the psalmist has avoided destructive behaviour that comes from pride (“My eyes are not raised too high”). And when the psalmist says that he doesn’t “occupy” himself with “things too great and too marvelous for me,” most understand these great and marvelous things to be the self-centred and arrogant pursuits that the psalmist rightly avoided.
Psalm 131 warns us against the sin of pride. And we can also think of the sin of pride as the sin of wanting to be our own gods—as Eugene Peterson says, “It is the oldest sin in the book, the one that got Adam thrown out of the garden.” The psalmist gives us an image of what a humble person does not do and that is this: we are called not to think too much of ourselves.
“Like a weaned child”
The second thing we find in verse two. This one’s a little less obvious. Here we have a serene image of a child with its mother. It’s a beautiful image. But notice that it makes a point of saying that the child is weaned. It does this twice: “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.” What is the difference between a child that is not weaned from a child that is? And what does that have to do with humility?
At this point, our daughter Ella is getting closer and closer to being weaned. She only nurses in the morning when she wakes up. But even then if Alisha doesn’t respond right away, Ella gets very upset. Her cry sounds desperate and insecure, as if she’s afraid she’ll not get what she wants. But we are to be like weaned children. This is the image that Psalm 131 is using to describe humility. But how does this image of a weaned child serve as an example of humility?
It corrects any notion that being humble means being an insecure person who lets people walk all over them. We’re called here not to be an insecure infant clinging to God but mature disciples of Jesus Christ. William Temple said that “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts.” Being a humble Christian is not the same thing as being a doormat Christian.
Charles Swindoll says that “Genuinely humble people who have a desire to seek the well-being of others are generally very secure people.” C.S. Lewis says this: “a really humble man . . . he will not be thinking of himself at all.” It is this kind of person we hear speaking in Psalm 131. It is a person who has “calmed and quieted” their soul before God. We’re called to be secure and mature. If pride is thinking too much of ourselves, then the point here in verse two is not to think too little of ourselves.