The Humility of God
By Bob Luhn
Humble service is an essential characteristic of God and Jesus repeatedly manifested it in the life, teaching, and sacrificial death. Humble service should inform our own leadership.
As I grew up attending church with my family every time the church doors were open, I developed a concept of God that focused primarily upon God’s majesty, power, justice, sovereign control, and righteous anger. God was big. A Being to be feared and served, not a God to be loved and with whom to relate. There are many commands in Scripture to bow down before God; to worship God in fear and trembling; to acknowledge God as King of kings and Lord of Lords; to exalt God’s name on high; to understand God as All-Mighty and All-Powerful and All-Sufficient. It almost led me to think God was egotistical, to believe God would never share glory with any other creature. God was “God Most High.”
When I was 18 years old, I encountered in a very real way the God who is love (1 John 4:8). My understanding of God began shifting at that time, a shift that continues to this very day. One of the theologians who has been very helpful in this ongoing shift of understanding has been Thomas Jay Oord. His writings on the uncontrolling, non-coercive love of God have been instrumental in helping me embrace the God who is loving, compassionate, caring, serving, self-effacing, and yes, humble.
Recently I was reading Genesis 2:18 where it is written, “The Lord God said,” It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” At that point in the story, Adam had not been alone. He had been placed in the garden, a place of perfection, by God. He was given a task to “work it and take care of it.” (Gen.2:15) He was in communication with God and in partnership with God. There were no barriers of sin or selfishness to disrupt fellowship. Surely, this would be ideal, the man and his God in perfect harmony. And the Almighty, All-Sufficient One would be everything the man needed. But for the first time in the salvation story, God says something is not good. It wasn’t good enough for the man to enjoy unblemished fellowship with God. The All-Sufficient One was not enough. The man needed someone other than God.
To me this speaks of an inherent humility within God’s self. God does not keep Adam all to God’s self. Rather, there is the humble love admitting that a person needs something more, that people need other people. Men and women need loving partners and friends, and parents need children and children need loving parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins and playmates. An essential humility says, “I am not enough.”
This humility is seen most clearly when God became one of us. The birth of Jesus was a remarkably humble affair. Oh yes, there was an angelic choir announcing the birth, but only a handful of humble shepherds saw and heard the choir. And when they got to Bethlehem, what they found was a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes like every other baby born before and since. For a bassinet, there was a simple manger quite possibly carved out of stone that would need hay or straw to soften the hardness. A stable is certainly a humble place for God to make an appearance on Earth.
From Bethlehem came the flight to Egypt, during which the Son of God was a refugee fleeing violence in his home country. Eventually returning but this time to Nazareth (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” John 1:46), Jesus grew up in obscurity and became a “blue-collar” worker, a carpenter. We might think this humble beginning was just an accident of history except that humility was a trademark of Jesus. He said things like, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart….” (Matthew 11:29). When dealing with disciples jockeying for position, Jesus shared revolutionary teachings on servant leadership that have found fresh emphasis in my own lifetime. Jesus turned leadership completely upside down in Mark 10:42-45. While the leadership style of the world is primarily authoritarian, controlling, dominating, and one of “power over” others, leadership in the Kingdom follows the loving leadership style of God; it is not “lording it over” anyone or exercising “authority over” others.
The followers of Jesus, too, were called to servant leadership, to putting others first, to meeting others’ needs. And who was the example of this servant leadership? None other than the Son of Man, who “did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” Once again, we see a humility that was essential to Jesus’s being and way of living.
In the last week of Jesus’s earthly life, we see this very servant leadership modeled. “He got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel….” (John 13:4-5). Although Jesus was worthy of being served, he acted in accordance with God’s true nature and took the servant’s role and performed the servant’s function. And of course, from there Jesus went to the cross where he became the “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Humble service was not just an act with God. It is an essential characteristic of God’s self and was manifested repeatedly in the life, teaching, and sacrificial death of Jesus.
In 1998, my wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This progressive neurological disorder has very gradually robbed my wife of coordination, balance, speech and other cognitive functions. She is today dealing with terrible hallucinations and paranoia. She was very creative: painting, doing fine needlework and made some gorgeous banners exalting God that are still in use today. She developed a Women’s’ Christmas Tea that blessed hundreds in our community. She worked as a school secretary, a job she absolutely loved. She raised our three beautiful daughters who have become loving wives, mothers, and much-valued employees. Parkinson’s has robbed her of all of that. She cannot do anything that she did before.
Her disease caused us to have to live a completely different life. I had to pick up the load she had carried so capably for all our earlier years of marriage. I cannot do it as well as she did; my learning curve is steep! But, in this lifestyle change, I have entered a graduate school of servanthood. And it just may be that God has revealed more of God’s essential humility to me than through any other means. It is humbling to get on my hands and knees to put on my wife’s shoes and socks. It is humbling to burn a meal or singe the clothing because the iron is too hot. I am learning what it means to be a servant to someone who doesn’t always appreciate it because she is confused or frightened at that moment.
I have also noticed a new tenderness in my heart towards her and others who are struggling with less ability. Patience is growing. And maybe, just maybe, a little more Christlikeness is being worked into my life. It isn’t easy. I don’t always have a good attitude. Some days I want to run away. But I have been placed into this school of servant leadership. And here is where I encounter our humble God who is with me on the floor as I gently put on shoes and socks.
Bob Luhn retired in 2014 after 34 years of pastoring his beloved Othello, WA, Church of the Nazarene. Since then he has served as interim pastor in a variety Nazarene churches in eastern Washington, northern Idaho and northeastern Oregon. Bob and his wife Kathy have three daughters, three great sons-in-law, and seven grandchildren.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.