In our self-centered era, many people think the humble are losers and only the proud win. The Suffering Servant disagrees.
These aren’t humble times. So far, 2016 has produced as much bluster and blow as any year in memory. Not the meteorological kind, rather the political kind.
It is increasingly evident that ours is a land that no longer appreciates the humble man. In most every news report in this election cycle, humility as a value is trounced by pride, promises, and vainglory. Not the videogame Vainglory produced by Super Evil Megacorp (really, that’s the actual name of a game manufacturer); but the inordinate pride in one’s self and one’s accomplishments condemned in the Elizabethan English of the King James Version of the Bible as “vainglory” (Galatians 5:26, Philippians 2:3).
Prior to the 2008 election, a book was published that proposed “Jesus for President.” In it, the authors took a familiar concept from Charles Sheldon’s famous 1896 book “In His Steps” that first asked the question “What would Jesus do” and applied it to American politics: What would Jesus do—if he ran for president?
Probably lose. At least that would appear to be the answer in 2016.
Let’s face it: the humility platform would not prove popular today. The humility platform is not high and lifted up, it doesn’t have room for boasting. Its candidate doesn’t make empty promises. He doesn’t exalt himself, even though in the case of Jesus he rightfully could. He does nothing at the expense of others. And he’s interested in only One endorsement.
How could he possibly win here in Braggadocio?
Still, there is much the Humble One can tell the candidates—and the electorate.
A better example
Four passages in the book of Isaiah have been identified as the Servant Songs. The Ethiopian eunuch reading Scripture while sitting in a royal vehicle asked Philip, “Who is the prophet talking about?” He was reading from Isaiah:
“He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living…” (Isa 53:7-8).
“Who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” the servant to a queen asked Philip (Acts 8:34).
Definitely someone else.
He was talking about the Lord’s servant, the Suffering Servant. Jewish interpreters say the passage refers to the nation Israel, since in most of the book God speaks to Israel. But the verses describing an utterly humble servant and his sacrificial and redemptive work cannot be about a proud and unrepentant nation. They are clearly about the Messiah.
The Suffering Servant is Jesus.
In the Gospels, we see his humility in living tableau. He touches the unclean—lepers, lame, and blind people—and heals them as Isaiah predicted he would. He shows willing descent as he assumes the place of the lowest slave in the house and kneels to wash the feet of his followers. Then he stands with the condemned on the killing hill.
In Philippians, Paul sings a little song of the early church that puts Jesus’ humility into theological perspective.
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
“And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8).
Jesus’ humility was not only a matter of location but also of position. He let go of all the things God deserves in terms of dominion and stooped down to his own creation. He subjected himself to his own created beings, even though he knew beforehand they would murder him.
He never sought to justify his actions. He never came to his own defense. Neither did anyone else.
Was there ever a clearer picture of humility.
The mirror cracked
Today our concept of humility is corrupted. “Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way,” songwriter Mac Davis wrote. Even our contemporary examples become more idols than icons as our culture converts them into celebrities.
Mother Teresa is rushed to sainthood so her musky humility sharpened in Calcutta ghettos can be perfumed for the ages. Pope Francis, hailed for his (relatively) simple lifestyle chides a woman in a parade line. “Don’t be selfish!” he snapped when she pulled him away from a handicapped man he was praying over. Our selfish generation demands something more grand from those who willingly would be lowly. Humility is not fashionable; it’s barely tolerated.
Could it be that Billy Graham sitting in a rocker on the porch of his Blue Ridge mountain cabin out of the glare of the Crusade spotlight is the last example of humility in our egotistical age?
The times are louder. The boasts are prouder. And the rhetoric of its claimants is so overblown that their platforms cannot support it. If only our national leaders could learn a few lessons from the Humble One. If only our countrymen would accept from their icons true servant leadership.
A humble servant is silent
“There is a time to speak,” the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, “and a time to be silent.” The Suffering Servant is more often silent, so much so that silence has become one of his chief characteristics. When he speaks, it is to the glory of God and to the benefit of others; it is rarely if ever on his own behalf.
The word picture drawn by Isaiah is of a lamb about to be slaughtered. The lamb knows something is coming, from its perspective something bad. And yet he offers not a bleat in protest. If silence is consent, then the lamb is offering his tacit acceptance. Likewise, Christ before his accusers offers no defense of himself. His defense could rightly be that he is God and has done all to the glory of his Father. But he keeps his rebuttal to himself and leans in to his mission with the same humble spirit that has characterized his whole life on earth. The day of his exaltation will come, but there before Pilate, Herod, and the Jewish supreme court, it’s still about three days away.
Andrew Murray says, “Humility is perfect quietness of heart.” In this way, a humble servant stands in stark contrast to the leading figures of our time who exhibit little quietude.
In his little book Humility, Murray describes the inner working of this outward silence: “It is to expect nothing, to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feel nothing done against me. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me, and when I am blamed or despised. It is to have a blessed home in the Lord, where I can go in and shut the door, and kneel to my Father in secret, and am at peace as in a deep sea of calmness, when all around and above is trouble.”
Oh, how we need that room, that door, that peace.
He is not vain
Isaiah’s prophetic description of the Messiah says there was nothing particularly attractive about him. Even before he was “marred,” “pierced” and “crushed” at Golgotha, the Servant was a plain man with “no beauty” and a king with “no majesty.” He is not a pretty flaxen-haired Jesus as painted in Sallman’s Head of Christ over grandma’s mantelpiece.
Our generation has bought the Kardashian concept of beauty that requires everyone in the public eye to be “carved out of cream cheese.” By this standard, Abraham Lincoln couldn’t get elected to office today. He was tall enough, but homely people don’t win elections. Nor would Cleveland, Taft, or Teddy Roosevelt. Too fat, bald, or bespectacled.
Appearance is not only about outward beauty. There is the vanity of money, stature, power, and position. The desire for reputation is a form of the vanity of fame. The proud person is concerned about the opinion others have of him. “Pride must die in you,” Murray warned, “or nothing of heaven can live in you.”
This is the dying to self Jesus called for, the laying down of his life.
“Men sometimes speak as if humility and meekness would rob us of what is noble and bold and manlike,” Murray said. The humble are rarely exalted in our times, nor do they win elections. But a wise generation doesn’t judge on outward appearances. To the extent it is possible they follow God’s standard when he sent Samuel to anoint lowly shepherd boy David to replace the high but corrupted Saul: He looked on the heart.
And what does he see there?
As a “man of sorrows,” the Suffering Servant is serious about serious things. Oh, sure, he can be great fun, but he is also sober minded. Jesus enjoys a good time in good company (remember the wedding at Cana), but he handles serious subject matter with the gravity deserved. He is “acquainted with grief.” One charged with so great a task as carrying our sorrows to the cross surely feels them deeply.
The same must be true of those who claim him as Lord: “Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).
“Humility, the place of entire dependence on God, is the first duty and the highest virtue of the creature, and the root of every virtue. And so pride, or the loss of this humility, is the root of every sin and evil,” Murray said.
For those who follow in the way of Christ, there is an inverse relationship between vanity and a quiet spirit. “Pride must die in you,” Murray warned, “or nothing of heaven can live in you.”
He serves needs over wants
The word “populist” has returned to the American vocabulary, driven largely by the large crowds showing up at campaign rallies. By definition, a populist candidate is concerned with the interests of common people. He seeks the involvement of ordinary folks in the political process and welcomes into the discourse issues drawn from ordinary lives. But by recent example, populism involves stirring up the desires of the people, then promising to fulfill them whether they are right (and righteous) or not.
A humble servant may be populist by its original definition. He is concerned about the people, but he doesn’t play to the crowd as is the current practice. At times the crowds were with Jesus; at times they were against him; but Jesus never played to the crowds. He never healed to curry favor. He did not feed the 5,000 to increase his poll numbers.
A humble servant doesn’t dispense treats to get public approval. Or health benefits or government subsidies or campaign promises. He accepts the hard job and does the hard work to its completion, even if that causes everyone to turn away.
The challenge for Americans today is to show some maturity by supporting a leader who will do what the nation needs, not necessarily what the people want. That may sound paternalistic, but isn’t God’s kingdom paternalistic? The Father is always doing what is best for his children, even when they don’t understand it or like it.
He lives with the end in mind
A humble servant may live and work from a lower position, but that somehow gives him a higher perspective. Isaiah’s picture of the Suffering Servant is paradoxical: he is lowly but he will be exalted; he is oppressed, yet he is the strong arm of the Lord; he is wounded for the sake of our healing. And there’s this paradox concerning “the will of the Lord”—
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand (Isaiah 53:10).
It was the will of God that the Suffering Servant be crushed, yet the will of God only prospers when this is done. Crushing and prospering would seem to be opposites. One destroys while the other creates. One shrinks and the other grows. One is an ending, but the other is unending.
And in all of this the humble Servant knows there is a higher purpose than his momentary affliction. The purpose in his dying is to make possible our living—forever. His offering is our ransom. His ending is our beginning. In it all he does not object, because the Servant knows that his grief will become our source of joy and our salvation.
There, between the Lord’s will that the Servant be crushed and the prospering of the Lord’s will in the Servant’s hand is the great promise: this lowly Servant will have offspring. That’s us, his children, his followers, his redeemed.
Isaiah, 700 years before hand, describes the centerpoint of history, the cross, where the crushing intent of the Lord’s will is met by the prosperous outcome of the Lord’s will in the salvation and multiplication of his progeny. This is only possible because the lowly Servant is willing to submit to the Lord’s will that he die and that he rise again, that we believing may be born again to new life.
Rising from that moment in history is the way for all who will follow the Suffering Servant. “Here is the path to the higher life: down, lower down!” Murray said. “Just as water always seeks and fills the lowest place, so the moment God finds men abased and empty, His glory and power flow in to exalt and to bless.”
Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist