Reflections on Humility, Power and God’s Presence

"God's Spirit finds its richest expression among the broken and lowly—reviving the humble, uplifting the downtrodden, and illuminating the extraordinary in the ordinary." by Dr. Craig S. Keener

God has often chosen to pour out his Spirit especially among the broken and the lowly in the eyes of the world. The Welsh Revival began among miners; a revival soon afterward broke out at Pandita Ramabai’s orphanage in India; the evangelical student movement in Nigeria flourished in the wake of the tragic Biafra war; and some of the most explosive Christian growth today is taking place among the global poor and in regions where Christians face persecution. From the beginning, the Salvation Army has experienced God’s presence and work among the needy of the world.

This is what we would expect from Scripture, where again and again God reminds us that He is near the lowly but far from the proud. Though enthroned on high, God looks to the needy and the desperate (Ps 113:5-9).

  • Prov. 11:2: Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.
  • Prov. 15:25: The LORD tears down the house of the proud, but he protects the property of widows.
  • Prov. 16:19: Better to live humbly with the poor than to share plunder with the proud.
  • Is. 2:11: Human pride will be brought down, and human arrogance will be humbled. Only the LORD will be exalted on that day of judgment.
  • Is. 66:2b: “… I will bless those who have humble and contrite hearts, who tremble at my word.”
  • Luke 1:52: He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble.
  • James 4:6, 10: And he gives grace generously. As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble …” Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.
  • 1 Pet. 5:5-6b: … And all of you, dress yourselves in humility as you relate to one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time He will lift you up in honor.

Jesus warns that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Matt 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14). And Jesus Himself illustrated this principle in His own life, consistent with His divine heart. 

Instead of cultivating inoffensive relationships with the respected elites, He spoke truth to them while pursuing the socially marginal, the disabled and those most in need. Such a trajectory could inevitably lead only to the cross, especially once He challenged members of the elite who flaunted their status and exploited the needy (Mark 12:38-40). Jesus deliberately chose Galilean nobodies rather than the socially prominent and respected as His disciples. 

Yet as the disciples anticipated an imminent kingdom with themselves on top, they themselves began to adopt the attitudes of the elite. In the book of Mark, when they debated which of them was the greatest, Jesus chose a child as an example and explained that whoever wants to be first will be last of all. When they wanted to keep children from distracting Him, He had to remind them again that children were what the kingdom was about. Indeed, in the following verses, children’s ready access to the kingdom contrasts starkly with a wealthy person’s lack of access; many of the last will be first, and the first, last.

When two of Jesus’ chief disciples, James and John, then request the greatest roles in the kingdom, their colleagues grow angry—presumably because they wanted those roles for themselves. Jesus warns James and John that exaltation in the kingdom belongs to those who suffer for it, and then offers a lesson to all His disciples. The world’s models of power and importance are its dictators. Jesus calls His followers to a different model: “But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else” (Mark 10:43-44).

Jesus then offers Himself as the ultimate example: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Scripture foretold that the Son of Man would rule all nations forever, and Jesus had already spoken of the Son of Man’s authority. But Jesus took the role of a servant to the ultimate extent: “the Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Even as His own disciples were jockeying for power, Jesus kept reminding them of His mission to die.

Paul seems familiar with Jesus’ teaching about this. In Philippians, he noted that though Jesus was in the form of God, He did not take advantage of His equality with God. Instead, He poured Himself out, adopting the form of a slave, and humbling Himself even to the point of death—indeed, the shameful torture of a Roman cross. People expected a Messiah to crush Rome; the Son of Man instead identified with His people’s experience of oppression and let Rome crush Him, trusting His Father to exalt Him afterward. God then exalted the humblest of all with a name above every name, so that everyone should confess Jesus as the divine Lord.

Paul surely internalized this lesson himself. He discusses in 2 Corinthians his boastful rivals’ complaints that he was all talk but never carried out his warnings of discipline. He explains that what his critics consider weakness is the meekness and gentleness of Christ, probably referring to Jesus’ own self-description later recorded in Matthew 11:29: “I am gentle and humble in heart” (NIV). The Lord of glory entered Jerusalem “humble and riding on a donkey.” Crucified in weakness, Christ was raised by God’s power. Paul’s rivals boasted in themselves, but Paul recognized that we may boast only in the Lord. “You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Corinthians 4:5). Paul kept reminding the Corinthians themselves that most of them were nobodies that God had blessed in Christ. In the final analysis, we cannot boast, because everything we have is a gift. Instead, we celebrate God’s gifts with gratitude, and share freely as we have received. 

The Asbury Outpouring of February 2023 began when the student gospel choir sang an extra song, and then kept singing. The chapel preacher that day felt that his sermon had fallen flat. No one planned the outpouring and no one could take credit for it. Indeed, to avoid quenching the Spirit whose presence was so evident there, the leadership remained nameless during the outpouring. God’s holy presence had become manifest in a special way, and those of us who were present could only honor Him. And some of us, who were busy trying to do everything we could for the kingdom, had to embrace afresh that everything depends on God Himself. In His presence, no flesh may boast.

When we truly fear the Lord in all His majesty, it puts our own roles in perspective. What is humility? Humility stems from knowing who God is. Let the one who boasts boast in Him alone.

Illustration by Janie Hao