“You know how I feel about fuss and folderol. Lord knows the job itself is reward enough.”

—Barney Fife

How does Christian humility play itself out practically in our lives?  In Luke 14, Jesus gives two examples of how humility ought to direct believers—first, how to view themselves (verses 7–10), and second, how they ought to treat others (verses 12–14). Jesus wraps both examples around the same maxim of humility found in Luke 14 and 18, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (14:11; 18:14).

Jesus had been invited to dine at a prominent Pharisee’s home on the Sabbath. The invitation was a sort of credentialing process. The Pharisees wanted to see if Jesus would break their oral traditions of Sabbath keeping. True to form, Jesus does good on the Sabbath. He heals a man suffering from dropsy, a form of painful swelling, to their apparent disapproval (Luke 14:2–4). Luke then records that Jesus told this parable, “when he noticed how they chose the places of honor” for themselves (Luke 14:7). Jesus tells them that when invited to a wedding, not to invite yourself to the head table. Do not give yourself honor.

Think about the last wedding you attended as a guest. Imagine if, as the bridal party is announced, you infiltrated into the procession and then forthwith sat yourself next to the bride and groom, even though they were just your third cousins twice removed. The acute embarrassment that would follow would prevent most people from doing such a thing. Jesus is using hyperbole here to describe the way many people do this type of thing all the time, though in more subtle ways.

At work, people strive to get face time with the boss. At family functions, people ask questions of relatives expecting them to reciprocate and give an opportunity to talk about themselves and their achievements. In church, people desperately want to be in the inner circle of those considered most spiritual. To accomplish that they sometimes intrude into others’ affairs uninvited so that they may give unsolicited advice or even public prayer—all in the interest of showing themselves as the most spiritual and caring.

People may put themselves forward rather than trusting God to promote them in His season. This kind of behavior is almost always a failure to remember the gospel.

These are all examples of “inviting oneself up” before it is time. People may put themselves forward rather than trusting God to promote them in His season. This kind of behavior is almost always a failure to remember the gospel. Only God’s opinion really matters, and He has said that in Christ, believers are the apple of his eye. Christians cannot become more beloved than they already are. But they often forget this, and look to their careers or reputations to bring them worth. They invite themselves up before it is time. 

When I was a senior in college, I was preparing to be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army after four years of R.O.T.C. Somehow I got it in my head that the Army could learn a lot from me. In my vast four years as a cadet, I had seen a lot of things I disliked and was sure I could address. On the way to lunch one day, I asked a wise professor who was a retired Air Force general about it. I will never forget how gently he answered me, “First, learn to do your job as a young platoon leader as best you can. That’s it. Then, maybe, after a few years, you might have something to say.” I was an arrogant, 22-year-old, green-behind-the-ears college kid. My professor was too kind to say it that way, but his lesson was spot on: do not invite yourself up before it is time.

As I entered pastoral ministry, I continued to struggle with wanting to invite myself up. At conferences, I would hope to be noticed and maybe some year to speak. At presbytery (my regional assembly of elders), I wanted to be considered an influential and wise person. Despite my laziness in making any real effort, I wished to be known as a wise writer and contributor across the Internet. I wanted to invite myself up without putting in the years and tears of real pastoral work in the obscurity that properly marks the normal, successful pastor.

At the same time, I did know this parable in Luke 14 and tried to let it influence the way I advanced my career, to let God confirm in His time that He had called me to be a pastor. I determined never to invite myself to preach anywhere, nor even to let it be known that I was willing, so as not to invite myself up to the “bridal table” of my vocation, the pulpit. So, when invitations did come, I was more certain it was of the Lord rather than my own ambition.

One of the most masterful treatments of these principles found in Luke 14 is C. S. Lewis’s 1944 lecture, The Inner Ring. Lewis describes the danger of living for human acceptance, particularly by those in the “inner ring” of one’s chosen field of interest. When people live for such circles, sooner or later they will start cutting ethical corners in order to be accepted. But it does not have to be that way. Lewis concludes,

The quest of the Inner Ring will break your heart unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it.

So humble folks work not to advance themselves or weave their way into some elite group of experts. Instead they work as to the Lord and not unto men (Colossians 3:23).

Now, does all this mean that people cannot apply for new positions, or hang certificates on the wall, or put together an excellent, truthful resume? Of course not. These are all solicited, and thus they are the opposite of inviting oneself up to the bridal table. When hiring folks, I want to know what is best about them as well as any liabilities. When I go to the doctor, I rather like to see his or her medical degree hanging prominently on the wall before they diagnose me. After all, a person cannot practice law and help others unless they first study hard and earn that degree, hopefully giving God the thanks and glory each step of the way. That is not ego; that is service. That is taking up our cross daily and following Jesus in the way of death. 

Humility, thus, helps believers accomplish what is needed because God calls them to it, all to His glory—no matter how big or small the job. Christians’ only ambition should be to live quietly, to mind their own affairs, and to work with their hands, just as Paul commanded (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:11–12). Believers pursue excellence in their work simply because it is the right thing to do, regardless of whether it advances their own name or not. 

The Duke of Wellington reportedly wrote to William Wilberforce, the English evangelical member of Parliament who led the fight against the British slave trade, “You have made me so entirely forget you are a great man by seeming to forget it yourself in all our intercourse.” Wilberforce simply had more important things to do than worry about his public image. So too, when properly focused, believers simply do what is needed; what is assigned. That is what humility looks like.

Excerpted from Rediscovering Humility © 2018 by Christopher A. Hutchinson. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission. To purchase this and other helpful resources, please visit newgrowthpress.com