the shape of leadership

Two Questions to Cultivate a Spirit of Humility

A humble heart is self-aware

The longer I lead, the more challenged I am by the need for humility. A friend once told me, “Pride builds monuments, but humility builds ministry.” Scripture certainly affirms this: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).

Author John Dickson noted that in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, the word “humble” means “low,” as in “low to the ground.” Used in a negative way, humble means “to be put low,” or “to be humiliated.” It implies conquering or putting to shame. That’s how the leaders in Jesus’ day often viewed humility.

But Dickson further observed that when humble is used in a positive way, it means “to lower yourself.” When Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, no one was humiliating Him. He was making a noble choice to lower himself — to humble himself — in service to others.

So, how do we cultivate a spirit of humility? What can we practically do to resist the constant lure of pride and let humility run deep? I’m not suggesting we can find the answer in a single article, but I do believe there are two questions we can ask as a simple starting point.

These questions are like a litmus test to keep us centered. Asking them before we make a big decision or take a certain action will help us lean in the direction of humility.

1. Who will be magnified? The answer to this question reveals who will get the most attention as a result of our decisions and actions.

In his book, Good Leaders Ask Great Questions, John Maxwell tells the story of a practice at the height of the Roman Empire. He said that when certain generals received honor with a procession throughout the city, a slave would sit in the general’s chariot as the entire city cheered for the general.

What was the slave’s role? He would hold a laurel wreath over the general’s head to signify his victory, and he would whisper in the general’s ear, “Remember, you are only a man.”

In life, leadership and ministry, we will experience victories. There will be wonderful times of celebration when we see breakthroughs, achieve great success and accomplish big goals. The question is, who will receive more glory: you or God?

When praise comes to you, deflect — and redirect — it to the Lord.

Never forget that you are only a man or woman. There is a God, and you are not Him. Maintaining a healthy and humble perspective in the midst of victory is vital. Choose to be a deflector. When praise comes to you, deflect — and redirect — it to the Lord.

2. What is my motive? This second question gets to the why behind the what. The motive that drives your decisions and actions may not be evident to everyone, but God knows. In fact, God weighs the motives of the heart. Proverbs 16:2 says, “All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.” He knows you better than you know yourself.

The challenge we have with motives is being truly honest with ourselves. We have a tendency to lie to ourselves without even realizing it. We convince ourselves that glorifying God is the sole reason behind what we are doing when, in fact, it may be nothing more than a desire for self-recognition.

We must evaluate ourselves by honestly answering questions like these:

  1. Why do I want the church I lead to grow?
  2. Why do I want to write that book?
  3. Why do I want to speak at conferences?
  4. Why do I want to start that ministry or plant that church?

Is there anything wrong with these things? Of course not. Growing a church, writing books, speaking at conferences, starting new ministries, and launching new churches can change lives for eternity and glorify God.

Nevertheless, there’s a difference between an action and a motive. The right action combined with the wrong motive equals the wrong pursuit. Pure motives purify the pursuit. Impure motives corrupt the pursuit.

The problem is, most of us are blind to our motives. As a result, we blindly pursue activities that may be out of step with God’s will for our lives.

Wrestle with your motives and submit them to the Lord. Resist false assumptions that because the action is good, the motive must automatically be good as well.

Who will be magnified? What is my motive? Both questions will help you take steps toward a spirit of humility. Because these are often blind spots, it may be best to ask these questions with a mature and trusted spiritual leader.

Choose someone who has permission to ask you the hard questions, to push back and to dig deep. Then, as you discover the real answers to these questions, have the courage to do what’s right.

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