The God Who Kneels – Day 15

Humility & Humiliation

“You shall never wash my feet.”

                                 John 13:8


The kneeling Master said “yes” to the disciple. The seated disciple said “no” to Jesus. Peter felt his “no” was for his Master’s own good. He sought to rescue Jesus from this unwarranted humiliation and defend his self-respect. The out-spoken, impetuous disciple had not yet grasped the redemptive trajectory leading to the cross. He failed to embrace the humility of God.

In the upper room there is tension between humility and humiliation. These two realities are as opposite as good and evil. Humility is a spiritual discipline rooted in the cross. It is an intentional commitment of the will in relationship to God and others. It is a chosen and cultivated quality of character that matures and deepens with our experience of Christ. Humility is a surrender of our will to the commands of God. The apostle’s exhortation, “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus,” calls for an intentional and resolute self-emptying (Philippians 2:5).

Humiliation is the feeling of shame, inadequacy, and disappointment that comes from our sinful self-reliance. Humility is the chosen awareness of our needy dependence on the mercy and wisdom of God. Humiliation involves trusting in ourselves; humility involves trusting in God. Humiliation rejects God; humility bows before God. Humiliation leads to discouragement, disorientation and despair; humility leads to hope. Humiliation thrives on self-promotion; humility frees us from the pressure to make a name for ourselves. Humiliation is our enemy, we feel it in our soul; but humility is our friend, whether we know it or not. For there is no other way to deal with humiliation, than through humility.

The clash between humility and humiliation in the upper room continues today in the defensive posture of believers who seek to rescue the gospel from the Jesus way. Jesus, first on his knees and then on the cross, disorients the well-meaning Christian who consumes Jesus as a spiritual additive. We don’t understand the redemptive strategy that intends to turn our world upside down. We bargained for a saved soul, not a transformed life. When we came to Christ, we didn’t count on Jesus’ kingdom priorities. We thought “the first will be last and the last first” was a nice slogan, not a reality that would change our world. We never intended to make the poor and needy our priority, nor did we expect to reach out to the outcast and the outsider. We thought our goal was to climb the ladder of Christian success, but in the upper room we learn that Jesus has a different agenda in mind.

The exchange between Jesus and Peter is reflected today in our resistance to the foot-washing mission of the church. We are fine with the doctrine of the cross. Cognitive explanations and conceptual descriptions are satisfying. But the redemptive trajectory of the cross worked out in our personal lives is often confusing and messy. We like the idea of vision-casting excitement and entrepreneurial church growth, but the daily grind of cross-bearing is another matter. The Christian faith is not a set of good ideas. It is the truth that redeems and revolutionizes. When you are undergoing chemo therapy or your spouse walks out on you the gospel becomes what it has been all along, a matter of life and death.

Like Peter, we sit in judgment on the Jesus way. We look down on the Lord Jesus who is on his knees washing our feet. Honestly, we think that we know how to run the Christian life better than Jesus. Success-minded Christian leaders defend their self-help strategies in a manner reminiscent of Peter’s defense of the Messiah. Peter’s preconceived notion of a nationalistic messiah runs counter to the truth of the Suffering Servant and the Lamb of God. Moving from a political messiah to the crucified and risen Savior of the world was difficult for Peter, just as moving from our misguided messianic notions may be difficult for us.

Following WWII Helmet Thielicke was a pastor in Hamburg, Germany. His ministry and preaching were influenced by the well-known 19th century London preacher Charles Spurgeon. Thielicke was impressed by Spurgeon’s rejection of “high-minded Christian pragmatism.” He wrote:  “It was not the aim of [Spurgeon’s] preaching to show people that their life would be easier if they accepted the gospel; that it would solve their problems; that their civilization would perish without Christianity; that the state and society need religion; that the Christian social ethic is absolutely indispensable; that the world order needs Christian foundations; that all the misery of modern man comes from secularism; that if our world is to endure there must be a renascence of the Christian West, and so on.”[1]

Thielicke argued that Spurgeon was not trying to sell society on a practical religious plan. His aim was to bring people to the foot of the cross. The gospel is all about salvation through the cross of Christ. In the upper room Peter fixated on his worldly logic. What little he understood of the redemptive trajectory, that span from foot-washing to crucifixion, he found humiliating, not humbling. He couldn’t get his head and heart around the Logos logic, that humility that led to God’s gracious redemptive provision. If we find the God who kneels humiliating rather than humbling, we will always end up catering to our wish dreams. Jesus didn’t get down on his knees to make life easier for people or to take back America or save Western civilization. He got down on his knees to show us the redemptive love of God. Worldly logic will always clash with Logos logic. It always has and it always will.



Upper Room Reflection

How do you distinguish between humility and humiliation?

If humility is grounded in the humility of God how does that change you?

What political and nationalistic expectations should Christians develop?

Have you ever experienced the clash between worldly logic and Logos logic?


[1] Helmut Thielicke, Encounter with Spurgeon (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1963), 42.