The Humility of God


Pondering the greatness of God does not always fill me with awe. God made a choice to create this universe in which He is above us and we are under Him. But do I really want to live in a two-tiered universe where one part exists to reign, and the other to serve? Many Christians take this cosmic arrangement for granted, never questioning the character of God, and many people, looking at the Christian world view, rightly wonder about a God who seemingly created such a universe. Can it be that God is on an ego trip? Sometimes, perplexed with my impressions of God and His ways, I quietly recite the poem of Teresa of Avila as my prayer: “O God, I don’t love You, I don’t even want to love You, but I want to want to love You!” Sometimes, that’s all I’m left with.

At such times I turn to the Bible, seeking passages that make me want to love God again. One such passage from the life of Jesus is introduced by a statement far more significant than it seems at first sight: “He [Jesus] now showed them [His disciples] the full extent of his love” (John 13:1). What can possibly demonstrate “the full extent” of God’s love—who God is in His core? Jesus got up from the table, took off His robe, wrapped a towel around His waist, and poured water into a basin.

Then He began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel. A servant or slave usually filled this role, but this night Jesus took on the task Himself.

Jesus revealed the character of God through His life. This passage can legitimately be reread as follows: “God decided to show His creatures who God is in His core. God took off His robe, took a towel and poured water into a basin. Then God began to wash human feet and wipe them with the towel.” In order to do this, Jesus had to kneel. This is quite unlike any other god conceived in human history. Gods usually come in forms of power, enlightenment, beauty or presence, something that places them above everything human. But this God is different. He is a kneeling God. The full extent of His glory is embodied in His submission to us. I imagine when this cosmic Servant created the universe He thought to Himself: I am creating in order to serve.

That is My joy. To love it through serving it, to submit everything to its wellbeing— even My own life. I will raise the creation above Myself. We will never understand the God of the Bible until we see Him kneeling before His creation.

From a strange God came strange people. Many Christians regularly reenact this event, gathering together and washing the feet of one another. Washing another person’s feet feels strange; it’s supposed to.

Jesus often struggled to explain how this paradoxical way of the kingdom of God works within this world. He would wonder aloud, “How can I describe the kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it?” Full of counterintuitive insights, these stories of the kingdom were taught by Jesus in order to disrupt the value systems of His listeners, capture their imagination, and set them on the journey of transformation.

On one occasion, He likened the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, the smallest seed familiar to his audience, but a seed that grows into a tree that is quite stunning compared to its small beginning (see Mark 4:30-34).

As the seed laying in our palm appears small, insubstantial, almost absent, so the kingdom of God is present but hidden, real but invisible, easy to miss but impossible to stop.

In our culture, “small” has become a bad word. We are driven to increase our property, expand our education, enhance our looks or extend our influence.

By contrast, the seed is not driven at all—but it is alive, more alive than anything grand that does not have life derived from God. There is a mysterious, unstoppable force hidden within this world and humility is one its fiercest expressions.

Jesus comes to us disguised as a babe in the manger, withdrawn into the anonymity of a carpenter’s shop for 30 years, in a town at the edge of a small country subdued by an empire. And when He comes into more public life He tells His followers to hide His identity and miracles. Instead of taking over the empire, He is dragged onto a cross.

And those who followed Him found a similar fate.

But the followers who signed up with His conspiracy of overcoming evil with good and changing the world through serving, spread throughout the world.

They lived in hiding, ridiculed for their nonviolence, persecuted for their refusal to fall in line with the powers of the day, embracing the slaves, the sick, the female, the weak—serving them at the expense of their own lives, fully aware of the “weakness and foolishness” of the whole kingdom of God enterprise (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-31).

Humility is not just a nice virtue.

It is a practical approach to change, one way the kingdom of God really works in this world. That’s how God gets things done; how God changes the world. In the kingdom of God, the force of power is simply too weak an approach. Thousands of people have tried smallness and got things done in the world. Over and over again people underestimate the sheer might of subversion that comes through humility.

After washing their feet, Jesus said to them: “I no longer call you servants. . . . I have called you friends” (John 15:15).

Once you see God kneeling, you begin to understand God, you begin to want to love Him and you become God’s friend. And to be God’s friend is to become His partner in changing the world through humility.

Christians often talk about the hope we have in God, seeking to comfort ourselves with our own faith. But seeing God kneeling before us changes all this. Looking at the life of Christ, we see God placing His hope in us. God has faith. God believes in us.

Why is God not more obvious? Why don’t we see God appearing in power and glory before our eyes? Maybe He is obvious, appearing in His power and glory before us all the time. Maybe the sense of God’s absence is actually intended to tell us something, revealing a God who serves more than commands, a God who listens more than speaks, a God who visits us instead of intruding, supports us instead of dominating.

Most kings worry about their kingship, rather than their kingdom. But the God of the Bible is more interested in His kingdom becoming a community in which His creatures learn to submit to the wellbeing of one another, the same way this King submitted Himself to us. He wrapped a towel around His waist, poured water into a basin and knelt before us.

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