Humility and Greatness

Some human achievements are unquestionably great. Whether it be academic achievement, professional advancement, or skillful parenting, certain accomplishments merit the designation great. But we are mistaken if we think that the humble person is the one who refuses to recognize the greatness of his achievements.

Consider the ancient Assyrians, an unfathomably wicked people who conquered most of the Ancient Near East seven centuries before Christ. God refers to them as “the rod of my anger” (Is 10.5), the very ones whom Providence would use to discipline his erring children–an amazing thought in itself. The fierce Assyrian armies carried out many great and terrifying exploits. They “seized loot and snatched plunder” (10.6), “put an end to many nations” (10.7), and “seized kingdoms that excelled Jerusalem and Samaria” (10.10). But their depraved hearts regarded their great accomplishments as if their greatness was intrinsic, not borrowed–as if they were the ultimate cause of their achievements, not the penultimate.

And this was precisely the heart of the Assyrians’ arrogance: “By the strength of my hand I have done this, and by my wisdom, because I have understanding, I removed the boundaries of nations, I plundered their treasures; like a mighty one I subdued their kings” (10.13). But the Lord affirms that the Assyrians are no more the author of their greatness than an ax or a saw is the architect of its use (10.15).

Furthermore, the Assyrians were completely oblivious to God’s greater purposes in using them. God sent them for one purpose: to be the instrument of Israel’s discipline (10.6). But “this is not what [the Assyrians] intended” (10.7). The Assyrians saw their greatness as an end in itself; God intended the Assyrians’ greatness to be a means of demonstrating his own unique greatness.

Humility then is not the denial that an achievement is great. It does not merely take an “Aw shucks, it was nothing” posture. (We all have been guilty of saying words to that effect while harboring arrogance in our hearts.) Humility does not consist in the rejection of the achievement, but rather in the recognition of the Achiever.

Today might be a day of great accomplishment for you. You may design a fresh and exciting layout for your client. You may close a monumental business deal. You may wisely and lovingly parent your children. But the source of whatever greatness you achieve today is not within–it is without. And the purpose of that greatness is not to show your worth–it is to show the worth of the Giver. The truly great thing is that the Truly Great One uses truly small things for the glory of his name.

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