“Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Winston Churchill is reputed to have said of Clement Attlee, the post-war British Prime Minister, that he was “a modest man, who has much to be modest about.” This was not, of course, intended to be taken as a compliment. Churchill was suggesting not that Attlee had many significant abilities and achievements about which he could be modest, but rather that his abilities and achievements were of such insignificance that modesty was the only appropriate response.
This typically amusing Churchillian put-down hints at what it means to be humble like a child – and this is something rather different from what we adults tend to think of as humility.
For adults, humility generally entails us playing down our abilities and achievements, and setting aside any advantages associated with our position and power. It is, if you like, behaving as if we did not have these things.
Let’s be honest, humility such as this is not something that we see very often in little children. In part this is because they are too young to realise the necessity for humility, or even truly to understand what humility is. More to the point, however, is the fact that there is little or nothing in their lives that they are able to play down or set aside, even if they wanted to; for their abilities are limited, their achievements are small, they have no position or power. To mimic Churchill’s comment about Attlee, they are humble and they have much to be humble about.
As such, the humility of a little child is not so much an attitude of mind as a state of being, a fundamental part of whom and what they are. Indeed, the word “humble” can literally mean “not rising far from the ground”, which is a perfect way to describe these “little ones”, whose size dictates a very real physical humility: small, and powerless and weak.
In their letters, both Paul and Peter exhort the early believers to “clothe yourselves with humility.” This phrase is suggestive of what it means for adults to be humble: it is something that we “put on” – at best, from a desire not to “show off” what we are and what we have: at worst, simply to cover over our pride.
In contrast, childlike humility is not so much a “putting on” as a “putting off”; a giving up of our desire to have and our desire to be; a giving up, even, of what we have and what we are. To be truly humble like a child is to have few possessions, a lowly position, little power.
For this was the way taken by Jesus. His humility entailed an actual, physical change in his circumstances, a very real “coming down”. His was the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendour of God. He had everything, yet he made himself nothing; he chose freely to give it all up, to let it all go. He set aside his divinity to take on our humanity. Leaving his eternal home with his Father in heaven, he came to live a life here on earth: a life of service and of obedience and ultimately of death on a cross.
And he came as a helpless baby, totally dependent upon his human parents for protection and provision, for all that he needed to survive and to grow. We are so familiar with this story that we seldom feel any shock at the idea of Almighty God making himself so vulnerable; we can hardly envisage things happening any other way. And yet Jesus could just as easily have appeared on earth as a fully grown man, ready to embark upon his adult ministry. Instead, he chose to share the full extent of our humanity and to show the endless depths of his humility, by becoming a little child.
Such an understanding of humility could have a profound effect on how we live out our faith. Many Christians and many churches desire to do something “significant” for God – and, of course, this is in many ways a laudable aim. But what this can translate to in practice is a desire to become significant ourselves: to gain more prominence and to increase our influence – not, of course, for our own sakes (perish the thought!), but rather that we might be better equipped to “impact” the world for God.
Now there is no doubt that there are individuals and churches that are called upon by God to take on such “significant” roles: to be high-profile, to be influential, to be “successful” – and far be it from me to call into question the reality of any such calling. I would, however, question whether this is the path that God wants most of us to take. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul tells us about the type of person that God chooses and uses to fulfil his purposes. And rarely is it those whom the world would consider to be wise or influential or important; rather, it’s the foolish and the weak and the lowly and the despised. He chooses “the things that are not … so that none may boast before him.”
What a telling phrase this is. We want to be “something”, yet God chooses those who are “nothing”. We fondly believe that the more we bring to God, the more he will be able to use us. But God doesn’t need us to bring him anything; indeed, it seems he would almost prefer it if we didn’t. For he is the One who delights in creating something out of nothing; who in the beginning spoke into the darkness and brought forth the heavens and the earth. How much more, then, is he able to produce whatever he desires from the “nothingness” of our lives. As others have said, the only ability that God requires of us is availability.
Speaking to his disciples of his impending death, Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Fruitfulness and abundance, it seems, must come through humility and death: first and foremost through the death of Jesus, then through each of us dying to our own selfish ambitions and desires. Just as a seed is literally humbled in falling to the ground and entering the soil, so we in humbling ourselves come into that place from which true growth and increase will come. And throughout history there have been countless men and women of faith – the vast majority known only to God – who have done just this, and whose lives of humble service have been the channels through which God has touched and transformed the lives of individuals, families, communities, countries, even the whole world.
The kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom, a topsy-turvy kingdom: where the first are last, and the last are first; where the one who rules is like the one who serves; where those who seem to be weaker are indispensable; where those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted; where the greatest is a little child. If we truly desire to “make a difference for God” and see his kingdom come, then we need to do things God’s way and not the world’s way. There is no need for us to try and ape its attitudes or mimic its methods. Nor do we need to compete with the world in order to try to prove God’s power, with an attitude of “Anything you can do, He can do better.” Rather, we need to learn to walk the way of “insignificance”, seeking to be “nothing” rather than desiring to be “something”, learning to love and serve in gentleness and humility. If we are willing to do this then God himself will take care of any “significance” in what we do. After all, in the seeming insignificance and failure of his earthly life and death, Jesus achieved something of the greatest significance for all humanity, whose effect will be felt throughout all eternity.
 Matthew 18:4
 1 Peter 5:5; Colossians 3:12
 1 Chronicles 29:11
 Philippians 2:5–8
 1 Corinthians 1:26–29
 John 12:24
 Mark 9:35
 Luke 22:26
 1 Corinthians 12:22
 Matthew 23:12
 Matthew 18:4