And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Why is humility central to the Christian vision of leadership? In today’s text, Peter finishes his instructions to early followers of Jesus who were in leadership roles. His teaching is crystal clear: everyone – inexperienced and veteran leaders alike – must embrace humility as the essential quality that defines his or her leadership. But, why is this so?
The last part of our text for today proposes one answer. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humility aligns us with God’s purpose in the world. The biblical revelation suggests that God has a preference for humility over hubris in leadership. Modern studies in leadership would seem to agree. Jim Collins, in his book, Good to Great, found that top companies had leaders that exhibited the “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” So humility is a useful trait for leadership, but is that all there is to it?
I would suggest that a deeper explanation for the centrality of humility in leadership lies in the nature of God. Christians have understood that God exists in relationship – that he is Trinity. And, central to that understanding is that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist in mutuality with one another – that there is a mutual love, deference and humility towards the other. So, humility is ultimately about mutuality, which is at the heart of the character and nature of God.
I find this insight helpful since it distinguishes genuine Christian humility from mere humiliation. Humility may require suffering and sacrifice, but it is never merely one sided. Or, to say it slightly differently, the purpose of humility is to enact mutual flourishing, the common good, and “the way things were meant to be”. Humility doesn’t value sacrifice and suffering for its own sake. Nor does it merely focus on the beneficiary of those actions. Humility sees the larger good of the whole. Humility acts for the sake of restoring and enhancing the mutual relationship.
Let me give you an illustration of how that might play out in practice. Renegotiating a strategic business relationship when business circumstances change is always difficult. Usually there are forces at work – technological changes, new competitive alternatives – that shift the basis on which the business relationship was originally constructed. In my experience, it is easy to react either with excessive pride (“they need us so we should take advantage of the situation”) or false humility that borders on desperation (“we’ll do anything to keep the relationship in tact”). It is much more difficult to do the hard work of learning and discerning what is possible under the new circumstance and how to create a renewed, healthy equilibrium in the relationship. Sacrifices may have to be made, but not just for their own sake and not merely to benefit one party. Maintaining the larger perspective of what would enhance the mutual business relationship creates the most helpful context for moving forward. In a fallen world, there is no guarantee that the relationship can be restored to what it was before. Nevertheless, the chances of a long-term relationship are increased by focusing on the mutuality of the relationship in a spirit of genuine humility that seeks the good of the other as well as our own good.
There’s much more that can be said on the subject of humility in leadership. An excellent book that I would recommend is Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love and Leadership by John Dickson (Zondervan, 2009). Another resource is a recent collection of reflections on humility by Fuller Seminary: https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/humility/
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Why do you think humility is so important to the Apostle Peter?
In what ways are humility and humiliation different?
How does humility contribute to human flourishing? What are some examples of that in your experience?
Lord Jesus Christ, we are thankful that you, for the sake of the joy set before you endured the cross, disregarding its shame. (Hebrews 12:2) We are grateful for the suffering and sacrifice you embraced that made possible our restored relationship with you, with one another and with the world you have created. It is unimaginable to us that you would humble yourself and become obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)
Help us to adopt your vision of leadership as lead servants. Help us to live with the radical humility you embodied.
For your glory and for the sake of those whom you’ve entrusted into our care. Amen.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online Bible commentary: 1 Peter 5.
Image Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_(Andrei_Rublev)#/media/File:Angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410.jpg