Sibbes sermon, “The Art of Self-Humbling” sets forth the “what”, “how” and “why” of humility: why should we humble ourselves. We should not that “humiliation” and humbling are not matters which are prized by our culture. In “Humiliation: Its Nature and Consequences” (Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online June 2010, 38 (2) 195-204) note that humiliation takes place when, ” an individual suffers humiliation when he makes a bid or claim to a certain social status, has this bid or claim fail publicly, and has it fail at the hands of another person or persons who have the status necessary to reject the claim. Finally, what is denied is not only the status claim itself, but also and more fundamentally the individual’s very status to have made such a claim at all.” The results of such humiliation are substantial: “Suffering severe humiliation has been shown empirically to plunge individuals into major depressions, suicidal states, and severe anxiety states, including ones characteristic of posttraumatic stress disorder.”
Yet, Sibbes in this sermon commends humbling oneself. How can such things be squared? How can humility be good and yet humiliation be troublesome? Before we get into Sibbes’ help on this issue, we should consider this point. The trouble of humiliation is that one claims to a social status which cannot be maintained: it is an attack upon one’s identity. The identity is predicated upon what other people think of you. When you fail to maintain your anticipated status, you feel humiliation.
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount repeatedly warns against being “seen” by others and establishing some status on the basis of what others think about you (or what you cause others to think about you). Matt. 6:1. When it comes to any sort of good work, giving alms, praying, fasting, he warns against doing such things so that others can see you and praise you. Jesus calls these people hypocrites.
Our identity is to be grounded in God’s judgment — not the judgment of others. Paul can so far as to say that no charge can be brought against God’s elect, “It is God who justifies”. Rom. 8:33. When it comes to what others think of him, Paul writes, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things which show my weakness.” 2 Cor. 11:30.
The humility of a Christian is our humility before God. We measure ourselves before God and care only of God’s judgment: that is the basis of our humility and our honor. If we are right before our king, then we are freed to disregard what other think of us.
The humility of a Christian frees one from the psychological “need” to be thought well of by others. But we must humble ourselves before God — even a king who has the greatest social status of any group:
Therefore it is not unbefitting kings to humble themselves before God, seeing they have to deal with him who is a ‘consuming fire,’ Heb. 12:29, before whom the very angels cover their faces. I say it is no shame for the greatest monarch of the earth to abase himself when he hath to do with God; yea, kings, of all other persons, ought most to humble themselves, to shew their thankfulness to God, who hath raised them from their brethren to be heads of his people. And considering the endowments which kings usually have, they are bound to humble themselves, as also in regard of the authority and power which God hath put into their hands, saying, ‘By me kings reign,’ Prov. 8:15. But usually we see, from the beginning of the world, that kings forget God. Where there is not grace above nature, there kings will not stoop to Christ; but so far as it agrees with their pleasure and will, so far shall Christ be served, and no farther.
Richard Sibbes, “The Art of Self-Humbling”, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 6 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1863), 45.