Humility in the Problem of Sin

by Contributor Will Brooks

At the heart of Christianity is humility—it is written in 1 Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.” In the evidential Problem of Sin, that is the amount of sin, suffering, and death in the world despite the Christian claim that God is both good and sovereign. We shall examine two perspectives on opposite poles: one often taken up by skeptics and the other by Christians. The former presumes duty and the latter presume grace. The difference at the heart of these views is how one approaches God: do we lift ourselves above Him or do we prostrate ourselves before Him. The objective of this article is not strictly apologetic—to defend one view over the other. Rather, I hope to highlight these differences and to examine why humility is crucial in the Problem of Sin from a Christian perspective.

Dr. Sam Harris provides an example demonstrating this notion of duty on God in eliminating pain and suffering from this world. His critique proceeds thusly: “Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.” The end of his argument is that a sovereign omnipotent God must be evil were he to exist since it would be evil to allow these catastrophes to occur. This claim implies two interconnected assumptions: that it is God’s duty to save humanity from sin and death because humanity is innocent or at least not worthy of such punishment (it should also be noticed this type of view makes God’s love irrelevant since any saving on God’s part is merely obligation).

On the other hand, Christianity is built on the reality that humanity is guilty. Adam and Eve chose to have knowledge of good and evil. We chose to rule this earth without God. The chaos seen today is because Adam and Eve and the rest of humanity since have chosen to live apart from God. In the Christian worldview, we do not assign blame to God for suffering and death nor do we believe He has an obligation to save. He saves out of lovingkindness despite His fallen vice-regent—humanity—that has dragged down the subservient created order so that it groans in the pangs of childbirth in a time of rebellion.

The two contrasting stances before God mentioned herein are a result of antithetical worldviews laden with ever diverging assumptions. At the core of this disagreement lies humility to which now we will consider from the Christian tradition. We shall first examine humility in general, and then to the humility and exaltation motif in Scripture, proceeding from there to Christ as exemplar, and finally to how these motifs impact a Christian’s thinking on the Problem of Sin.

Humility before God is so essential to the Christian faith that Jesus promised in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” Augustine himself in Letter 18, a letter written concerning the way to truth wrote this:

In that way [to truth] the first part is humility; the second, humility, the third, humility: and this I would continue to repeat as often as you might ask direction ; not that there are no other instructions which may be given, but because, unless humility precede, accompany, and follow every good action which we perform, being at once the object which we keep before our eyes, the support to which we cling, and the monitor by which we are restrained, any good work on which we are congratulating ourselves is wholly wrested from our hand by pride.”

Augustine, in Letter 18

Augustine declares that the way to truth—to God—is in humility. We see this theme throughout Scripture. Isaiah 66:2 God declares in wondrous contrast, that “All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” God, the one who called everything into being from nothing, looks not to the great, but to the humble, to those who tremble at his word.

We shall now move to the humility and exaltation motif in Scripture by briefly examining the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-56. The context behind this passage is that Mary has been told that she is to bear Jesus the incarnate Son of God—a reality that has been confirmed by a remarkable interaction at her cousin Elizabeth’s house. In response to this Mary sings, “my spirit rejoices in God my savior for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant” because “he who is mighty has done great things for me.” The “great things” she refers to are that she was chosen to bear Jesus despite her humble estate. She who was nothing in the eyes of the world will from now on be called blessed.

Mary understood however, that her own experience of humiliation to exaltation was nothing to be compared to the realization of all God’s promises in Jesus for she declared, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” What a remarkable and mysterious God, humbling those who exalt themselves, and exalting those who humble themselves.

And it is to Jesus to whom we shall now look. Paul declares in Philippians 2:1-11 that Jesus in His incarnation and death is the exemplar of humility to us and that we should mirror that humility. It is written in verse six that Jesus “though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” This means that Jesus, though he is the exact imprint of God’s nature, though he is equal with God, did not hold onto the rights and privileges that His Divinity afforded Him. Instead he “took the form of a servant.” He took the form of a creature, of humanity, not acquiring a throne and palace from which to garner praise and honor—indeed the Divine Son of God had no place to lay his head. Instead he “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” And it is to this example that Paul exhorts his readers to heed to in verse five, writing, “Have this mind among yourselves.”

Thus far we have seen the stark contrast of views between Christians and skeptics on the nature of the Problem of Sin and a good and sovereign God. We have seen that at the root there is a humility in the Christian towards God. We have also noted how necessary humility is in the Christian life, that it is in fact the humble and contrite to whom the Kingdom of God will come. We have also seen the motif of humility and exaltation in Mary’s life and that this is how God works throughout Scripture—exalting the humble. We also beheld the ultimate example of humility in the incarnation and cross of Christ and that Paul exhorts us to have this same mindset. Finally, we will tie all these threads together and apply them to the Problem of Sin by looking at 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

Paul writes to Corinth because of divisions within the Church. These divisions are the result of certain of sections of the Church exalting their choice leaders whether it be Paul, Peter, or Apollos. Some within the Church seem to even question Paul’s apostleship for various reasons among them that he came “not with words of eloquent wisdom” but “in weakness and in fear and trembling.” Paul did this however for a very particular reason. He wanted them to know the power of the Cross and to thwart the wisdom of men.

In verse eighteen Paul writes to this very effect, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’” Paul emphasizes the contrast between the folly of the Cross and the wisdom in verses 20a-21, saying “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” The Greeks were known for their wisdom. Today academics and layperson alike still marvel at the intellectual genius of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Yet Paul declares that all this wisdom did not lead to God. The Cross of Christ led to God. This appears to be utter foolishness to Jew and Greek alike. It might be tempting here to interpolate the faith versus reason debate so common to modern thinking. This would be a mistake, however. Paul is not condemning reason, instead he condemns the view that the wisdom of men leads to God.

Paul continues his argument and declares a reason that God chose the cross as the path to God. This reason is found in verses 27-29:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

God chose the foolishness of the Cross to shame the wise. He chose the weak to shame the strong. He chose the lowly. All so that no human might boast in the presence of God, so that no human might declare that by his own merit or wisdom he came to God. God spoke through the prophet Isaiah that He looks to the humble and contrite. Augustine knew the way to truth was through humility. Mary recognized she was of humble estate. Paul knew that all this was accomplished through the Cross so that no human being might boast.

How does all this help the Christian better understand the Problem of Sin? First, it shows us the cause for sin and death. God has allowed the City of Man to create the world after their own fallen image. It has led to human trafficking, sexual immorality, violence, disease, heartache, and total rebellion against God. Second, we have seen the importance of humility for the City of God, that it is a necessary component to a child of God. Third, it shows the true sovereign over the universe, has established the City of God defeating sin and the resulting corruption through the Cross. Finally, He has done it through the Cross in order to humble the self-exalted City of Man and to exalt the humbled City of God. He has done it to end all boasting except in Jesus our Lord.

The Cross is God’s answer to the corruption we created. Many did not like this answer in the 1st century, and many do not like it in the 21st century. But humiliation and submission will never be popular. We want to believe that if we were only given more knowledge, more power, more this, more that, we would succeed and end pain and suffering, but the world we have created is evidence enough of the emptiness of that hope. The Cross of Christ is God’s answer and it is a humbling one, but that is the point. May we by God’s grace humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God that at Christ’s return we might be exalted and boast in our Lord and savior.

Learn more about Will on our contributors page.

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