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Self-centeredness is humanity’s biggest problem, whether it takes the form of pride or a poor self-image. Self-centeredness was the root of all sin and it still is today. It motivated Satan to exalt himself (Isa. 14:13-14) and Adam and Eve to eat fruit God clearly told them not to eat (Gen. 3:6).
If we examine any sin, ultimately we’ll find it’s motivated by self-centeredness. We sin because we believe the sinful act will benefit us, make us feel better about ourselves, or accomplish something we want.
Humility as the Antidote
The antidote to self-centeredness also is its opposite: humility. Biblical humility is not self-hatred or a poor self-image. Rather, it’s an appropriate assessment of our God-given attributes and abilities.
Jesus said, “whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4, NIV). Humble people aren’t preoccupied with themselves, so they focus less on their own needs, interests, thoughts, feelings and desires. That kind of person is the greatest in God’s kingdom, which makes humility the most important character trait for us to develop; even more important than love, as we’re about to discover.
The apostle Paul wrote that we should do “nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Humility causes us to consider ourselves relatively unimportant compared with others. James wrote, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13).
God expects us to humble ourselves. As we learn to do that, we discover how self-centered we are and how incapable we are of doing what he commanded. That’s important, because we’re to put our hope in God, not our own efforts. So we must be faithful and persevere in our efforts to renew our minds and change the way we think, then anticipate God’s power in us changing our nature. Only God can change us, but he requires our cooperation.
How can we develop humility? We’re to “clothe” ourselves with it (Col. 3:12; 1 Pet. 5:5). That means it isn’t an inherent trait for us, so we need to put it on, to choose to think humbly. We simply must change the way we think, which isn’t something God does for us or that happens automatically.
Humility First, then Authentic Love
We understand the importance of developing love, but we fail to realize that humility is a prerequisite.
The New Testament Greek word for the highest form of love is agape. Agape causes us to consider others’ welfare, needs, interests and desires more important than our own. It motivates us to act for other people’s benefit, regardless of personal impact. It might even result in personal sacrifice for someone else’s good.
Agape is not proud, therefore it requires humility (1 Cor. 13:4). Humility forces us to step down from our pedestal of self-importance, which we must do before we can elevate others in love. This means before we can express authentic agape, we must be making progress in developing humility.
We can’t even love God properly without first developing humility. Otherwise, self-centeredness causes us to “love” God for what he does for us. This seems to be how many, if not most, Christians love him.
What we often call the “golden rule” states we should do to others what we would have them do to us (Matt. 7:12). This clearly requires agape. But we can’t stop there, because Jesus said we should even express agape for our enemies; that is, those who hate us or are hostile toward us (Matt. 5:44). Hold on, because he set an even higher standard for the way we treat other believers. We must love them the same way Jesus loved us (John 13:34; 15:12). That requires a willingness to do whatever is necessary to help other Christians; even make the ultimate sacrifice.
Self-centeredness at least limits our ability to love others. More likely, we “love” them for what they do for us and how they make us feel. In reality, that’s self-centeredness; love for ourselves, not for them. This is a primary reason marriages fail. Each person initially “loves” what the other does for them, but then “falls out of love” when their spouse stops making them happy. True humility would solve those problems.
Repentance – changing the way we think – is absolutely essential to developing humility and then other godly traits such as love for others.
The two most important godly character traits for us to develop are humility and agape love, in that order.