Why is the Doctrine of the Trinity a Hill Worth Dying On?
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Why is the Doctrine of the Trinity a Hill Worth Dying On?

5 Ways to Cultivate Humility

Laugh at Yourself

There are ways to laugh at yourself that should be avoided. Humility is never self-contempt or self-shaming.

On the other hand, there is a way to laugh at yourself that is healthy and life-giving. We all do things that are preposterous. We all have quirks. We all are, in some way or another, a bit ridiculous. It’s healthy and freeing not to take ourselves too seriously and not to worry too much about whether others notice our oddities.

In Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, the horse Bree is proud and vain. He doesn’t believe that Aslan is actually a real, physical lion. He talks down to the other characters. He is overly worried about his physical appearance and whether other horses roll on their backs in Narnia. Then Aslan actually shows up and confronts him:

“Now, Bree,” he said, “you poor, proud frightened Horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast.”

“Aslan,” said Bree in a shaken voice, “I’m afraid I must be rather a fool.”

“Happy the Horse who knows that while he is still young. Or the Human either.”[1]

Aslan’s words here imply something striking: everyone is, by nature, foolish. The difference is simply whether you realize it when you’re young or old!

It might sound harsh, but it makes sense when you think about it: sin is folly, and we are all sinners. All our lives we will be unlearning foolishness and not taking ourselves too seriously. The earlier we can start, the better!

Visit a Cemetery

Have you ever walked through a cemetery and read the names and dates on the tombstones? It sounds a bit morbid, I know. But doing so offers a healthy, vivid reminder of something that we know but often forget: everybody dies. All of the tombstones represent real people who had dreams, aspirations, fears, and goals.

Some years ago, I was preaching through James and found myself deeply gripped by James 4:14: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”

Have you ever walked out on a cold night, exhaled, and noticed how long your breath lasts? According to the Bible, that is us. What a humbling thought! Regularly taking stock of our life like this is profoundly humbling. “Teach us to number our days / that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).

But strikingly, the fact that life is a vapor is not a reason to despair or to reject our existence as pointless. On the contrary, the tilt of Scripture’s outlook is like this: your life is a vapor, so enjoy it!

This is part of the emphasis of Ecclesiastes. The book humbles us under the inescapable vanity of life. “All is vanity” is the recurrent theme. Yet it also claims:

“Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot” (Eccles. 5:18).

“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do” (Eccles. 9:7).

“Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun” (Eccles. 9:9).

Understanding the ephemeral nature of our lives helps us grow in humility and embrace each moment to the hilt for the vapor that it is.

Study the Universe

This one just never gets old. I’ve given up trying to describe how absolutely tiny I am and how absolutely massive is the world God made, because the words tiny and massive seem so inadequate. But making the effort to study this is still worth it.

So if you have twelve minutes to spare, search for “If the earth was a golf ball Louie Giglio” at YouTube.com and let your mind be blown.

I absolutely love Louie’s words at 11:22: “When you see this, I don’t know what happens to you, but I will tell you what happens to me. A shrinking feeling comes over me. And it’s not a bad shrinking feeling. It’s a good shrinking feeling.”

Have you ever felt this good shrinking feeling? This feeling is part of being on the pathway of humility.

Meditate on Heavenly Worship

Whenever I find myself struggling, for whatever reason, to enter into corporate worship, I have developed a practice that helps me: remember the angels’ heavenly worship of the ascended Christ that is happening right now. Even if the song I am hearing is cheesy or my heart is sluggish, it’s rare that this thought doesn’t help my perspective.

The reality of heavenly worship is always a powerful re- minder. It has a wonderful way of putting earthly things in perspective. Consider that right now the mighty angels are bowing down in adoration, and that one day every knee will bow before the Lord Jesus. This puts both our accomplishments and our struggles in their proper context.

It’s more difficult to think too much of yourself when you remember what is currently riveting the attention of the mightiest angels.

Bathe Everything Else in Humility

The early church theologian Basil of Caesarea preached a famous homily on humility. One of its great themes is that humility is the great converse of the human fall. The fall was caused by pride and resulted in the loss of our created glory. In contrast, the return to God is caused by humility and results in our heavenly glory.

After speaking of the fall of humanity, Basil wrote, “And now his surest salvation, the healing of his wound, his way of return to his beginning, is to be humble; not to think that he can ever of himself put on the cloak of glory, but that he must seek it from God.”[2]

Basil thought of humility like a medicine to our deepest and realest need—“the healing of his wound.” This is why it is the pathway to joy. Since the essence of all sin is pride, the essence of all progress against sin must always be humility. Humility is the remedy to what is most deeply wrong with us.

Therefore, just as pride permeates our lives and affects all that we do, so should humility. Humility is more than simply one more virtue to aim at—it is to be the atmosphere and quality in which we experience all of life. Humility is not just another thing to do: it is the way we should do everything.

Thus, humility is a whole new way of approaching life: an acceptance of our status as sinful and yet loved in the gospel, and consequently a self-forgetful, unpretentious bounce in our step that lives life to the full, embracing it as a wonderful gift from God.

O Lord, teach us how to pursue true humility that honors you. Give us courage to embrace those vulnerable places where we must rely fully on you. Give us freedom to enjoy the life you have given us to the full. Give us ears to hear, eyes to see, hearts that are grateful. May everything we do be bathed in humility: toward others, the world you have made, and most of all, you.

Content taken from Humility by Gavin Ortlund, ©2023. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 299.

[2] Basil the Great, Homily 20.1, “On Humility,” http://www.lectionarycentral.com.

Photo of Gavin Ortlund
Gavin Ortlund

Gavin Ortlund (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California. He is the author of  Anselm's Pursuit of Joy and  and Retrieving Augustine's Doctrine of Creation.