Pastoral Advice Worth Repeating – Part 2: Cultivate Humility

by Jordan Wilbanks March 18, 2021

Four times each academic year, I sit with every M.Div. student in Midwestern Seminary’s Timothy Track program. Together, we process the things that they are seeing and learning in the context of the local church where they are serving under a mentor. I reserve part of this time with each student to convey real-life advice from experienced pastors that is worth repeating. Over the past several years, I’ve asked scores of pastors (and other ministry leaders) about the things they wish someone had reiterated with them over and over when they were first getting started. I’ve asked them what they’d want to emphasize to a seminary student sitting in the office with them.

These conversations, combined with my own experience in ministry leadership, have yielded the content of this series. For those training for ministry leadership, we emphasize that they 1) walk with God, 2) cultivate humility, 3) learn patience, 4) invest in ministry friends, 5) plant themselves in the Word of God, 6) prepare to address and experience suffering, and 7) love and serve their current church until they die (unless God moves them). While not exhaustive, this is a list of things to practice well as they dive into ministry leadership.

In Matthew 20:20–21 and Mark 10:35–37, two of the disciples of Jesus—brothers James and John, along with their mother—make a bold request of Jesus. Well, “bold” may be a bit generous. It’s shocking and audacious, even if these two were among the closest to Jesus. They ask Jesus for the honor of each brother being seated on the right and left side of his throne in the eternal Kingdom. And they do so within earshot of the other disciples, who understandably became indignant with them (Mt. 20:24; Mk. 10:41). It’s a cringeworthy scene to read.

What makes this request from the brothers even more unbearable is when it occurs: just before Jesus—the second person of the Trinity, the perfect Son and agent of Creation, God in the flesh—humbles himself to the point of death on a cross. As he enters Jerusalem, God in the flesh is preparing to sacrifice his divine position to assume the sinners’ position under wrath in the grave. James and John angle and position themselves for a notoriety they don’t even understand even as Jesus is preparing for the greatest act of humility this world will ever see. While the Son of God goes to be stricken and scorned, to bear the wrath of God for the iniquity of us all, his friends are elbowing for personal glory.

The account makes us want to shout at them. Do you not see? Do you not understand?

One of these brothers, John, would later write within the canon of Scripture of Jesus’s washing of their feet: the inversion of personal glory-seeking. While they sought position, Jesus willingly gave up position and served. He countered the request for greatness by demonstrating greatness in God’s eyes.

It’s a helpful exercise today to step back and see the absurdity of redeemed sinners scratching and biting for notoriety or inflating themselves with pride. And blatant, self-serving pride is so distasteful anyway, isn’t it? It’s even more the tragic marvel when you view it through the lens of the cross.

So let’s stop shouting at James and John and talk about me. Let’s talk about you. We’re talking about something that’s obvious, distasteful, and obnoxious when we notice it in others. But how about some introspection? When discussing pride in others, we are often quick to voice our “concerns.” But who in our lives has the permission (from us) to voice concerns with us? How honest are we about the ways we elbow for personal glory? Are we even evaluating ourselves for subtle expressions of pride that may be going wildly unchecked? If you are training for pastoral ministry, a habit of a regular and honest assessment here is even more urgently necessary, and with the help of trusted ministry mentors and friends.

Discussions of humility and pride can often be too theoretical or general to affect real decision-making. So when I’m working with students at Midwestern, the challenge is to help them think about specific manifestations of pride, specific temptations—and targeted ways to grow in humility for the sake of godliness and ministry. These specific threats and temptations may be seedlings now, tiny roots, with nothing sprouting yet aboveground. But if they remain ignored and unconfessed, they can become deadly.

Of course, it is difficult to convey wisdom about something that plagues me so thoroughly. But for my good and your good and the good of our churches, it’s worthwhile to cultivate humility in our hearts. It’s pertinent to consider real-life expressions of our pride, for the sake of the name of Christ and for his Church.

Self-Glory: An Enemy of Christian Ministry

In Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling, he suggests that there may be “no more powerful, seductive, and deceitful temptation in ministry than self-glory.” Tripp’s sample of possible fruit which self-glory can produce is sobering: an aura of inapproachability, a chorus of “yes men” as an inner circle, defensiveness, a lack of spiritual wisdom and moral protection, characteristic blame-assigning and control-seeking, and a confusion of ambassadorship vs. kingship.[1]

How does it get to this point? How do shepherds begin resembling wolves? This is the question I encourage seminary students, or anyone considering pastoral ministry, to consider with sincere gravity. I also challenge them to rebuke the belief that “that could never be me.” The stakes are too high to ignore the prideful roots in our hearts which, if left unexposed and unconfronted, can sprout with slow and sinister ramifications at a later date. And these roots are not always obvious, especially not to others. What’s dangerous is when we like to keep it that way.

In a lot of cases, we seek self-glory in subtle ways, just under the radar. It may not be common that we make blatant requests for the seat of ultimate honor within earshot of those who know us best. But we should be on guard against seemingly humble, slight movements of our hearts and hands to position us for even negligible glory. In our charade, we are often secretly elbowing for grander glory. And often, the desire in our hearts for glory comes when we see others receiving any praise we envy. As Charles Bridges wrote, “We wish for eminence rather than for usefulness. We want to stand alone. Instead of rejoicing in the spiritual acquirements of others, we are reluctant to admire superior talents, even when they are consecrated to the cause of their Great Master. We cannot bear any thing that shines too near us, and will probably eclipse our own brightness.”[2] But how absurd we are! How can we look on Christ and then turn away to stake our own claims to personal glory?

Do we not see? Do we not understand?

For seminary students, this is particularly noteworthy. The environment of a community such as Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is unique for many. There are godly and intelligent people all over the campus, and for that we rejoice. Yet in any environment full of ministry rock stars, temptations toward pride can easily abound, and so we have to be careful. It’s helpful to ask these questions: Am I trying to prove myself in ungodly ways? Am I aiming to be known, esteemed, admired, or envied? And toward what end? Do I pride myself in being associated with someone “important” or influential? Do I have an insatiable craving to demonstrate my intellectual capacity and diverse ministry activity?

This can also take place in small churches, in your secular workplace, or in any relationship. If you’re training for pastoral ministry, let me suggest what many experienced pastors are suggesting: assess this issue regularly, and invite others into the process. It’s ok to own it, that your own battle against pride may be more severe than you realize. Engage the fight of mortifying that pride with proportional severity. In an echo of Paul Tripp’s caution, Jared Wilson says, “The proud pastor is an enemy of God. He is inviting God’s opposition and wrath.”[3] If that is indeed the reality, then our fight with our own pride needs to get real.

The Gospel: The Antidote to Pride

So what does cultivating humility actually look like? Well, it’s a proactive pursuit, but it starts with grace. Grace means proactivity on God’s part and submission on ours. The first true Christian humility comes at God’s initiative, when He opens our eyes to see our sin and our need for the salvation only Jesus Christ gives.

We never leave that reality: that each of us was so hopeless, we had to be redeemed by God Himself from our sin. And pride cannot withstand that truth. That’s why we need to hear it every hour of the day—so that our pride is cut down each day. Thus, daily reminders of the gospel are a first step to proactive cultivation of the humility God gives. Regular time in the Word and in prayer and fasting reminds us of how desperate we are for His goodness and grace in Jesus Christ.

Secondly, I mentioned above how much we need the help of trusted ministry mentors and friends. Invite others into your cultivation. Investing in such relationships is vital for growing in humility. Particularly for those called to church leadership, these relationships are the kind that save your ministry—and perhaps your marriage. And let’s just establish a good rule: you should never be the most impressive person in your life. Why even try to be? And beyond this, for your own sake, spare yourself the task of always having to appear confident, or always be intelligent, or always be free of difficulty or struggle. Someone has to have permission to kick that pedestal out from under you, dust you off, give you a hug, and take you to lunch. Someone has to have permission to talk to you in detail about your temptations and weakness. Someone has to have permission to help us see the stupidity of our sin and remind us of eternity. We all need it. So do the hard work of identifying and naming those little subtle roots of self-glory-seeking, and then pass around some hatchets and chop away.

Third, be on guard about leveraging relationships for the gaining of influence. “If I’m known by him or her, people will be impressed.” Usually that person sees right through what you’re doing, anyway. But on top of that manipulation, the real ends of that game are ugly. You’ll never be satisfied, and you’ll end up trampling people on the way to your unsatisfying heights of futility.

Let Jesus Have the Glory

Good news! Even sinners who are riddled with pride are offered the grace of Jesus. There is freedom from our slavery to sin. We need not let pride run a rampant course, but we need not dwell in shame or guilt either.

Humility is the better way, the way of a soul at peace with God through Jesus Christ. Humility is the calm assurance that the mirage of self-glory can’t come close to what Jesus gives. In our pride, we want to be known: Christ assures us that we are known by the grandest audience imaginable—God Himself. No applause or fame will ever match Him. We want to be esteemed or valued—God Himself made the ultimate sacrifice to demonstrate how valuable we are. Nothing else makes us worth more. Like James and John, we want to have position: the King of Kings, the Almighty God of all Creation has made us sons and daughters. No position affords greater privilege or honor.

But be it far from us to boast in our flesh, in our empty pursuits: let us boast only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, who alone deserves all glory. And let us boldly, quietly, humbly help others on the way to him.

[1] Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 167.

[2] Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, with An Inquiry into the Causes of its Inefficiency, 8th reset ed. (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 154.

[3] Jared Wilson, The Pastor’s Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in Your Life and Ministry, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 64.