What is Humility? Dr. Gavin Ortlund

Guest: Dr. Gavin Ortlund | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Ortlund about his latest book, Humility: The Joy of Self-Forgetfulness.

Topics of conversation include:

Dr. Gavin Ortlund holds a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California, and is the author of several books, including Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (Crossway, 2020), Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy (IVP Academic, 2020), and Humility: The Joy of Self-Forgetfulness (Crossway, 2023).

Subscribe on:

Apple Podcasts


Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:19):

The ancients spoke often of virtue. The four cardinal virtues were prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. They thought that by living according to these virtues, they could live the good life. Christians have also thought a lot about virtue. What does it mean to live for Christ? How do we live for God under the cross of Christ? To these four cardinal virtues, Christians have added at least three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, and a fourth might be humility. At the core of the Christian faith is humility. Christ, we read in Philippians two, humbled themself to become God incarnate. We too must humble ourselves if we're to be saved, recognizing that the only thing we bring to salvation is the sin that made it necessary. And we're told in Scripture that we are to live humbly, because God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

Brian Arnold (01:05):

But what is humility? Why is it spoken of so infrequently? And why is it that when we speak of humility, we tend to miss the point? Well, to help us understand what true biblical humility is, today we have with us Dr. Gavin Ortlund. Dr. Ortlund holds a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai. In addition to pastoring, Dr. Ortlund is the author of many books, including Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage—which I want to mention, was our very first Faith Seeking Understanding podcast that we did—Retrieving Augustine's Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy, and earlier this year, he published Humility: The Joy of Self-Forgetfulness. Well, Dr. Ortlund, welcome back to the podcast.

Gavin Ortlund (01:51):

Hey, great to be with you, Brian.

Brian Arnold (01:52):

And we're almost at a hundred episodes, so this is great that we had you at the beginning. We maybe should have waited for the hundred—that would've been a beautiful symbol or something. So anyway, we ask our guests one big question, today that question is—what is humility? And as a pastor and theologian, obviously, you wanted to tackle this issue. This is important for us, both in the academy, and in the church as well. What led you to write this book?

Gavin Ortlund (02:17):

Well, circumstantially there was just an opportunity. But as I prayed about it, I initially wasn't...I felt too busy. I thought, I can't work this in. But as I prayed about it, I just began to see an incredible opportunity to help myself, and then hopefully some others, think about this. It just seems like such an important virtue right now. I think social media kind of changes the way we're relating to each other, and that affects the church. And I've just become convinced that a lack of humility is a huge cause for frustration, for conflict, for joylessness. And so it was really helpful for me to just think about what humility actually is. And so I hope it'll be helpful for others.

Brian Arnold (02:57):

Well, I appreciate you even bringing up social media. One of the words we hear a lot these days is "platform building." And we always need to be careful when we're in positions of leadership—especially when it touches on places like the church or the seminary—that we're always living out the humility of Christ in these places. While we're also seeking to write books, and build institutions, and see the church healthy, and all those things that we're called to do, that often can lead to pride. Remembering, as leaders in those situations, how central humility is. So I appreciate you doing that. It's a hard thing, I'm sure, as a pastor, to write the book on humility. And maybe around Christmas, I don't know, you get a lot of jabbing with the family, I don't know about that. So obviously humility is something that is a virtue. It's important for Christians. But you kind of spent some time dispelling some misconceptions about humility. You mentioned things like hiding, or self-hatred, or weakness. I was wondering if you could help us understand why people think that that's humility, and why that's a wrong approach.

Gavin Ortlund (04:00):

Yeah. And this will correspond to some of the remarks you just made, that, you know, if we could take a burden off people right here at the beginning, to help them understand that humility is not a burden. It's not this great taxing thing that will rob you of the ability to influence others, or to put your best foot forward, or to have a meaningful ministry that the Lord may bless. So we want to try to...you know, one of my goals with the book is to situate people to see—humility is a good thing that leads to joy. And so these misconceptions are related to that. I think some people think of humility as hiding. So that means that basically if you've done something good, or you're capable of doing something good, you're not allowed to talk about it <laugh>.

Gavin Ortlund (04:42):

And, you know, if you can throw a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, never tell the coach. If you can paint a beautiful painting, keep the painting hidden in the closet, this kind of thing. But that's not humility. C.S. Lewis has a great passage in Screwtape Letters where he basically says, "humility is just the absence of self-bias." So anything you...if you wouldn't do that for someone else, you wouldn't want someone else to do that, we don't need to to do that for ourselves. We can...the goal is more to rejoice in our own abilities in the same way we rejoice in someone else's. So it's the absence of self-bias in that way. And then, also, sometimes people think of humility as self-hatred. As though we're just...this kind of general negativity toward ourselves. That really isn't humility.

Gavin Ortlund (05:25):

The Golden Rule says, "love your neighbor as yourself," not "love your neighbor rather than yourself." Humility will never rob us of our dignity. It never causes us to hate ourselves. That really isn't what it is. And also, it's not weakness. This may be the big one that the world misunderstands. People think of humble people as weak, or always kind of apologizing for themselves, and so on and so forth. And I actually believe humility leads to strength. It frees us from the constricting needs of the ego. It allows us to be more relaxed. It allows us to work hard, because our attention is focused outwardly. So there's just so many wonderful fruits of humility.

Brian Arnold (06:07):

And I think you've put your finger right on the pulse of how it gets misconstrued so often in society. I mean, we've all heard those different things of somebody who's talented—oh, you know, don't talk about that, no big deal, aw shucks kind of pieces, when God's given us giftings to use and hopefully bless the body of Christ. And just to use for good in this world. That sometimes people think to do that is to rob them of humility in some ways. You mentioned, I believe, in the book about C.S. Lewis's—you'd mentioned him before—his approach to humility as, I believe, it's not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less. How is that played out, in the spirit of humility, in the life of a Christian?

Gavin Ortlund (06:58):

Well, I think, you know, it is a little bit paradoxical, because if we put so much focus upon not thinking about ourselves—that, in and of itself, can become a form of thinking about ourselves. It could, you know? So it can be kind of ironic there. So there's another passage in C.S. Lewis where he talks about that, and he says—just laugh about it. You know, basically, if you find yourself doing that too much, yeah. So we don't want to become morbidly introspective about it. But I think one of the things that helps, you know—to your question about just the practicality of this—is just in everyday life, focus on what's happening around you. Focus on externality, focus on the people around you. What are they specifically saying? What are the nuances of what they're saying? Focus even on the physical world around you.

Gavin Ortlund (07:43):

You know, a lot of people right now struggle with mental health issues—depression, anxiety. Sometimes I wonder if the amount—and social media may be a factor here again—but just the amount of self-preoccupation that can be involved with that actually causes a level of anxiety. And there can be something that's just healthy and nourishing about having an external focus. So, I don't know, it's a little paradoxical, because you don't want to be too self-preoccupied in the way you're doing that. But there is a way to do that that I think is very helpful and life-giving.

Brian Arnold (08:15):

Well, one of the great ills of our current cultural moment is expressive individualism, where it really is like a hyper-individualism. And then it's even a deeper—who am I at the core? This constant inward reflection that leads to really unhealthy things so often, where Scripture constantly calls us to look outside of ourselves. Not only to Christ, but to the needs of others. And as we're doing that and serving others, we are living more humbly, because we're thinking of ourselves less. And I think you've diagnosed a lot of what's happening in the current culture, I think, with depression, anxiety. Not that those can't be clinical and things, we're not trying to confuse those. But the amount of it today—I wonder how much of it could be helped with that. So you obviously point to Christ in this, as the ultimate paragon of humility. How does Christ really point the way forward in humility for us?

Gavin Ortlund (09:10):

Yeah, I think in Philippians two there's this great passage that speaks about the incarnation—that means God becoming a man, that's the birth of Christ—and then his death on the cross as an act of "self-emptying." It says he "humbled himself," and then it speaks of it as an act of servanthood as well. And so this is, to me, a helpful foundation to start with. To think that God became a baby. There is no more mind-boggling thought, no greater act of humility could even be possible. You know? You think of the way if an important adult, like a king or someone, gets down to play with a child. We can see that this is an act of humility, but the incarnation is the ultimate expression of that—the Lord God became a baby. And I think we always have to start there.

Gavin Ortlund (10:01):

And then just to start with the gospel, in knowing that he came because we needed a Savior. Our sin was such that he had to die on the cross for it. So when we come before God, we have to humble ourselves twice. First, because we're creatures, and we're dependent upon him at every level. Every breath is a gift. We are not self-made. And second of all, because we are reconciled sinners, if we've put our faith in Christ. And so we...you know, the humble feeling of, if you've been a traitor and you're coming back to the rightful king, apologizing and making amends—that's the kind of humility the gospel should produce in us. But what I keep wanting to emphasize throughout the book and in conversations about this, is to encourage people that there's joy on the other side of that humility.

Gavin Ortlund (10:49):

And that even as Christ had to die for us, he was willing to die for us. And so when we humble ourselves before the Lord, we can...this is not an act of just mere self-negation, or like we're just chastising ourselves. Really, it's a...you know, the feeling of it could be something like when you're a child and you're embraced by a loving parent. There's a kind of humility that comes like that. The humility of being loved. And that's what the gospel should produce in our hearts.

Brian Arnold (11:19):

You've mentioned that a couple times. I think that's a really helpful thing, because people probably think of humility as a thief of joy, because all of a sudden I can't think of myself, or something like that. But it's actually the path to joy. I would love for you to unpack that just a little bit further, even something like the mechanics of it, of how does that actually work in everyday life? Yes, in front of God, but also in the way that we are loving others, and some self-forgetfulness that happens in love and service of others that actually produces joy. And maybe even tying that back in, then, to the depression and anxiety you mentioned

Gavin Ortlund (11:56):

Yeah. This is something that I find so fun to talk about, and so helpful. And this is where humility is like oxygen. Humility is to our soul and to our mental health, what a good night's sleep is to our physical health. It's normalizing. It's healthy. It's nourishing. The reason for that is that...in the book I talk about the suffocating filter of self-referentiality. When we interpret everything in relation to us, it takes the joy out of life. There's a great passage at the very end of The Hobbit that I quote at the beginning of the book, where Bilbo and Gandalf, these two characters, are talking. And basically, Gandalf says to Bilbo, it's...basically, he's saying—it's not about you. And his words are, "you are a very small person in a very wide world." And Bilbo's response is to say, "thank goodness."

Gavin Ortlund (12:48):

And he laughs. And then they smoke their pipes together. And that's the whole end of the book right there. And that response of "thank goodness" is wonderful. It conveys a sense of the relief of humility. We don't have to be a big deal. We can just relax and be ourselves. We can accept our limitations. And what that does, is it focuses our attention on the world around us, which is endlessly fascinating and endlessly wonderful. And of course, God himself is infinitely wonderful. So the way I describe the joy of humility is—if you look up at the stars on a cloudless night, and you're just overwhelmed, you know, you're just enchanted at how big the universe is, and you almost lose track of yourself. There's a kind of joy in that experience. And humility can lead us to that joy over and over, because we're saying—the world out there around me is so interesting. That is where I want to put my focus. I'm a small person in a wide world.

Brian Arnold (13:46):

Well, and you give some really practical ways that we can implement this. I think humility can almost seem unattainable as a Christian virtue. But you've given some really precise ways that we can do this. And I'll tell you, I'd like for you to mention some of them, but the one that stuck out to me the most is to visit a cemetery. And I grew up...my backyard was about 20 feet to the wrought iron fence of the cemetery, the big cemetery in our town. And so I used to play in the cemetery. I'd run in the cemetery. In the wintertime, in the back of the cemetery was a big hill that people from the city would come and sled down. So I spent a lot of my time...now, let me just say, there was no grave markers there <laugh> as we were sledding down that section of the hill.

Brian Arnold (14:27):

But I spent a lot of time in there. And I knew where a lot of different graves were. And I knew where the child's section was, where people who had died at three or four years old. And I hadn't been back to my hometown for at least 10 years—I think it had been a little bit longer than that—and actually visited my old house and the cemetery. And it was amazing how many of those gravestones I still remember seeing as I was growing up, and how the brevity of life and numbering our days can lead to humility. What are some of the other ways that you would encourage Christians to really practice humility?

Gavin Ortlund (15:06):

Yeah, the brevity of life one is an interesting one, because this is something, when I preached through Ecclesiastes several years ago, really struck me. There's this emphasis upon the brevity of life, life is a vapor, you know, we're not eternal. And yet with that is this corresponding emphasis upon—enjoy your life. It's not like existentialism, which says, you know—your life is a vapor, therefore despair. The Bible's tilt is—your life is a vapor, so live to the full. And there's these great verses in Leviticus about enjoying your work, and eat, drink your wine with a merry heart, and eat...you know, enjoy life with the wife whom you love, and this kind of thing. And I think that really corresponds to humility. To be able to enjoy life. To enjoy even the simple pleasures of life. And that is one of the other points that I mentioned.

Gavin Ortlund (15:56):

Another one is to embrace situations of weakness, and be okay with being vulnerable. We all face this, you know. For some of us, going to the doctor is uncomfortable. For some of us, when we're parents and we have kids who are disobeying us in public <laugh>. As a dad of five kids, this happens, especially when you're the pastor and it's at church, you know. Very vulnerable, uncomfortable feeling. If you're an introvert, going to a social event—this can be vulnerable. There's all kinds of situations like this. Or maybe when you're around people who are a lot more successful than you, this can feel kind of threatening. We all have those moments where we kind of feel threatened or vulnerable. And I think humility would encourage us not to shy away from those moments, but to simply be okay with not always being the best.

Gavin Ortlund (16:42):

And simply embrace the fact. There's a great passage where, in the Narnia books, where Aslan says to one of the characters, basically—you're nobody special, and that's fine. And humility is able to say—I don't always need to be the best. I can be mediocre at something, or even not great at something, and that's okay. My identity isn't found in that. That's okay. I'm not going to shy away from that. One other quick one I'll mention is just the ability to listen. I think humility and listening go along really well. And so when we're seeking humility, one of the things we can do is really listen to the nuances of what other people are saying. Don't filter everything through our own prior experiences. This is very much what humility does. It sensitizes us to the external world around us. And that includes other people. So we're really, you know, we are going into every interaction saying, First Corinthians 13, I see through a glass darkly. I don't...I'm not infinite and I'm not omniscient. So I need to listen. I need to consider what someone else...someone else has had different experiences, different insights. I can really learn from this other person. I think humility cultivates a heart that recognizes that.

Brian Arnold (17:52):

Well, I appreciate you giving some really practical advice. Because it's one thing to tell people—be humble. Without knowing ways to cultivate that. And I think you've given a good guide. And I just want to say, I'm really grateful for your vulnerability there, to even share as men in Christian leadership with families. And, you know, we've all experienced that disobedient child, where you're supposed to have everything buttoned up and the kids are supposed to be like the Von Trapp kids or something, lined up and always walking in obedience or something. And that can be hard, and it can feel challenging in those moments. So I'm grateful for you even mentioning that. I thought this was interesting—you mentioned three different types of context for humility. Of humility in leadership, humility towards leadership, and humility among peers. I was wondering if you could explain what you mean by those?

Gavin Ortlund (18:41):

Sure. These are big topics, so I'll just touch on them briefly. But humility in leadership is really important to me, because of how much we've seen the abuse of leadership in our culture generally. And sometimes in the church, unfortunately. And I think humility is a key factor there. I think a lot of people who become bullies, or become tyrants—they didn't set out with terrible motives, but somewhere along the line, they began to be led toward that. And I think humility is a huge factor. It's really hard, when you're in a position of leadership, to be accountable and vulnerable to others. To trust others. Sometimes you can become paranoid, especially if you're being attacked. To rely upon people. To give people freedom. You know, I think I say at one point in the book—everyone in a leadership position, other people under your authority will either experience your leadership as an oppression or as a freedom.

Gavin Ortlund (19:40):

And I think humility will make the difference. So one of the practical pieces of advice I give is to try to create an atmosphere of encouragement, where the primary way we're leading is by positive encouragement rather than correction. That's a simple thing. And, you know, no brilliant insight there, but it just...practically, it's helpful to remember that. Sometimes we can forget that, and we forget the power of encouragement. So encouragement is something I talk about a great deal in the book. With regard to our peers, I talk a lot about envy in the book. I think envy is one of those really destructive sins that sometimes we don't recognize. It kind of...some sins we're more aware of, but envy sometimes we can experience without realizing it. And in the book I just work through how terrifying envy is.

Gavin Ortlund (20:27):

It really is the thief of joy, when we're constantly comparing ourselves to others. So I share an anecdote from a musical conductor who was once asked, "what's the hardest musical instrument to learn?" And he said, "second fiddle." Anybody can become the first violinist, but to be the second fiddle is the hardest, to play that supportive role. And I think it's a joyful, wonderful thing if we have the kind of heart that's open to say, "You know what? If I'm second fiddle, that's fine. I don't need to be best at everything, and I'm not going to envy those who are better than me." And then the last is humility toward leadership. And there, what I'm really trying to do, is distinguish a humility toward leadership from an uncritical, passive reception of everything that a leader might do. I don't think that's what humility is. But at the same time, a lot of pastors are discouraged, having been through the COVID season. There's been a lot of division, a lot of conflict in churches. And I think it's more important than ever to think through—how can we show humility toward our leaders? How can we have a generally supportive attitude, not being nitpicky, being kind, not complaining and grumbling about things, that kind of thing. So that's one of the ways I think humility plays out in that context.

Brian Arnold (21:51):

So we do have pastors listening to this. And obviously, as somebody who's pastored for a while, how do you cultivate, especially, humility towards leaders? Would you say it starts with your humility as a leader, through encouragement that opens up opportunities for them to respond in humility back? Does it begin with the leader?

Gavin Ortlund (22:10):

I do think the leadership must...very rarely will those following outpace the leader at humility. So if the leader of an institution is not apologizing, then it's rare to find that the general culture will be one in which there's lots of apologizing that happens. This is a great example of when humility...the way it makes a difference is the ability to apologize. This is something I found with my kids. When I...just because I'm in a position of authority over them doesn't mean I never need to apologize to my children. And I find, regularly, I'll have to stop and say—you know what? I was being too grumpy. I was making a big deal out of something. I'm sorry. Will you forgive me? And when I do that, I've discovered my kids are very happy to forgive me. But it creates a different vibe.

Gavin Ortlund (22:59):

It creates a different culture and atmosphere. And so for pastors, I would say, even though it can be so painful sometimes when people will misuse our vulnerability against us, I still think—in the appropriate ways, with wisdom—we need to wrestle with this question of—what does humility look like? Not that we all just apologize, that's one example. But just, we want to have an open heart toward others. We want to model. You know, our greatest teaching will be our model, our life. That's our greatest sermon. And so, hopefully, we will step into that more, and that will influence the entire culture of our church.

Brian Arnold (23:34):

Well, that's a great word. What other resources would you point people to? And I would just say—your book is extremely accessible, really convicting, powerful word on humility. So thank you for that. Were there some other things that you encountered? You've mentioned C.S. Lewis a couple times, just reading Lewis, maybe, can help us think through humility. But what are some other books that have been helpful for you?

Gavin Ortlund (23:56):

Lewis is always great. But I also would encourage people...some older resources that people could find online...well, and also I'll mention, there's a great book by Tim Keller called The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. It's a very short, brief—it probably costs like $6—that might be of use to people. I also think some...two older resources I'll mention. One is there's a sermon by Jonathan Edwards, and I believe that it's in the book Charity and Its Fruits. And the sermon is called "A Christian Spirit is a Humble Spirit." That is one of the most powerful sermons about this topic I've ever read. There's also a great sermon by the early Church Father Basil of Caesarea that's all about humility. I have some links to that. I talk about where you can find that within the book. People could also just google Basil of Caesarea homily "On Humility" and it'll come up. Those would be two great old resources.

Brian Arnold (24:52):

Well, those are wonderful figures in church history that we can learn a lot from. And thank you for this new work in church history now that we can benefit from as well. Appreciate your time in writing it, and spending some time with us today. Thank you.

Gavin Ortlund (25:06):

Thanks, Brian.

Outro (25:08):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about an exciting event we're hosting on the campus of Phoenix Seminary this spring, our first annual Sacred Truths Conference on February 24th and 25th. Our featured speakers will be Fred Sanders, Steve Duby, Bobby Jamieson, and myself. Our theme will focus on the core of Christianity—who is Christ, as one person with two natures, both human and divine. So I hope you'll join us, and invite anyone you know who's interested in learning more about Christian doctrine. Click the link in the show notes, or learn more and register at sacredtruths.events.

What Is Theological Triage?

When I (Brian) worked as a paramedic, we did triage in the field. Here is what I mean. We used tags in four different colors to mark the severity of a person’s injuries. A black tag was used for someone who had already deceased. A red tag was given to someone who had experienced serious trauma and was in critical condition. A yellow tag was a more significant issue. An individual marked with a yellow tag needed to get to the hospital, but the situation might not be as urgent. Green tags were for those we called the “walking wounded;” we might be able to treat and release them with a first aid kit. 

Because of that time I spent as a paramedic, the term theological triage has always resonated with me. Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Seminary, is classically given the credit for developing the theological triage metaphor. It’s a way of thinking about theology—a heuristic for students, ministers, and parishioners—that gives different weights to various levels of theological doctrine.