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James shows the importance of humility in the first chapter of his letter:
9 But let the brother of humble circumstances glory in his high position; 10 and let the rich man glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind, and withers the grass; and its flower falls off, and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.
This really has to do with our self-image and how we view ourselves in relation to God and man. It is easy to be humble before God, but the real test of humility is where we position ourselves in relation to our fellow men.
In verse 9, James summarizes all the teaching about our exalted position in Christ, and then he immediately contrasts it with our equality among men. Though he does not go into detail, his teaching is consistent with the rest of the apostles and prophets. Paul, for instance, writes in Eph. 2:4-6,
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus.
Like James, when Paul speaks of our exalted position in Christ, he reminds us of our reason for humility in verses 8 and 9,
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, 9 not as a result of works, that no one should boast.
Those who have been beaten down tend to think too low of themselves, not because of genuine humility, but because of an inferiority complex. There is a big difference between humility and low self-esteem, but not many truly understand the difference. Humility is a byproduct of grace; an inferiority complex--like pride--is a byproduct of works. Grace teaches us that we have received something that we really did not deserve by our work or effort, but rather by the work of Jesus Christ.
Works deserve payment. Some work in order to become God's creditor. Others work in order to pay off their debt to God and His law. In either case, such people are striving to do something that Jesus Christ has already done, as if His work on the cross was insufficient. Religion often gives people an inferiority complex, telling them that they have to be perfect in order to be saved. Those who believe such religious teachings are then enslaved their entire life, as the religion dangles the reward in front of them while they struggle against their own human nature.
Such people can spend their entire life time attempting to perfect the old Adamic man, instead of living according to the New Creation Man that he is. It is impossible to perfect that man of sin within us. The old man will never inherit the kingdom of God, for he has already been sentenced to death. That court case was decided long before we were born. We must identify with our new Father, who is Jesus Christ, for the New Man is His offspring. The New Man cannot sin, because he was begotten of God (1 John 3:9).
This New Man is the one who has been exalted to the throne with Christ Himself. He has the character of Jesus and the humility necessary to rule the world with love and equal justice for all.
When men do not understand this, they are caught up in trying to make the old man spiritual, some by doing good deeds, others by fasting and prayer. There is nothing wrong with any of these things in themselves. The problem lies in one's purpose. Years ago I thought that fasting was the best way to achieve spirituality, and I went on countless 3-day fasts, week-long fasts, ten-day fasts, and so on up to 21-day fasts. While I did obtain positive results, I found that in the end I was no more spiritual than before, and I still had to deal with the old man as Paul did in Romans 7. My New Man grew in strength and the old man was put down for a season, but in the long term, I realized that I could never find perfection in this manner.
In other words, I had thought that fasting could kill the old man once and for all, and then I would attain spirituality. I was wrong, because my underlying assumption was that the old man's death made him spiritual. I was still identifying with that old man, thinking that was the real me. But my spirituality depended on the New Man, not the condition of the old man per se.
There are many spiritual people who are also quite carnal, because both their old man and New Man are strong. For this reason, they can preach by the Spirit in the pulpit and even do great miracles, but yet out of the pulpit they succumb to much carnal behavior. Men wonder how this can be, not understanding that there are two men that reside in them, as Paul tells us so clearly. This is also the reason why Pentecost has a first fruits offering that is mixed--wheat baked with leaven (Lev. 23:17).
Some try to be spiritual by denying the existence of the old man. While it is certainly true that we ought to reckon the old man dead, to assume his non-existence can easily result in spiritual pride. Men loudly proclaim their perfection, thinking that they can eradicate the old man by ignoring him and by convincing themselves of his non-existence. It does not work that way. Ignoring the old man only blinds us while he grows in strength. The old man's existence does not depend upon our recognition or our will.
True humility is based upon an understanding of things as they really are. True humility is a result of knowing the deceptive nature of the old man and his leaven that yet resides in us, even though we reckon him dead. On the other hand, this does not mean we ought to have an inferiority complex. We ought to know the authority of the New Creation Man at least as well as we understand the nature of the old man. If we do not have this balance, we may appear humble, but in fact, we will struggle continually with feelings of inferiority. It is vital that we know the difference and find the path to true humility.
For further study on this topic, you may read chapter 11 of my book on Romans, Vol. 1. It is the chapter entitled, "Living by the Christ Identity."
So James recognizes that those of the lower classes enjoy an exalted position in Christ, while the rich and powerful should appreciate God's ways that are designed to bring him the grace of humility. Remember that we ourselves are in training for the throne. Understand how God trained Joseph and David for the throne. Both were trained through hardship. Both learned faith in God through difficult circumstances. Both wrestled with the old man. Both learned humility, which served them well during their time on the throne.
Paul says that "the saints will judge the world" (1 Cor. 6:2). But everyone's exaltation will be according to their level of humility. Jesus said in Luke 14:11,
11 For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.
Jesus said again in Matt. 20:26-28,
26 ... whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.
Jesus is our example of humility.