January 27, 2019 | “Psalms of Ascents: Service” • Psalm 123

Scripture Reading • Psalm 123 (NIV)

I lift up my eyes to you,
    to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
    as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
    till he shows us his mercy.

Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
    for we have endured no end of contempt.
We have endured no end
    of ridicule from the arrogant,
    of contempt from the proud.


In response to questions about guiding essentials of the Christian faith, John Calvin one of the most influential ancestors of our Presbyterian tradition, quoted Augustine, another influential Christian thinker. “If you ask me about the precepts of the Christian religion, I will answer that the first is humility, and second, and the third” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, loc. 1191).




Humility is a core piece of a disciples’ character. Humility is also something that can easily lend itself to misunderstanding. 

Often when we think of humility, we think of humiliation and embarrassing moments that make us feel foolish and ridiculous. 

Christian humility isn’t about embarrassment.

Sometimes we think of humility as belittling ourselves … maybe we don’t miss an opportunity to say something about how we aren’t good enough or worthwhile.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis imagines a series of letters between Screwtape, a senior demon/tempter and Wormwood, a rookie demon. At one point in the book Screwtape gives Wormwood advice on how to warp a Christian’s understanding of humility. 

You must conceal from the patient the true end of humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely a low opinion) of his own talents and character … fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be … By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly, and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible” (Readings for Meditation and Reflection, p. 41).

Christian humility isn’t about disparaging ourselves.

Sometimes we think of humility as letting other people walk over us … we don’t really get to do what we want … we never offer our perspectives to conversations … we never take opportunities to share our gifts and talents with our families and communities … maybe after a while we feel like everyone is walking over us … 

Christian humility isn’t about being doormats.

I would argue that faulty understandings of humility actually work against core convictions of our Christian faith. Humility isn’t about shame and embarrassment … In Christ God offers us dignity and worth. Humility isn’t about bashing ourselves … humility isn’t about an inward self-focus … its not about focusing on how unworthy we are. Sure, in Christ God offers us grace we can’t earn and don’t deserve … but God doesn’t hold grace over our heads. God’s grace frees us from guilt and shame. God’s grace disrupts human pecking orders and social ladders … God’s grace puts us on level ground. In Christ we are reminded that we have been created in God’s image and we are valuable to God, so valuable that God sent Jesus to remind us who we are, whose we are, and to reclaim us. In Christ we are God’s children … in Christ we are God’s beloved. Christian humility should have something to do with living in response to God’s goodness and love … it should be shaped by the conviction that Jesus is God’s good news to us … Christian humility shouldn’t be something that traps us or makes us feel guilty or ashamed … Christian humility should be life-giving and freeing.

Psalm 123 can give us a picture of what true … God-inspired humility can look like.

The central images of the Psalm have to do with servants looking up to their masters … the Psalmist repeats the word “eyes” four times and wants us to pay attention to where those eyes are directed – 

I lift up my eyes to you,
    to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
    as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
    till he shows us his mercy.

The psalmist is looking up to God … as servants depended on his or her master for all the things they need to live, the psalmist depends on God. The psalmist looks up to God … with hope and assurance that God is oriented toward him with mercy … I think this makes more sense when we keep in mind how later in the prayer, the psalmist mentions enduring ridicule and contempt from the arrogant and proud. There seems to be a contrast here. God’s orientation toward his people is shaped by mercy. (We could also translate that Hebrew word as favor.) While these people are experiencing, life sucking ridicule and contempt from the people around them. God is the source of mercy and the psalmist looks to God for what he needs.

Humility seems to be something more like an orientation than an opinion. 

Christian humility has to do with how we relate to God and to each other … our eyes are looking up to God … and we are side by side with the people around us … Like Screwtape said, humility is something like self-forgetfulness … we aren’t constantly thinking about ourselves … we aren’t arranging people into hierarchies and ranking where we fit … we get caught up in loving God and loving our neighbors.

Yes, humility is a significant piece of the Christian life. 

How do we develop humility? 

Humility is a difficult thing to measure. A number of wise people are quick to point out humility  is a virtue that when we think we have it, “Hey I am really humble,” we have lost it. 

In his classic book about spiritual disciplines, Richard Foster writes, “Of all the … Spiritual Disciplines, service is the most conductive to the growth of humility” (p. 130) This makes sense, Jesus, the one we have committed ourselves to following revealed God’s love and character through service … taking time for people no one else paid much attention to … feeding hungry crowds … washing his disciples feet. That foot washing scene especially gives us a powerful picture of what Christian service and humility looks like. 

We read it in John 13 –

2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him …

12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 

17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

When we serve we are living in a proper orientation … we are looking to Jesus as our Lord, the giver of mercy … the one who reveals that God is favorably oriented toward us … we are living in obedience … following Christ’s example … and we are looking at the people around us as people,  just like us, who we can share the goodness and care we have received from God with.

There are so many forms service can take in our lives – helpfulness, hospitality, listening, just being courteous (there are days when it means a lot when someone simply holds the door for us … at least there was one door in the world that didn’t slam in our faces) … one spiritual writer I read this week even suggested that a powerful expression of service can be not gossiping and protecting other people’s reputations.

When we serve we experience self-forgetfulness, we orient ourselves more closely to God and to our neighbor … we share God’s goodness and love with the world around us … we move toward humility … and we grow as disciples in Christ-likeness.