The Art of Self-Humbling

Taken, adapted and condensed from, “Josiah’s Reformation, Laid Open in Four Sermons”
Sermon II, Published in 1637,
Written by Richard Sibbes.


“Because thine heart was tender, and thou didst humble thyself before God, when thou heard his words against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, and humblest thyself before me, and didst rend thy clothes, and weep before me….”—2 Chron. 34:27.

Tenderness of heart and humbling a man’s self go both together…

…for things that are hard will not yield nor bow. A great iron bar will not bow, a hard stony heart will not yield. Now, therefore, humbling of ourselves, the making of us as low as the ground itself, is added unto tenderness; for the soul being once tender and melting, is fit to be humbled, yea, cares not how low it be abased, so mercy may follow.

‘Thou didst humble thyself.’ He was both the agent and the patient, the worker and the object of his work: it came from him, and ended in him. Humiliation is a reflected action: Josiah humbled himself. And certainly this is that true humiliation, the humbling of ourselves; for it is no thanks for a man to be humbled by God, as Pharaoh was; for God can humble and pull down the proudest that do oppose his church. God by this gets himself glory. But here is the glory of a Christian, that he hath got grace from God to humble himself; which humbling is, from our own judgment, and upon discerning of good grounds, to bring our affections to stoop unto God; to humble ourselves. Many are humbled that are not humble; many are cast down that have proud hearts still, as Pharaoh had. It is said, ‘Thou humblest thyself.’ Then we learn,

The actions of grace are reflected actions. They begin from a man’s self, and end in a man’s self; yet we must not exclude the Spirit of God; for he doth not say, thou from thyself didst humble thyself, but ‘thou didst humble thyself.’ We have grace from God to humble ourselves. So that the Spirit of God doth work upon us as upon fit subjects, in which grace doth work. Though such works be the works of God, yet they are said to be ours, because God doth work them in us and by us. We are said to humble ourselves, because we are temples wherein he works, seeing he uses the parts of our soul, as the understanding, the will, and the affections, in the work. Therefore it is foolish for the papists to say, good works be our own, as from ourselves. No; good works, say we, are ours, as effects of the Spirit in us.

And true humiliation is of spiritual respects, when we judge aright how base and vile we are in regard of our natural corruption, that we are by nature not only guilty of Adam’s sin, but that we have, besides that, wrapt ourselves in a thousand more guilts by our sinful course of life, and that we have nothing of our own, no, not power to do the least good thing. When we look upon any vile person, we may see our own image. So that if God had not been gracious unto us, we should have been as bad as they. In a word, inward conviction of our natural frailty and misery, in regard of the filthy and foul stain of sin in our nature and actions, and of the many guilts of spiritual and temporal plagues in this life and that which is to come, is that inward humiliation in the judgment or understanding.

Again, Inward humiliation, besides spiritual conviction, is when there are affections of humiliation. And what be those? Shame, sorrow, fear, and such like penal afflictive affections. For, upon a right conviction of the understanding, the soul comes to be stricken with shame that we are in such a case as we are; especially when we consider God’s goodness to us, and our dealing with him. This will breed shame and abasement, as it did in Daniel. Shame and sorrow ever follow sin, first or last, as the apostle demands, Rom. 6:21, ‘What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed?’ After conviction of judgment there is always shame; and likewise there is sorrow and grief. For God hath made the inward faculties of the soul so, that upon the apprehension of the understanding, the heart comes to be stricken through with grief, which works upon our souls. Therefore we are said in Scripture to afflict ourselves; that is, when we set ourselves upon meditation of our deserts. Hereupon we cannot but be affected inwardly, for these sorrows are so many daggers to pierce through the heart.

There is also a fear and trembling before God’s judgments and his threatenings, a fear of the majesty of God, whom we have offended, which is able to send us to hell if his mercies were not beyond our deserts. But his mercy it is, that we are not consumed. A fear of this great God is a part of this inward humiliation. So we see what inward humiliation is: first, a conviction of the judgment; and then it proceeds to inward afflictive affections, as grief, shame, fear, which, when upon good ground and fit objects, they are wrought in us by the Holy Ghost, they are parts of inward humiliation. But as for the wicked, they drown themselves in their profaneness, because they would not be ashamed, nor fear, nor grieve for them. But this makes way for terrible shame, sorrow, and fear afterwards; for those that will not shame, grieve, and fear here, shall be ashamed before God and his angels at the day of judgment, and shall be tormented in hell for ever.

If we would have humble spirits, let us bring ourselves into the presence of the great God: set ourselves in his presence, and consider of his attributes, his works of justice abroad in the world, and open ourselves in particular.

Consider his wisdom, holiness, power, and strength, with our own. It will make us abhor ourselves, and repent in dust and ashes. Let us bring ourselves into God’s presence, be under the means, under his word, that there we may see ourselves ripped up, and see what we are. As Job, when he brought himself into God’s presence, said, ‘I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes,’ Job 42:6. Job thought himself somebody before; but when God comes to examine him, and upon examination found that he could not give a reason of the creature, much less of the Lord’s, afflicting his children, then he saith, ‘I abhor myself.’ So Abraham, the more he talked with God, the more he did see himself but dust and ashes. This is the language of the holy men in Scripture, when they have to deal or think of God. ‘I am not worthy,’ says John Baptist, John 1:27. So Paul: ‘I am not worthy to be called an apostle,’ 1 Cor. 15:9. So the centurion: ‘I am not worthy thou shouldst come into my house,’ Mat. 8:8. ‘I am less than the least of thy blessings,’ saith Jacob, Gen. 32:10. Thus let us come into the presence of God, under the means of his word, and then we shall see our own vileness, which will work humiliation; for, as the apostle saith, when a poor simple man doth come, and hears the prophecy that is, the word of God, with application unto himself, laying open his particular sins, doubtless he will say, God is in you, 1 Cor. 14:24, 25.

That we may humble ourselves, let us be content to hear of our sins and baseness by others. Let us be content that others should acquaint us with anything that may humble us. Proud men are the devil’s pipes, and flatterers the musicians to blow these pipes. Therefore it is, that though men have nothing of their own, yet they love to give heed to flatterers, to blow their bladder full, which do rob them of themselves; whereas a true, wise man, will be content to hear of anything that may humble him before God.

That we may humble ourselves, look to the time to come, what we shall be earth and dust; and at the day of judgment we must be stripped of all. What should puff us up in this world? All our glory shall end in shame, all magnificence in confusion, all riches in poverty. It is a strange thing that the devil should raise men to be proud of that which they have not of their own, but of such things which they have borrowed and begged; as for men to be proud of themselves in regard of their parents. So, many there are who think the better of themselves for their apparel, when yet they are clothed with nothing of their own, and so are proud of the very creature. But thus the devil hath besotted our nature, to make us glory in that which should abase us, and to think the better of ourselves, for that which is none of our own. Nay, many in the church of God, are so far from humbling themselves, that they come to manifest their pride, to shew themselves, to see and to be seen. Thus the devil has inflicted many thousand silly creatures, that come in vainglory into the house of God; that whereas they should humble themselves before him, they are puffed up with a base empty pride, even before God. Therefore let us take notice of our wonderful proneness to have a conceit of ourselves; for if a man have a new fashion, or some new thing, which nobody else knows besides himself, how wonderful conceited will he be of himself! Let us take notice, I say, of our proneness to this sin of pride; for the best are prone to it. Consider, it is a wonderful hateful sin, a sin of sins, that God most hates.

If we would humble ourselves, let us set before us the example of our blessed Saviour; for we must be conformable to him, by whom we hope to be saved. He left heaven, took our base nature, and humbled himself to the death of the cross, yea, to the washing of his disciples’ feet, and among the rest, washed Judas’s feet, and so suffered himself to be killed as a traitor, Philip, 2:5–7; and all this to satisfy the wrath of God for us, and that he might be a pattern for us to be like-minded. Therefore, if we would humble ourselves by pattern, here is a pattern without all exception. Let us be transformed into the likeness of him; yea, the more we think of him, the more we shall be humbled. For it is impossible for a man to dwell upon this meditation of Christ in humility, and with faith to apply it to himself, that he is his particular Saviour, but this faith will abase the heart, and bring it to be like Christ in all spiritual representation. A heart that believeth in Christ will be humbled like Christ. It will be turned from all fleshly conceit of excellency, to be like him. Is it possible, if a man consider he is to be saved by an abased and humble Saviour, that was pliable to every base service, that had not a house to hide himself; I say, is it possible that he which considers of this, should ever be willingly or wilfully proud?

Do we hope to be saved by Christ, and will we not be like him? When we were firebrands of hell, he humbled himself to the death of the cross, left heaven and happiness a-while, and took our shame, to be a pattern to us. We know that Christ was brought into the world by a humble virgin. So the heart wherein he dwells must be a humble heart. If we have true faith in Christ, it will cast us down, and make us to be humbled. For it is impossible that a man should have faith to challenge any part in Christ, except he be conformed to the image of Christ in humility.

Further, There is an order, method, and agreement in these reflected actions, when we turn the edge of our own souls upon ourselves and examine ourselves; for the way that leads to rest is by the examination of ourselves. We must examine ourselves strictly, and then bring ourselves before God, judge and condemn ourselves; for humiliation is a kind of execution. Examination leads to all the rest. So, then, this is the order of our actions; there is:

1. Examination of ourselves strictly before God,
2. Then indicting ourselves,

3.  After that comes judging of ourselves.

Oh that we could be brought to these inward reflected actions, to examine indict, judge, and condemn ourselves, that so we might spare God a labour, and so all things might go well with us!

A humble heart is a vessel of all graces. It is a grace itself, and a vessel of grace. It doth better the soul and make it holy, for the soul is never fitter for God than when it is humbled. It is a fundamental grace that gives strength to all other graces. So much humility, so much grace. For according to the measure of humiliation is the measure of other grace, because a humble heart hath in it a spiritual emptiness. Humility empties the heart for God to fill it. If the heart be emptied of temporal things, then it must needs be filled with spiritual things; for nature abhors emptiness; grace much more. When the heart is made low, there is a spiritual emptiness, and what fills this up but the Spirit of God? In that measure we empty ourselves, in that measure we are filled with the fulness of God. When a man is humbled, he is fit for all good; but when he is proud, he is fit for all ill, and beats back all good. God hath but two heavens to dwell in; the heaven of heavens, and the heart of a poor humble man. The proud swelling heart, that is full of ambition, high conceits, and self-dependence, will not endure to have God to enter; but he dwells largely and easily in the heart of a humble man. If we will dwell in heaven hereafter, let us humble ourselves now. The rich in themselves are sent ’empty away;’ the humble soul is a rich soul, rich in God; and therefore God regards the lowly and resists the proud. As all the water that is upon the hills runs into the valleys, so all grace goes to the humble.

How may we know holy from hypocritical humiliation? 

First, Holy humiliation is voluntary; for it is a reflected action, which comes from a man’s self. It ends where it begins. Therefore Josiah is said to humble himself. But, on the contrary, the humiliation of other men is against their will. False humiliation is not voluntary, but by force it is extorted from them. God is fain to break, crush, and deal hardly with them, which they grieve and murmur at. But the children of God have the Spirit of God, which is a free Spirit, that sets their hearts at liberty. For God’s Spirit is a working Spirit, that works upon their hearts, and hereby they willingly humble themselves, whereas the wicked, wanting this Spirit of God, cannot humble themselves willingly, but are cast down against their wills. For God can pluck down the proudest. He can break Pharaoh’s courage, who, though he was humbled, yet he did not humble himself. A man may be humbled, and yet not humble. But the children of God are to humble themselves, not that the grace whereby we humble ourselves is from ourselves; but we are said to humble ourselves, when God doth rule the parts he hath given us, when he sets our wits and understanding on work to see our misery, and then our will and affection to work upon these. Thus we are said to humble ourselves when God works in us. A hypocrite God may humble and work by him. He may work by graceless persons, but he doth not work in them. But God’s children have God’s Spirit in them, not only working in* them his own works, as he doth by hypocrites and sinful persons, but his Spirit works in them. So that here is the main difference between true humiliation and that which is counterfeit. The one is voluntary, being a reflected action, to work upon and to humble ourselves; but the other is a forced humiliation.

True humiliation is ever joined with reformation. Humble thyself and walk with thy God, saith the prophet: Micah 6:8, ‘He hath shewed thee, O man, what he doth require of thee, to humble thyself, and walk with thy God.’ Now the humiliation of wicked men is never joined with reformation. There is no walking with God.

Sin must appear bitter to the soul, else we shall never be truly humbled for it. There is in every renewed soul a secret hatred and loathing of evil, which manifests the soundness both of true humiliation and reformation.

There must be a constant endeavour to avoid the occasions and allurements of sin. Thus Job made a covenant with his eyes, that ‘he would not look upon a maid,’ Job 31:1; and thus every unclean and filthy person should make a covenant with themselves against the sins which they are most addicted unto.

There must be a hatred and loathing of sin in our confessions. We must confess it with all the circumstances, the time when, and place where.

Sin is the bane of all comfort. That which we love more than our souls undoes us. It embitters every comfort, and makes that we cannot perform duties with spiritual life. Our very prayers are abominable to God so long as we live in known sin. What makes the hour of death and the day of judgment terrible but this?

Another difference between true humiliation and false is, that with true humiliation is joined hope, to raise up our souls with some comfort, else it is a desperation, not a humiliation. The devils do chafe, vex, and fret themselves, in regard of their desperate estate, because they have no hope. If there be no hope, it is impossible there should be true and sound humiliation; but true humiliation doth carry us to God, that what we have taken out of ourselves by humiliation, we may recover it in God. Therefore humility is such a grace, that though it make us nothing in ourselves, yet doth it carry us to God, who is all in all.

Hypocrites are also sorrowful for the judgment that is upon them; but not for that which is the cause of the judgment, which is sin; but the child of God, he is humbled for sin, which is the cause of all judgments. As good Josiah, when he heard read out of Deuteronomy the curses threatened for sin, and comparing the sins of his people with the sins against which the curses were threatened, he humbled himself for his sin and the sins of his people. For God’s children know, if there were no iniquity in them, there should no adversity hurt them; and therefore they run to the cause, and are humbled for that. Whereas the wicked, they humble themselves only because of the smart and trouble which they do endure.

When we have wrought our souls to a hearty grief that we have offended God, when we have a perfect and inward hatred of all sin, and when thou dost shew the truth of thy grief by leaving off thy sinful courses. So then, do thou hate and leave thy sinful course? Then thou art sufficiently humbled. Go away with peace and comfort, thy sins are forgiven thee.

Therefore it is not a slight humiliation that will serve the turn, but our hearts must be wrought unto a perfect hatred and leaving of all sins; for if this be not, we are not sufficiently humbled as yet. And when we find ourselves to hate and leave sin in some measure, then fasten our souls by faith, as much as may be, upon the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. For the soul hath two eyes, the one to look upon itself and our vileness, to humble us the more; the other, to fasten upon the mercy of God in Christ, to raise up our souls.

Let this be a rule of discerning true religion; for surely that is true religion which doth make us go out of ourselves; that takes away all from ourselves and gives all the glory to God; which makes us to plead for salvation by the mercy of God through the merits of Christ. But our religion doth teach us thus. Therefore it is the true religion, and will yield us sound comfort at the last. Thus much for inward humiliation, the humbling of ourselves, as Josiah did.