Humility Is Your Friend on the Mission Field

“Humble pie is the breakfast of ministry champions.”

I often assert this maxim to our ministerial students at Liberty University. To be effective and to persevere in ministry requires large doses of humility. This advice is likely even more poignant for aspiring missionaries, short-term and long-term. Effectively bearing witness for Jesus Christ in a cross-cultural context takes large, daily servings of humble pie.

Humility applies to various types of witnesses (or nonwitnesses). Some might head off on a mission trip ready to aggressively “give ’em the gospel” or insensitively “tell ’em about Jesus.” Conversely, timidity holds others back. They secretly plan to avoid actually articulating the gospel because they’re afraid to offend people or to get caught without answers to difficult questions. Most are somewhere in the middle, wondering how to witness to people from a very different view of the world than their own.

May I suggest that the answer to the dilemma of knowing how to be an effective witness begins with a disposition of humility—humility before God and before others.

Humility before God

Here’s how humility before God shapes the way we witness in our neighborhoods and among the nations.

Humility enables us to overcome our fear of rejection.

“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:11 NIV). The fear of (or we might say “reverence or humility before”) the Lord is the catalyst for our primary concern with what humans think about Christ.

Fear of God and submission to his Word emboldens us to be comfortable looking foolish to the world. It certainly did to people living in the first century. The word “cross” itself was impolite to speak of in a well-mannered society, and in response to a Christian’s faith, most would have scoffed.

“We don’t modify the gospel or avoid sharing it under the pressure that others might not accept us.”

Just as Paul wrote, the symbol at the heart of Christian witness was “foolishness” to the world (1 Cor. 1:18). In humility, we can be more concerned with what others think about Christ than what they think about us. Thus, we don’t modify the gospel or avoid sharing it under the pressure that others might not accept us.

Humility gives us a proper estimation of how much we know and can prove.

God knows all. We don’t. God sees all with perfect clarity. We see in part through fallen eyes. God’s logic is infallible. Our sin and cultural preconceptions have tainted our rational faculties. Therefore, we need to have realistic expectations in our witness for Christ.

We will not be able to answer every question to complete satisfaction for ourselves or for others as if we have a “God’s-eye-view.” In Deuteronomy 29:29, the Lord reminds us that while he has revealed truth to us, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (NIV).

God’s ways aren’t our ways. We mustn’t expect to adequately answer every question an unbeliever may have or position ourselves as people who can. Mystery is an essential part of our faith that leads us to humble doxology. Therefore, with humility, we can share what God has revealed, admit our incomplete knowledge, and express our admiration for God’s infinite wisdom.

Humility before Others

In his 1993 book on apologetics, David Clark, a vice president and dean at Bethel Seminary, wrote, “Sometimes a person who speaks to an apologist feels like an object—like yet another notch on the handle of a gunslinger’s six-shooter. An apologist’s dialogue partners do not always sense genuine concern for them. This negative feeling can build tremendous resistance. People pull hardest when they are pushed hardest.”

As Clark pointed out, a “gunslinger” approach is rarely effective in persuading the unconvinced. It isn’t often that we find someone who became a Christian after he was boxed into an intellectual corner by an aggressive evangelist and forced to admit defeat.

Then how, as Christian witnesses, should we approach others with the gospel without being too forceful or too timid? We witness sensitively and boldly by being careful to interact with others in wisdom. The Proverbs connect wisdom with humility very closely (Prov. 11:2).

The following principles from Proverbs can guide us toward wise and productive gospel encounters.

Listen and take others seriously.

“To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13 NIV).

It’s important to understand what someone else is saying, not only because it’s the most disarming thing we can do but also because it enables us to answer what they’re actually asking. This is especially important when we’re interacting with people from a different cultural background.

Avoid falsely representing the other side.

“A false witness will perish, but a careful listener will testify successfully” (Prov. 21:28 NIV).

We mustn’t assume we already understand what another person thinks or believes. Further, we must not caricature another’s worldview or misrepresent their actual positions by building a straw-man argument.

Constructing straw men can create fervor and perhaps a false confidence among those who already agree with us, but normally it only engenders distrust and animosity in those we’re trying to reach. Instead of building straw men, we want to listen genuinely and humbly so we can interact with the actual thoughts, desires, and beliefs of another person.

Resist assuming motives.

“The purposes of the person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out” (Prov. 20:5 NIV).

Rather than being quick to judge the motives of others, it’s best to always seek to discern the deeper issues while avoiding jumping to conclusions and serving as the ultimate judge of motives. Instead, we need to ask more perceptive questions in order to understand better how and why they see the world the way they do.

When we can, find points of agreement to affirm.

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1 NIV).

We’re not trying to win a debate but to win people. Acknowledging points of common ground shows humility toward others and connects with their humanity.

“We’re not trying to win a debate but to win people.”

Resist focusing on the periphery.

“Where there is strife, there is pride” (Prov. 13:10 NIV).

Usually, it’s pride that fosters in us the need to hoist our every opinion over the person we’re speaking with every time they say something we disagree with, even if it’s something relatively minor. Avoid squabbling over every miniscule point of disagreement, especially as it relates to cultural differences.

Avoid being unnecessarily antagonistic.

“It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Prov. 20:3 NIV).

New York Times columnist David Brooks sums up well the danger of using unnecessary antagonism. “If one person in a conversation takes the rhetorical level up to ten every time, the other person has to rebut at level ten and turn monstrous, or retreat into resentful silence. Rhetorical passion, which feels so good, can destroy conversation and mar truth and reconciliation.” [2]

Describing another person’s position in a way that mocks them and makes their position seem silly may win points with others listening who are already on your side, but it will only alienate the person you are trying to reach.

Philosopher Dallas Willard asks, “If we are not gentle in how we present the good news, how will people encounter the gentle and loving Messiah we want to point to?” We could ask the same about the virtue of humility. If we are not humble toward God and others, how will people encounter the humble Messiah, who gives the invitation, “Come to me . . . for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:28–29 NIV) and who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8 NIV)?

Mark D. Allen (PhD, University of Notre Dame; DMin, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) is an elder at Forest Baptist Church in Forest, Virginia, and serves as the chair of biblical studies at Liberty University. This article is adapted from “Cruciform Humility before God and Others,” in Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness by Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen (Zondervan, 2018).