Humility: Dying to Self, Feet First

Humility is a foundational character trait found in those who exemplify godliness and obedience, and numerous Old and New Testament believers manifest it. Humility, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary [1], includes the quality of being “low,” that is “low” in our minds, which, interestingly, has often played out in history by people getting “low” to the ground; certainly lower than the one to whom they were demonstrating humility. When Abraham was 99 years old, he fell face down to worship God Almighty in response to God’s covenant promise guaranteeing him countless descendants (Gen. 17:1-7). For thousands of years, cultures around the world have practiced prostration and bowing low to the ground to show respect for spiritual and even political leaders.

Nothing brings a human “lower” than death. At funerals I have witnessed grieving loved ones fall to the ground in a physical expression of their emotional distress. In most cultures, a corpse is lowered into a grave, the resting place of death. Our Jesus exemplified his willingness to submit himself to the most humiliating death, crucifixion, because he trusted in God’s promise of resurrection:

Philippians 2:8-11
(8) And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross!
(9) Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
(10) that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
(11) and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In order to defeat the enemy of death, Jesus humbly lowered himself to death. Similarly, we Christians are called to die to self:

Romans 6:6-8 (NLT) [2]
(6) We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin.
(7) For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin.
(8) And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him.

We can, with focused effort, subject our carnal sin nature to the liberating power of the holy spirit that lives within us. Romans 6:11 says, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Further, we are exhorted in Romans 6:13, “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.”

As we die to self, which is an expression of one’s humility, we will naturally become other-focused. Our focus will first be on Jesus, and then on others. You may be wondering about the title of this article. What does humility have to do with feet? Let’s take a look at the life of one woman who role modeled the character trait of humility by choosing to die to self. This woman is only mentioned three times in Scripture, yet each time, she humbly positioned herself at our Lord’s feet.

We are first introduced to Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha, in Luke 10:38-42. It is likely she was either single or widowed, because we are told she lived with her brother. As a Hebrew woman, it is unlikely she would have known how to read or have been exposed to formal education. Yet, we find her at the Lord’s feet while he teaches. The Living Word, Jesus, was explaining truths about the written Word and Mary was not about to miss this opportunity! Can you picture her at our Lord’s feet? She made the decision to leave the kitchen and the physical preparations for a meal that likely would have included bread, a mainstay of the Jewish diet. Mary yearned to feast on spiritual truths taught by Jesus, the Bread of Life. Meanwhile, Mary’s sister, Martha, chose to toil in the kitchen. Perhaps Martha judged Mary’s decision to leave the kitchen as a lack of humility. How confident Martha must have been when she demanded Jesus reprove Mary for her choice to listen to Jesus teach while there was important work to be done! Jesus’ response to Martha is a reminder for all believers. Spending time with the Bread of Life far outweighs the importance of preparation for physical bread. A key to dying to self is related to time management: humbly choose to spend time with Jesus daily. No other task or goal should take priority over spending time with our Lord in prayer and in Bible study.

The second time we see Mary is during a period of profound grief. Her brother, Lazarus, had died four days earlier and mourners filled her home. John 11:32 says, “When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ ” Notice that in her distress, Mary again humbled herself and fell at Jesus’ feet. This is the second key to dying to self: during life’s confusing, painful trials, submit yourself to Jesus. The Great Physician is able to comfort and restore you. I love that she freely spoke her mind. Our Jesus desires to hear about our concerns. We need not edit our emotions or concerns. Mary in essence was challenging Jesus with, Where were you when I needed you most? Jesus is alive, and we can be completely honest in our prayers and communication with him.

The final time Scripture mention this simple woman occurred at a dinner party. John 12:1-8 describes this touching event. Mary, again at Jesus’ feet, brought a precious earthly possession, nard. A rare and costly perfume, her flask of nard was worth an entire year’s income! Jesus had returned to Bethany for Passover, where he would be crucified. The family who had been so touched and helped by resurrection power hosted a dinner in honor of Jesus. Mary wanted to acknowledge her gratefulness to her hero and Lord by planning a special act of service. Can you picture how the expensive fragrance filled the entire home as Mary tenderly anointed Jesus’ feet with her very own hair? In that culture, a woman’s hair was considered her glory. Culturally, this was a very significant act of humility, motivated by love and thanksgiving. Another key to dying to self is to recognize our Jesus as worthy of that which is most precious and costly to us, including our time, money, material goods, and our spiritual giftings.

One final note related to character and humility: John 12:4-6 records that Mary was severely criticized for her service to Jesus. We can expect the same. Yet in the record there is no indication that Mary got indignant, fought back, or tried to justify what she had done. Her action was not a show for recognition or self-promotion. It was a heartfelt and humble action to elevate Jesus Christ. If others criticized her, that only revealed their heart, it did not impugn hers. Not surprisingly, Jesus immediately spoke up on Mary’s behalf, and publicly commended her labor of love. Similarly, just as we can expect criticism like Mary received, we can also expect that Jesus will one day speak up for us. As we die to self and fully embrace the good works that the Lord has prepared for us to do, we can look forward to one day hearing, “…Well done, [my] good and faithful servant…”


[1] Webster, Noah. American Dictionary of the English Language. Foundation for American Christian Education, San Francisco, CA, 1828.
[2] Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, IL 60189.

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