Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you (James 4:10)
Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time (1 Peter 5:6)
The message of these verses is often summarized in the simple statement, “The way up in God’s program is down.” That is a good summary of a powerful biblical principle. As the passage in James says only four verses earlier, "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (4:6). Unless we want to take on God, we better humble ourselves before Him!
These verses also raise a more complicated question about humility and exaltation. How can the promise of exaltation be a proper motivation for humility? Isn’t that self-contradictory? Yet, the text is very clear (especially in Peter), “humble yourselves…that He may exalt you.” It would not be wrong to translate the Greek “in order that He may exalt you.” The promise of exaltation is the motivation for humility—doesn’t that seem strange to you? I know it has stirred me to much mental and spiritual wrestling with it. I do not claim to have it all figured out, but allow me to offer two statements that I believe point us in the direction of the right answer and then point out the greatest illustration of this principle ever.
First, being “exalted” as these texts promise is rooted in grace, not human merit. That is why James instructs us that God “gives grace to the humble.” We humble ourselves so that we can receive grace from God and grace is what raises us up, not our human efforts. Second, since we are being motivated by a promise of God (that He will exalt you), we are also dealing with the realm of faith. “The way up is down” should not be viewed as a carnal strategy for getting more out of life. It is a principle that can only be consistently lived by faith that God will “exalt you at the proper time”, and that time very well may be after this life, not during it. This text is no guarantee that humility will help us up the corporate ladder or obtain all of our temporal desires. This is God’s promise for the eternal joy of His children.
You may have guessed the illustration already; it is Jesus! Philippians 2:5-11 clearly tie humility and exaltation in a cause-effect relationship. God’s Word says, “He humbled Himself… For this reason also, God highly exalted Him” (vv. 8,9). That Jesus is exalted to the right hand of the Father is final proof that God will keep His promise to exalt those who humble themselves, and it should be strong motivation to have the same attitude that was in Jesus (Phil. 2:5)!