Humble Speech

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I attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America in June. This annual gathering is a time to hear reports, to worship, to hear appeals and issue judgments, and to set down rules for the better ordering of public worship.

There are a couple of practices at the General Assembly that I have always appreciated. The first is that, whenever an elder gets up to speak, he begins addressing the other ordained men as “fathers and brothers.” Even in the midst of contentious debate, this practice can have an immediate de-escalating effect.

The second practice is the assembly’s adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order, a guide to conducting meetings in an orderly and efficient way. Presbyterians especially love it because it help us do everything “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). One of the quirks of Robert’s Rules is that it calls for speakers not to address one another by name but instead to say, for example, “the previous speaker.” Even the moderator refers to himself in the third person.

This practice, like “Fathers and brothers,” has a de-escalating effect, helping to keep things from becoming personal. But it also reflects a biblical practice. When we read through the Old Testament, we see various places where servants address a master or king by calling him “my lord” and referring to themselves as “your servant” (e.g., Gen. 44:18–34; 2 Sam. 19:24–30). This likely reflected formulaic ways of speaking (see also Gen. 23 and Ruth 4 for other examples of speaking formulas), but it also allowed the speaker to acknowledge his humble position, to show respect, and to request favor from his master, and it inclined the master to be favorably disposed to the servant. Some of the prayers of saints in the Bible also reflect this practice.

The Bible also records instances where this practice is not observed, and the effect is jarring. In Genesis 3, after the sin of Adam and Eve is disclosed, our first parents level accusations. Eve blames the serpent (v. 13), but Adam blames Eve and ultimately blames God: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (v. 12). He does speak humbly by referring to God as “my Lord,” but arrogantly, referring to Him simply as “you.”

Similarly, in Job 1, Satan appears before God and repeatedly addresses Him as “you” (vv. 6–11). With his language, he refuses to recognize his subordinate position but instead places himself on God’s level.

This is not to say that we need to adopt the formula of “my lord” and “your servant” in our prayers. We don’t use these kinds of formulas anymore. But we can certainly learn from the posture they evidence—one of humility and expectancy.

Our Lord is our Savior and friend, but He is also our Lord, and we are His servants. In view of His great love for us and of His majestic holiness, we ought to have the attitude that Jesus commends in Luke 17:10: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.