Joel Muddamalle: Total Dependence

As director of theology and research at Proverbs 31 Ministries, Joel Muddamalle is a theologian. As theologian in residence for Haven Place Ministries, which provides personalized theology and therapy retreats, he supports those seeking spiritual healing. He’s an academic with a Ph.D. in theology, and he’s part of the preaching team at Transformation Church with Pastor Derwin Gray in South Carolina. Additionally, he co-hosts the podcast Therapy & Theology and has authored or co-authored multiple books.

In this interview with Outreach, Muddamalle discusses his latest book, The Hidden Peace: Finding True Security, Strength and Confidence Through Humility (Thomas Nelson), the ways humility works to protect us from pride and idolatry and protects and preserves the peace that God promises if we follow his ways.

How have you found peace through humility in your own life?

I’m the child of immigrants, an Indian kid who grew up in Chicago as one of the only Indian kids in my school, and so I experienced humility in the sense of consistently being aware of the fact that I wasn’t like all of my white, Black or Latino friends. I was stuck in the middle. Pride was running rampant through my early childhood experiences. I was determined to say, I’m not going to be the one left out. I’m not going to be ridiculed and mocked. Before anybody can make fun of me, I’m going to be the first person to be witty and smart and to make fun of them. I’ve tried it all. I’ve gotten all these degrees, but at the end of my Ph.D., I was like, I don’t really know much.

All of it brought me to this place of realizing life is chaotic. I’ve done all these things trying to gain more power, strength and control by my own means, and the more I turn inward to myself, the more chaos and dysfunction there is. But in this beautiful, paradoxical way, the more I turn deeper into God, into the life of Christ, [the more] I find peace. But the path to that peace has to be humility. It has to be an awareness of who God is, that I can know who I am. And if I know who God is, and if I know who I am, I’m actually oriented perfectly to directly relate to other people, other image bearers of God. 

What do we misunderstand about humility that the Bible can bring into focus?

We think humility is an invitation for people to walk all over us, for endless suffering, to be left out. Yet the Bible doesn’t present that at all. When God creates Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, he creates them in a position of total vulnerability. Vulnerability comes from the Latin phrase which means to be hurt or to receive injury. So you’re in this moment where you can be pained. God places them in Eden, in this place of vulnerability, and yet Eden is a place of total protection for them. It’s the place where they can’t get hurt unless they bring that pain on themselves. And so it’s actually in Eden after God creates Adam and Eve, the text explicitly tells us that the first thing they hear over them is a blessing. God blesses them in the posture and position of their humble status. It’s actually an affirmation of their worth, dignity and value. And so humility is not something we should despise. Actually, humility is the pathway to regain our true humanity, which is found in Genesis 1 and 2. It’s an undoing of the consequence of sin in Genesis 3. 

How do we cultivate humility in our lives?

Humility is the soil of the Christian life, and soil has to be tended to, cultivated and protected. So one is a consistent return to an awareness of who God is. If you and I are absorbed and consumed with the magnificence of God, we will be faced with the magnitude of our sin. And when we’re faced with the magnitude of our sin and we’re met with the magnificence of God, we actually find peace, because we realize that Christ on the cross has atoned for all of this. And so that instantly places us in this posture to cultivate this lifestyle. It’s a consistent return back to God.

We also cultivate humility in the life of the church. We cultivate it in relationship with brothers and sisters in Christ where there is a humility that we express to others through love, through patience, through serving, and which is actually given back to us. So we are both the recipients and givers of this type of love.

And the last thing is a dependence on the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 5, there are three phrases Paul uses to describe our relationship with the Holy Spirit, and it’s all dealing with our proximity to the Spirit: to walk with, to be led by, to follow. What you’ll notice all through these examples is consistency. Daily ritual and routine. You can’t have one-another relationships if there is a lack of proximity and intimacy in the relationship. You can’t be led by the Holy Spirit if you’re not being consistently in tune to the working of the Spirit and spending time in prayer and in God’s Word.

We all need humility in our lives, but talk about what a gift it is for church leaders specifically.

You and I were always intended to be reflectors of God’s glory, not absorbers. The second we try to absorb God’s glory, that is the pathway to total obliteration. It’s dangerous for us as church leaders to mediate the goodness, the glory, the power and the eternal truths of God to the people of God, and then to experience the reaction to it. That’s a scary place to be, because very easily, we can begin to think it’s not the eternal truth that is so good, but it’s how we’ve communicated that truth. This is idolatry and hidden pride. But humility serves as a guardrail. It helps us as church leaders to see the value of our work, but it won’t let us define our worth by what we do. Our weaknesses lead us back to the source of true strength. Remembering that keeps us grounded in who we actually are in light of who God is. 

You talk about prolonged stress, anxiety and fear, and how these can harm the body. For church leaders, those are all reasons some choose to leave ministry. How can humility prevent this?

The anxious, stressed, worried life feels like real life for all of us. Anxiety is actually something every one of us experiences, and I think acutely for church leaders. Sometimes I think we forget Jesus was truly human, and in his true humanness, containing and maintaining all of his Godness. None of that leaves. You’ve got the story leading right up to the crucifixion where he’s in the garden praying, feeling anxious—so much so that he was sweating blood. This is picture-perfect anxiety. But look at what Jesus does. In the presence of anxiety, he prays. How does he come to the determination that prayer is the right response? Well, it’s his intimate and humble awareness of his need to commune with God the Father. Now, pride steps in and suggests we can deal with it on our own. But our own control, our own power and our own strength just take us deeper into ourselves, and the further we go into ourselves, the more we realize we can’t do it on our own. It is madness. Humility invites us to go deeper into the life of Christ, to experience the power of the Spirit, and to enjoy the presence and the communion that comes with the Father. 

As a pastor who teaches his congregants, and as someone helping people in a Christian therapy setting, you’ve surely used a lot of these ideas to guide people through hardships. What would you say to a fellow church leader who is trying to help their people find peace?

Part of it has been exposing with appropriateness my own challenges, my own fears, my own places of growth. Inviting people into my story. It was not easy to write about [an] early childhood experience when all these kids made fun of me and I didn’t know a lick of English. I couldn’t understand it, and I’d get made fun of, but through my own therapy and my own learning, I realized it was a fundamental marked moment of my life that set me on a trajectory to where I am today. I told myself, I’m never going to be the dumbest person in a room, and if I am, I’m going to walk the heck right out. That led me on the road to pride and selfish ambition. Now I can authentically say this is where God met me, and this is why I walk with a limp today. Humility is a prerequisite for every pastor or theologian. It is a necessary aspect of how we ought to do life and ministry. A thing I’ve been committed to is that a theology that is unlivable is absolutely unhelpful. Humility is the key component to taking theology that is unlivable and making it livable.

Any parting thoughts?

One of biggest gifts of humility is the gift of self-awareness without the entrapment of self-obsession. Pride and fear and all these things we’ve talked about lead us deeper into ourselves, which makes us obsessed with ourselves. There’s a vast difference between self-obsession and self-awareness. Humility is the gift that makes us aware of who we are, and it holds in tension the innate dignity and worth of us being made in the image of God, and our weaknesses and inabilities, so that we can turn to the true source of satisfaction and stability, which is God himself. Humility is a protection, a prevention and a preservation. It protects us from thinking too lowly of ourselves and letting people walk all over us; it prevents us from thinking too highly of ourselves so we aren’t the ones walking all over other people; and it a preserves us in the life of Christ so we can experience peace.

Jessica Hanewinckel
Jessica Hanewinckel

Jessica Hanewinckel is an Outreach magazine contributing writer.