The Courageous Humility of William Wilberforce

I recently finished Eric Metaxas’ biography of William Wilberforce: Amazing Grace – William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. It is a fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable read that I happily recommend for your reading pleasure.

amazing graceAs you might expect, there is much to be gleaned from the life of Wilberforce: his unrelenting determination to end the abominable slave trade, his commitment to promoting justice and righteousness in both public and private life (particularly in politics wherein he found his calling), his infectious enthusiasm for sharing the gospel wherever he went, his love for his country…

These, and many more of Wilberforce’s virtues, are worthy of lengthy discussion. However, what most struck and challenged me was the courageous humility that lay behind all of his other virtues.

In a day when politicians were the equivalent of our modern day celebrities: embodying all of the pomp, narcissism and entitlement we have come to expect from such people. Against this backdrop Wilberforce shines especially brightly because of his generosity, humility and genuine desire to act in the best interest of others for the glory of God. As in our day, this kind of behaviour was exceedingly counter-cultural for those who were considered part of high society. This contrast is further highlighted when one considers Wilberforce’s natural talents and charisma as a speaker and a leader which would have given him great cause to boast because, not unlike today, eloquent oration and a quick wit were the means to success and fame politically and socially.

What was it that made Wilberforce capable of such courageous humility?

Wilberforce gives us this answer in his diary entry on the 14th of April 1797, Good Friday:

“I thank God that I now do feel in some degree as I ought this day. I trust that I feel true humiliation of soul from a sense of my own extreme unworthiness a humble hope in the favour of God in Christ; some emotion from the contemplation of him who at this very moment was hanging on the cross; some desire to devote myself to Him who has so dearly bought me; some degree of that universal love and good – which the sight of Christ crucified is calculated to inspire. Oh if the contemplation here can produce these effects on my hard heart, what will the vision of Christ in glory produce hereafter!” (p.175)

Wilberforce was a man intimately aware of his own sinfulness. There are few great people in the world and just as few good ones but there are even less who are both great and good. It’s difficult to conceive of a man as great as Wilberforce being so good, so humble. Imagine having everything necessary to succeed: the natural talent, the money, the connections and yet retaining a sense of your “own extreme unworthiness a humble hope in the favour of God in Christ.” Today it’s easy to think of examples of great people who claimed to be good but whose true nature was revealed by the tragic light of various scandals.

However, there was more to Wilberforce’s humility than solely an awareness of his own sinfulness. In a correspondence to one of his friends he explains what transformed his humility into courageous humility:

“The Blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin and there is the comfort which combines the deepest Humiliation with the firmest Hope.” (p.221)

Along with an intimate awareness of his own sinfulness Wilberforce possessed a profound grasp of the gospel. Though his sin was great, his Saviour was greater still. And it was the wedding together of these two truths which created in him a courageous humility that give him the strength to accomplish all the good works which God had prepared in advance for him to do (Ephesians 2:10).

Like Wilberforce we too are called to live in courageous humility. We may not spearhead the campaign for the abolition of sex trafficking or the relief of global poverty but God has called us in our own spheres of influence to pursue justice and righteousness, to love our neighbours, to share the gospel story, and to seek what is best for our country and world. Like Wilberforce the challenge we are faced with is we will embody the courageous humility that comes from knowing the depth of our sin and the depth of our Saviour’s love for us? Are we praying that God would make the sinfulness of our sin and the unfailing love of Jesus known to us? Or like the masses who largely remained unmoved by the plight of the slaves are we content with apathy and stagnation?

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