Humility from strength

Photo by Kevin FinneranHas life knocked you down lately?

In a recent post, we noted how circumstances often have a way of humbling us.  Despite the high expectations others may have for us, despite the sometimes overinflated expectations we have for ourselves, things inevitably happen to take us down a notch, to remind us of our fragility and weakness.  The good news is that God is the God of the humble, of the powerless, of the oppressed: those who live in poverty of spirit are blessed, Jesus says, because the very kingdom of heaven belongs to them (Matt 5:3).

But that’s not to say that humility is only about weakness.  Here, for example, are Paul’s well-known words to the Philippians:

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other.  Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.  Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.  Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.  But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave by becoming like human beings.  When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Phil 2:1-11, CEB)

The congregation in Philippi is one of Paul’s favorites: his warm concern for them radiates from the letter.  As he writes from his prison cell, he asks a favor: Do you know what would make me really happy?  I want to know that in your life together, you are of one mind–the mind of Christ, the mind of thoroughgoing humility that seeks the good of others.

The word for humility literally means a lowliness of mind, where “lowliness” can suggest the humiliation of being laid low.  In describing the humility of Jesus, Paul may be quoting a hymn that was already in circulation in the early church.  The hymn points to the humiliation of the cross; it’s not enough to recognize that Jesus died, but how he died.

But here we have to acknowledge the difference between Jesus and us.  Our humility is often the result of humiliation, of being reminded of the weaknesses we would sooner forget; our pride makes it difficult for us to rest in a realistic understanding of who we are.   Jesus’ humility, comes before humiliation, not after.  It is a humility from strength rather than weakness, demonstrated by the willingness to empty himself of his legitimate rights and status as co-equal with God, and to obey the calling that would lead to humiliation.

How, then, do we “adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”?  We are not equal to God; the divine humility is unlike our own.  There is, I think, but one answer, which is found in what Paul says next.  That’s the subject of the next post.