Humility: Thinking with sober judgment

Recently, in our study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we’ve seen how Paul holds up the divine humility of Jesus as an example for believers to follow. We are to think as Jesus thought, with humility, or what can be translated literally as “lowliness of mind.” Paul is concerned that some of the believers in Philippi are lifting themselves up by putting others down, potentially sowing the seeds of division in a church that needs to maintain its unity in the face of persecution. You need to be of one mind, Paul counsels, and that mind is the mind of Christ, a humble one.

Jesus is, after all, the pre-existent one who emptied himself to take on our fragile bodily existence. The one who took the position not of a king, but a servant. The one who took the role of a slave in washing his disciples’ feet, and told them to do likewise. The one who died an agonizing and humiliating death for our sakes. How could we not consider humility to be central to our discipleship, to following this Jesus?

As I suggested in the previous post, however, the word “humility” and its opposite, “pride,” can be a little slippery. Even if we agree that the latter is somehow a sin, we sense that not everything we call “pride” is inherently evil. If a child stands up to a bully to protect a friend, for example, and does so without resorting to violence or insult, would you tell that child’s parents not to be proud? If you yourself take pleasure in a job well done, is that pride? Do you therefore have to suppress that sense of accomplishment to meet the moral requirement of humility?

I’ve also suggested that people who seem to behave in a humble fashion by refusing praise don’t necessarily do so out of virtue. Recall the psychological argument that people who behave pridefully aren’t necessarily “full of themselves”; rather, they seek to fill an inner emptiness by trolling for the admiration of others. Something similar can be said of those who seem humble on the surface. Those who are unable to receive compliments graciously may have learned early in life that the only way to belong, the only way to be safe, is to be invisible. To them, it feels threatening to be noticed, even if there’s a deeply buried part of them that yearns for someone else to take delight in them, to see and accept them for who they are.

By contrast, the humility of Jesus is not grounded in any psychological lack. His voluntary self-emptying has nothing to do with the void felt by the narcissist or the one steeped in shame. He knows who he is and is secure in the love of the Father. He can give everything because he knows he cannot lose what matters most.

. . .

Humility and pride are not things. They are not static qualities that an individual may or may not possess. Rather, they are ways of relating to God, each other, and the world. Remember, when Paul urges the Philippians to humility, he frames it as a way of thinking, specifically, thinking like Jesus. A dynamic understanding of humility, then, might see it as a mindset, a moral practice, or a spiritual discipline.

Here, we might draw upon another well-known text from Paul:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Rom 12:3, NRSVUE)

This verse comes in the context of dealing with the tension between Jews and Gentiles in the church of Rome, a tension exacerbated by the expulsion of the Jews from Rome by the emperor Claudius (cf. Acts 18:2). Each group, it seems, coveted the central role in the story of God’s people, and Paul had to teach them what it meant to be one body in Christ (Rom 12:4-8) — together. He doesn’t use the word “humility” here, but his point is similar to what he teaches the Philippians: there is a faithful way to think of ourselves in relation to God and others.

Christian humility has nothing to do with “worm theology,” that unfortunate way of thinking that makes us out to be nothing, nothing, nothing in the eyes of God: Yes, I know I’m part of the body of Christ, but I’m only the lint in its belly button, maybe a useless appendix… That is not what Paul teaches.

Paul himself, for example, can regret his past atrocities against the church; he can call himself the “least of the apostles”; he can consider his former religious résumé to be fit only for the sewer. But he is also fully convinced of God’s love, forgiveness, and grace. He preaches boldly, even daring to chastise Peter in public. He takes joy in the love and faithfulness of others.

And, in a rhetorical move that challenges our typical understandings of humility, Paul even applies the word directly to himself. In his farewell to the elders in Ephesus, Paul says, “You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews” (Acts 20:18-19).

Humility, therefore, is not the same as either self-deprecation or self-loathing. It is submission to the authority of God, to the truth of what Scripture says about us, as individuals and in our relationships. Yes, the Bible call us sinful and foolish. Yes, Scripture calls us out on our self-centered tendencies.

But it also insists that we are deeply loved, despite the fact that God knows every flaw in us, even those we hide from ourselves. It insists that we are all part of Christ’s body, each having a place and a gift appropriate to it. And while the Bible decries sin, it also celebrates faithfulness.

Think with sober judgment. We need to see ourselves and others as God does. It is not appropriate humility when we take self-effacement to the point of pushing away the love of God or failing to acknowledge that we can sometimes be faithful and act in ways that please him.

Nor is it inappropriate pride to celebrate things that, in God’s eyes, are worth celebrating. We just need to be careful here, lest we send the wrong message. Depending on the context of the relationship as a whole, for example, for parents to tell their children “I’m so proud of you” because they brought home a perfect report card can communicate that acceptance and worth, too, are graded on a curve. It’s far better to show honest appreciation for their diligence and effort — because that’s what we want to encourage and celebrate — than to praise them merely for results.

Is humility always good? Is pride always bad? It depends on what you mean by the words, and the words are used in a confusing variety of ways. Let’s just say that it’s always good to examine the way our thoughts and behaviors are driven by what we think we want and need, and submit to the truth of who God says we are in all our complexity. We are fallible but beloved, clumsy but gifted. We must accept the grace and compassion that is given to us, and learn to extend it to others in turn.

Want to leave a comment? Click here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.