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The Humility of Christ
An Advent reflection
In this season of Advent, with Christmas fast approaching, I thought it would be good to share a bit about the humility of Christ and its relevance for us as followers of the Way.
Humility is a misunderstood virtue. Much of what passes for humility is not humility, but something else. Not only is humility misunderstood, it can also be hard to find. Humility is rare. It might be fashionable to talk about and praise humility, but how many shining examples of it have we actually seen? We are all too often influenced by our often anxious desires for power, pleasure, and wealth, rather than being filled with the peace and generosity that humility can produce.
But there is one in whom humility does positively shine. The Bible testifies to the humility of Christ in many places. Humility is shown by Christ in the incarnation, in the Son of God taking on human flesh. The washing of the disciples’ feet is another well-known example. Jesus, who is our “Lord and Teacher,” did this for his disciples, and tells them they ought to do the same for others. Taking the humble posture of a servant, doing a task that was an act of service but was also seen as low and demeaning, is a beautiful example of humility. It is an example we, his followers, are to imitate (Jn. 13:14-15). Jesus himself says the he is “humble in heart” (Mt. 11:28-30). He claims that true greatness in the kingdom of God comes not from wealth, social status, or power. Rather, it comes from humility (Mt. 18:1-6). In his gospel, Luke starts off portraying Jesus with the outcasts, the lowly, and the poor, and as the son of an unmarried young woman. In so doing, according to biblical scholar Richard Burridge, “Luke sets up his basic theme that, coming out of Israel’s history, Jesus is the universal bearer of burdens, concerned especially for women, the poor and outcasts, of all nations and races.”We see examples of this throughout the gospels, as Jesus interacts with children, the sick, the suffering, and the Samaritan woman at the well. All were considered outcasts in this culture, but Jesus ignores that and treats them with respect. More than that, he treats them with humility and love.
The central New Testament passage on the humility of Christ is Philippians 2:1-11. We won’t examine every verse in this passage. Entire books have been written about parts of it. But we will dig in at some key points:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The term translated as “humility” in this passage (tapeinosophrune) is a rich one. If we understand it in the overall context of Philippians, we can get a clearer picture of the humility of Christ and its relevance for us. Humility has to do with our attitude towards both ourselves and others. It also has to do with acting for their good. What does it mean to “regard others as better than yourselves”? It means that we are to put their interests ahead of our own, as Christ did for us. In the Roman culture at Philippi, where honor was highly prized, these attitudes and actions would have been highly unusual. They remain so today, for a variety of reasons.
Human nature being what it is, such humble sacrifice is not the norm. Our first impulse is often to do what we can to climb the social ladder at work, at church, or in our community. But Paul is instructing the Philippians to be different. They aren’t to climb the social ladder. Neither are we. Instead, we are to move down the ladder and serve others.What might this look like, for you? It depends. For some, this would mean intentionally serving your LGBTQ neighbor, in humble love. For others, it might mean intentionally serving your white Christian nationalist neighbor, in humble love. For some, it could mean humbly engaging your neighbor with a “Black Lives Matter” sign in their yard. For others, it could mean doing the same with your neighbor who has an “All Lives Matter” sign up in theirs. But for all of us, it means serving our neighbors, whoever they are, and whatever they believe, in humble love. That humble love may look very different, depending on our neighbor and our context, but it is non-negotiable for followers of Christ.
As followers of the Way we have many good reasons to humbly serve others. One important reason is discussed in this passage from Philippians. Jesus Christ chose to forego the power and prestige that are rightly his as the Son of God. He stepped down the ladder—way down—and became human. But he didn’t just become human, though that exemplifies great humility in and of itself. He became human and was obedient to the point of death on a cross, a humiliating form of execution in the ancient Roman world. Our familiarity as Christians with this story doesn’t breed contempt, as the saying goes, but it can result in indifference, apathy, and a lack of gratitude. We must humble ourselves before these truths, the true story of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, realizing not only the greatness of the story, but the greatness of the God at its center. Familiarity can be a barrier to this. We must not let it be so.
To live a life worthy of the gospel necessitates that we embrace this humility of Jesus, imitating him in ways that make sense in our lives. We exemplify humility in how we care for others. Rather than holding tightly to what he had a right to as the Son of God, he “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” We must also refuse to hold tightly to the many things that hold us back: power, prestige, wealth, comfort, and social acceptance, not to mention anger, malice, pride, and hatred. Jesus of course had no sin to hold him back, but we do. We must be willing to relinquish our sin and vice, but also many good things, if we are called to do so. Jesus gave up so much for us. Paul, following Jesus’s example, gave up some of his rights for the sake of the gospel (1 Co. 9:15). We are called to do the same for others. It often won’t be easy, but it will, ultimately, be good.
Jesus humbly sacrificed so much for us, but we resist following in his steps. Jesus did this for us, yet we bristle at that person getting recognition at church, when so much of what we’ve done goes unrecognized. Jesus did this for us, but we focus on getting what we want out of friendship or marriage, rather than taking some time to focus on what we might give to others. Jesus did this for us, yet we bristle at the thought that someone else might have a different political perspective than our own, just as grounded in their faith as we believe ours to be. Jesus did this for us, so that we could do the same for others: sacrifice whatever God asks us to sacrifice, in order to help bring about the humble, loving, and just community of the kingdom of God. In this community, the humble and loving communion of the Trinity is at the center. We are not at the center. God is.
True humility is not easy. The truly humble person recognizes that all the good they possess is a gift from God. They graciously accept a compliment, and perhaps also say a silent prayer of gratitude in response to it. They don’t feel the need to run themselves down as a little show of false humility that in essence is a form of pride, a form of drawing attention to their “spirituality” and their “humility.” As C.S. Lewis rightly observes, “a really humble man…will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”The humble life is centered neither on ourselves, nor our humility. It is ultimately centered on God. The natural result is a humility that puts the interests of others ahead of our own.
If we seek to put the interests of others ahead of our own, in authentic humility, then we imitate the good and beautiful example of Jesus. We also prepare ourselves for what life in the kingdom will be like in the new creation, when all is made right, with humility and love at the center of it all. We get a foretaste of that kingdom now, in our own little communities, in our own little lives. Not only that, but we make that foretaste available to others, offering them a little sample of the overwhelming goodness of God and life in his kingdom.
I hope you and those you celebrate with experience a bit of that goodness this Christmas!
Richard A. Burridge, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 232.
Much of what follows is drawn from my Humility and Human Flourishing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 28-38, 40-82.
Ben Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 120-1.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 99.