Sun, Sep 27, 2020

True 'humility'

Duration:13 mins 3 secs

Five years ago, I was approach by one of my academic mentors.

He was looking to publish a second edition of a major reference work on the Early Church.

I had contributed one of the chapters to the first edition––

which was published back in the year two thousand––

and he was wanting to know if I would update my contribution.

At first, I hesitated.

It had been more than five years since I had done any serious academic work––

which is a far cry from the sort of reading, thinking, and writing that I do each week now.

However, he reassured me that no substantial changes were needed…

just a bit of updating…

to consider the major publications and changes during those intervening fifteen years.

But, believe me, that’s harder than it sounds.

I spent a lot of time in libraries…

and online…

trying to source materials.

I spent far longer trying to remember the breadth and depth of material that used to be so readily at hand…

and so readily able to be recalled mentally…

but no longer was.

The whole process simply reinforced for me that I am no longer who I once was––

I am no longer an academic.

There was a time when I enjoyed reading obscure, technical work… 

pulling other scholars’ arguments apart…

coming up with my own creative solutions…

sharing them with eager students…

and getting them published.

And I enjoyed the kudos that came with all of that.

But, in giving it up, I didn’t just give up a career or a certain lifestyle…

I had to surrender a particular image of myself.

I had to give up something that fundamentally shaped my identity…

and, indeed, my sense of self-worth.

And, maybe, at times I still try to cling to that identity and image…

when I stand up before you…

in the language that I use…

or in the ‘cleverness’ of my arguments.


It’s not easy putting aside the masks and the façades that we construct…

or the public personas that we project to others.

It’s not easy being truly open, vulnerable, and real.

I mean, what if people don’t like the real me?

What if, behind my façade, I’m actually not that special?

I think for many of us, that has to be one of our deepest and darkest fears.

Psychologically, we’re encouraged to strive for self-actualisation…

to develop a positive self-image…

to understand ourselves as inherently worthwhile… and not to construct our sense of self––

let alone our sense of self-worth––

on the basis of what we do.

And, within Christian circles at least, there’s also that whole nagging exhortation to humility––

such as we find in this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves”.

Be humble!

Don’t stand out from the crowd.

Don’t get a big head.

Don’t blow your own trumpet.

So often, we’re encouraged to think of humility as being–– 

at the very least––

self-deprecation, if not actually being a doormat.

And, historically and culturally speaking… 

that understanding of humility has especially been one that’s been foisted upon women.

But that isn’t what Paul is talking about here.

Within the cultures of the first-century world… 

humility was about being satisfied with your social status.

It was about being satisfied with your public image.

It was not striving for greater prestige or honour at the expense of others.

All of which was, for them, counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.

Within the non-individualistic, non-introspective world of the first century…

humility wasn’t primarily about self-image.

Nor was it about self-worth.

It was about social status…

and it was about public behaviour.

Indeed, what Paul was addressing becomes clearer in the analogy that he offers.

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”.

Despite, perhaps, the way that it seems–– 

or the way that this beautifully poetic piece has usually been interpreted… 

especially in the light of later understandings of the person of Jesus Christ–– 

Paul is not reflecting here on Jesus’ identity or nature. 

Paul is not reflecting here upon who–– 

essentially and existentially–– 

Jesus was. 

Note that, without explaining what he really means by it––

Paul claims that Jesus Christ was in the form of God…

and yet he took the form of a slave.

In the context of the first-century world, that refers to status…

and it refers to function.

It doesn’t refer to identity as such––

at least, not identity as we understand it––

and it certainly doesn’t refer to essential nature.

Paul’s point is that, in terms of status and function, Jesus Christ was on a par with God.


without reflecting theologically upon that point or drawing out what he means by it––

Paul makes the provocative claim that Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited”.

Paul is suggesting that Jesus could have exploited his status and position… 

by misusing it to seek his own power; 

or he could have just enjoyed his comfortable position…

without taking any risk…

without putting himself out…

without using the gifts that he had been given…

or doing what he had, by nature of who he was, the ability to do.

But he didn’t.

Jesus put aside his claim to status.

He gave up his rights.

He let go of his sense of comfort and privilege.

And he made the costliest, riskiest sacrifice that he could:

he gave his life for others;

he gave his life to show us what it means to be truly, fully human;

he gave his life so that others might find authentic life.

And, Paul claims that God vindicated him… 

and his decision. 

In other words, Paul is asserting here that…


that sort of forgoing––

that sort of sacrificial self-giving––

is actually inherent to the very nature and purpose of God…

and it’s meant to be characteristic of those who seek to follow God’s ways…

and who seek to further God’s purposes in the world.

It’s only through that sort of attitude––

and that sort of action––

that we humans will find true peace and justice and fulfilment…

and create the sort of human community that is God’s intention for us all.

Paul is not calling us to self-deprecation or a denial of our self-image or our self-worth.

He’s calling us to self-sacrifice.

He’s calling us to be willing to give up our rights and ambitions…

to relinquish our sense of privileged expectation…

to forgo our sense of comfort and security––

including our sense of national interest and security––

and to let go of our obsession with our own personal fulfilment and actualisation…

when these come at the cost and the expense of others.

Paul is challenging us to reassess our attitudes and priorities…

insofar as they affect any one of God’s children.

“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”.


as Paul reminds us––

that’s what Jesus Christ did;

and that’s what Jesus Christ would do.

Powered by: truthengaged