Few passages in the New Testament rival the great Christ hymn of Philippians, which offers a three-stage Christology: pre-existence, incarnation, and exaltation. [Theologians just love this kind of symmetry!] In just a few verses of Philippians 2, Paul spells out the downward mobility of Jesus and invites us to embark on the same pathway.
The very Word of God, the living Christ, takes the form of a slave, after the likeness of humanity. He does not cling to equality with God, although in God’s relational self-giving both Spirit and Son are fully personal and fully God. Rather, he empties himself for our sakes. The Greek word kenosis carries rich meaning, and it discloses how God is present in Jesus.
A key phrase in this passage is “ . . . he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death . . .” (v. 8). Paul goes further to say “even death on a cross,” which was the most excruciating and tortuous death he knew. There is no atonement theory offered in this text; it simply delineates the extent of his mission: serving others even at the risk of dying.
Humility is the master virtue according to the ancient Abbas and Ammas of the desert monastic tradition. As Roberta Bondi writes: “Humility accepts our human vulnerability and the fact that we sin. It is not so overwhelmed by human weakness that it is left paralyzed, thinking over its inadequacy.”
When one no longer has to preserve a heroic self-image, he or she can begin to empower others with collaborative insight. Humility requires a generous hospitality, not simply thinking about one’s “own things,” but capacious welcome, creating space for others. When one understands his or her role within the larger body of Christ, there is less anxiety about being “solely responsible,” which allows a greater humility.
Jim Collins, researcher and writers about great organizations and great leadership, names humility as the key quality for effective leaders. In his study of those companies who moved from “good to great,” he identifies the essential quality of “extreme personal humility” for effective leaders. One who understands incorporation in Christ knows that he or she must also follow the pathway of humility.
Humility helps us find those tasks that no one else is eager to do. Humility listens to stories recounted again by our elders. Humility prompts us to “regard others as better than ourselves.” Humility helps us to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit” (v. 3). Humility allows us to be patient with children, even when they prove contrarian or in the crass calculus of the economy, insignificant.
Humility reminds us “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s own good pleasure” (v. 13). For this, we give thanks.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.