Wednesday, January 30, 2013


There's an old story about a preacher who was so humble that his congregation gave him a medal for humility -- and then fired him when he wore it.

The other day I received a call from a friend who was troubled about her perceived lack of humility.  She was wondering if I had any words of advice for her, biblical or otherwise.  As I was busy at the time, Uni took the call and passed the message on to me.

I pondered quite a while before returning the call and realized (as I had when questioned about prayer) that I had not written much on humility, probably because I felt inadequate to say much since I am not humble.

Uni suggested I start with the example Paul gave in his letter to the Philippians.

“Set your minds on this among yourselves,
which was also in Christ Jesus,
Who being God in form
did not consider being equal with God,
something to be clung to,
but emptied Himself
taking the form of a slave
becoming in the likeness of man
and being found in appearance as man
He humbled Himself
becoming obedient right up to death
even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
After a long conversation with my friend I decided I needed to dig a bit deeper into the concept.  So here are a few thoughts.

The Greek word used in the New Testament that usually is translated "humble" is TAPEINOS.  The related words for "humility," "humiliate," etc. are all derived from this word.  Its original meaning was "low" -- sometimes "lowly," "weak," "poor," even "insignificant," "servile."  In ancient secular Greek it was not used as a compliment; as in our modern culture, lowliness was not considered a virtue.

In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek Old Testament -- ca 200 BC), the verb form was often used of bringing someone low -- humiliating them, as a warrior does to his enemies or a rapist to his victim (Genesis 34:2; 2 Samuel 13:12).  But it was also used of bringing oneself low -- humbling oneself -- before God.  It was commanded of the Israelites (Leviticus 16:29, 31).

And this idea carries over into the New Testament.  Both James (4:10) and Peter (1 Peter 5:6) tell their readers to humble themselves before the Lord, echoing the Old Testament commands.

So I guess that to be humble, to have humility, is to acknowledge our lowliness before our Creator and Redeemer -- to bring ourselves low in His presence.  Or to use a more modern cliché, to recognize that He is God and I'm not!

But there's more to it than that, and this is the hard part.  It is to take that same attitude (or action?) toward my fellow human being.  Paul tells his readers in Ephesus:

"I the prisoner in the Lord, urge you therefore to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all humility of mind and gentleness with long-suffering, putting up with one another in love."  (Ephesians 4:1, 2)

Paul is writing from prison, probably house arrest in Rome, and seems to be emphasizing that he himself was in a low or humble position.

And in his letter to the Philippians, most likely written somewhere about  the same period of time he wrote the passage quoted above (Philippians 2:5-8).  But he leads into it with an exhortation to unity and what I believe is a good description of what humility is:

" ... complete my joy by having the same mind, having the same love, having your souls together, having your minds set on the one thing.  Do nothing according to selfish ambition, nor empty conceit, but in humility of mind considering one another as more important than yourselves.  Not each looking out for your own interests, but  those of others."  (Philippians 2:2-4)

Humility is then, as Paul seems to define it, a deliberate action or actions to be taken -- a putting self aside and considering the other person and his/her own interests as of more importance than my own.

It seems to be not so much a character trait to be developed, as an action to be practiced.  Interestingly Paul does not list it among the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22, 23, nor in his many lists of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere.  Nor does Peter list it in his list of qualities to be cultivated in 2 Peter 1:5-8.  A humble person is simply one who practices humility.

Of course we understand that we cannot behave with humility, we cannot deliberately humble ourselves apart from the work of the Spirit of God in our lives.  And of course Paul holds up for his readers that greatest example of humility, the self-emptying of Christ in the incarnation.

And Jesus holds Himself up as the humble One in His saying recorded in Matthew 11:29 -- "I am gentle and humble in heart."

It has been said that humility is the virtue which, when we finally know we've got it, we've lost it.

So to my dear friend, I'd say, stop fretting about your lack of humility.  You are humble.  I've seen you practice humility with myself and others.  [Now don't let what I've said about you go to your head so that you lose that humility!  :^)  ]


Canadian Atheist said...

You said: "Humility is then, as Paul seems to define it, a deliberate action or actions to be taken -- a putting self aside and considering the other person and his/her own interests as of more importance than my own."

Sounds a lot like empathy. Good article!

Bill Ball said...

CA: Thanks. I agree. You might want to check out my post by that title. Just type in "EMPATHY" on the top of the page.