Humility, for many of us, might just be mild-mannered niceness. We like to think of it all buttoned up and soft-spoken, cloaked in the quiet gray sweater his grandmother made, sitting by the modest fireplace of a friend’s home, patiently greeting and warming a crowded room of other virtues. Humility, as we might picture him, is the unnoticed nice guy who deflects all the praise and makes everyone else feel good.
But maybe we should reconsider.
For the Christian, virtue is better called “fruit,” and rather than be the revenue of our self-righteousness, it’s actually the produce of the Spirit’s power. And rather than rely on our own societal assumptions for its definition, we can actually look to where it was personified. We can see the Who of humility.
His name, of course, is Jesus. The Gospels paint for us the scene, and then Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives us the explanation.
Tracking the Mind of Christ
Remember in Philippians 2 that Paul is exhorting the church in humility — the “mind of Christ” we learn to call it in verse 5. “Count others more significant,” Paul has said, “Look to the interests of others” (verses 3–4). This is the function of humility.
Then comes its essence in Christ. “Being in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (verse 6). Scholars and theologians have long wrestled with what this means. It is literally an invitation into the mysteries of the Incarnation, and we’re bound to find more wonder there than pat answers. But without even diving into that glorious ocean, I think Paul explains what he means in the following verses. There’s certainly nothing wrong with God-honoring theologizing, but sometimes we just need to keep reading.
Not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped is, as Paul writes, Jesus making himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, humbling himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. Now what is that?
They Said, He Says
One way to feel humility’s heart is to see the Father’s response to Jesus. “Therefore,” says the text, because Jesus did all of this, because he didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name...” (verse 9). And there it is.
See, Jesus, in his divinity, has had this name the whole time, for all of eternity, it’s just that since taking human nature, nobody said it. Nobody recognized it. Jesus has forever been Lord — and forever will be — but when he left glory for earth, so to speak, he traded the sound of angels’ songs for the insults of sinful men. He exchanged the heaven-tuned chorus for hell-tainted cursing. Though he had always been known as the blazing center of his Father’s affection, scoundrels started calling him bastard, and he loved us enough not to stop it.
And here shines the humility of Jesus: he refused to vindicate his own identity, yielding that declaration to his Father. He knew who he was. He knew the Father knew who he was. And he knew that one day, through the path of his suffering as the God-man, everybody would know who he was.
But the ground of that path meant a lot of people calling him something different. That is the scene painted for us in the Gospels, and most vividly, on the cross.
When All Went Terribly Wrong
Have you ever noticed in the Gospels, leading up to the cross, that every speaker is saying something wrong about Jesus? The only two voices to speak the truth are Judas and Pilate, who both declare that Jesus is innocent, though the former said it too late and the latter was too much of a coward to do anything about it (Matthew 27:3–4, 19, 23; cf. Luke 23:14–15, 20–22).
They all simply get it wrong, from Peter’s denial, to the soldier’s taunts, to the robber who hung beside him, to every passerby of Golgotha. Matthew tells us what they did by using three different verbs. They derided him; they mocked him; they reviled him (Matthew 27:39, 41, 44). And what did they go after? His identity. If you are who you really said you were, then show us now. So, you’re the Son of God, well let’s see it. You trust God, do you? Well, where is his favor now?
Can we even begin to understand how incredibly twisted sin made the world in these moments? It was absolute chaos. The only truly righteous man to ever live was killed as a criminal and imposter. Yahweh in the flesh, the one who deserves our ceaseless worship, was instead derided. Yahweh in the flesh, the one who deserves our highest praise, was instead mocked. Yahweh in the flesh, the one who deserves our unashamed adoration, was instead reviled.
And what did he say? Do we know what he did? He didn’t ask for the twelve legions of angels who were armed and ready for his call (Matthew 26:53). He didn’t make any appeals that were in his right. He just stayed silent, except for his forsaken cries. Oh, my God, how did you do it? How can we comprehend the depths of this humility?
When We’re in the Turmoil
It was in the mayhem — when the worst event in the history of humanity befell him, when utter pandemonium broke out on the earth — it was there that we see the most glorious demonstration of what it means to be humble. It was in that gruesome sight that we see the paradoxical wonders of our King.
And so it will be for us, oftentimes. A disciple is not above his master (Matthew 10:24). The situations that most require our humility will be far from tamed. It will be the unbecoming, frustrated moments when the stress shoots high and our experience feels so grossly disproportionate to the peace that awaits us. It’ll be when we’re angry over something, feeling wronged by this or that, finding ourselves too easily offended than we’d ever dare admit. It’ll be when we’re left to our own thoughts, left to fume or forgive, when no one else is watching except our Savior who paved the way.
This is the chaos of humility. And it’s what makes it so beautiful.