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 servant, 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 (Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV).
Humility as a concept is often misunderstood in our culture, and even in Christian faith. Humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means “earth” or “soil”. Paul implores Christians in the letter to the Philippian church to be humble like Jesus, to be grounded. We should not think too highly of ourselves, he says, but rather have the same mind of service, obedience and unity as Christ. We should empty ourselves of ego, pretension and arrogance. This is a hard command to follow. First of all, when we think of humility, often we think of the extreme discomfort of humiliation. Secondly, we might think it more convenient to instruct others to be humble than to be humble ourselves. And all too often, people of relative privilege find themselves unwittingly wielding a weapon against disenfranchised people, chiding them to be humble, in order to keep them from seeking empowerment in an unjust society. If fact, humility is a virtue many of us could better learn from (and not teach to) the poor and marginalized.
A man stood at the door of an old church building, greeting people as they came in to attend the evening’s Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. His hands and voice were tired and rough as he welcomed each person. A bead of snot ran from his nose, unnoticed because the winter air had nearly numbed his face. As people filed into the room, the same low, raspy voice repeated over and over, “Hi, my name is Keith. Hi, my name is Keith. Hi, my name is Keith.” A few people said hello and shook his hand. Some merely nodded their head. A lot of people pretended not to see him at all as they rushed inside out of the cold. Keith was not particularly well dressed or groomed. He had been living at a homeless shelter.
Later, in the middle of the meeting, an intoxicated man stumbled into the back of the room and plopped down loudly into an open seat. Many of the other recovering alcoholics seemed at first not to notice. Those who did were either annoyed or dismayed, not quite sure how to respond. Then, the man exclaimed something incoherent out of turn. People shifted stiffly in their metal folding chairs, trying to ignore the disruption and refocus their attention elsewhere. Keith, however, quietly stood up and walked over to a table in the front of the room, poured some coffee into a foam cup and brought it to the drunk man. Anyone who was paying attention to this tender scene received the blessing of a lesson in humility. For here was one person who was so in touch with his own humanity that he recognized the need of his brother and responded immediately with compassion. To be humble is to be so grounded in our humanness that we see the dignity of all persons and thereby become uniquely available to meet their needs.
The man sipped his coffee, occasionally spilling some on the floor. Keith carefully wiped it up with a napkin. After the meeting, the two sat out on the steps of the old church building, sharing a cigarette in the bitter cold, while the rest of the people hurried to their cars.
Are we sometimes so dazzled by our own self-importance or so despondent over the illusion of inadequacy that we fail to recognize how we, as human beings made in the image of God, are uniquely able to serve one another? How can we better see ourselves through the eyes of humility, so that we can then better see each other and respond with compassion when people are lonely, lost or hurting?
Holy God made known to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,
Relieve us of the bondage of self.
May we be humbled by your power and mercy,
May we be encouraged and made hopeful by your promise,
May we do your heavenly work with our human hands.