Humility: Virtue not Vice

This piece is about the virtue of humility. There’s not a lot of it in our world today, is there?! Some of our world leaders exemplify anything but humility but it certainly doesn’t stop with them. Indeed, many regard it as a bad thing and the humble are dismissed with derision and scorn as ‘losers’.

It seems it was always so. Many in the honour-shame culture of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome certainly did not regard humility as a virtue. Indeed, philosophers such as Aristotle regarded it as a vice. It was dishonourable to be brought low and it was considered shameful to put oneself lower than one’s equals.

Onto the stage of history steps Jesus of Nazareth, the Servant-King – how counter-cultural in his time … and in ours! Paul writes in Philippians 2:3-5, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

This is immediately followed by Paul’s quotation of a hymn, presumably one known and sung in Philippi, which I’ve represented diagrammatically as follows:

Commentators point out that the shape of the story of Jesus contrasts line by line, step by step with the story of fallen humankind. I’ve constructed another diagram for this:[1]

Australian writer John Dickson comments on the Philippian hymn: “What we read in the above text is nothing less than a humility revolution. Honour and shame are turned on their heads. The highly honoured Jesus lowered himself to a shameful cross and, yet, in so doing became not an object of scorn but of praise and emulation. … Honour has been redefined, greatness recast. If the greatest man we have ever known chose to forgo his status for the good of others, reasoned the early Christians, greatness must consist in humble service. The shameful place is now a place of honour, the low point is the high point.” (Humilitas, p. 109)

As song-writer Graham Kendrick puts it, “So let us learn how to serve / And in our lives enthrone Him / Each other’s needs to prefer / For it is Christ we’re serving”.

Great God and Father, help us to be revolutionaries in a culture of winners and losers, and in humility to value others above ourselves. In the name of Jesus, the Servant-King. Amen.

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[1] You can read more about the contrasting shape of these stories in chapter 7 of a book that David Smith and I wrote some years ago (available as a free download here).