The Christmas virtue of humility

Humility is a uniquely Christian virtue. In the ancient world, humility was not considered to be a virtue, but a short-coming. Humility was despised because it meant weakness and lowliness. The same often remains true today. I find that in many social settings people are almost vying to tell everybody how clever they are, how interesting they are, and what they and their family have been up to in the last few weeks or months (as is evidenced by so many Christmas letters we have received this year).

By contrast Jesus “humbled himself” in becoming one with us (Phil 2.7). Just as pride heads the list of the seven ‘deadly’ sins, humility heads the list of Christian virtues. As Augustine put it, “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels”.

But what is humility? The Apostle Paul in his introduction to the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2, wrote: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others better than yourselves”. The American preacher Fred Craddock in his commentary wrote:

Paul regarded as inappropriate to the body of Christ the selfish eyes, the pompous mind, the ear hungry for compliments and the mouth that spoke none, the heart that had little room for others, and the hand that served only the self.

Instead we are to regard others better than ourselves”, wrote the Apostle Paul. Or rather, we are to “value others” better than ourselves.  Paul is not here encouraging his readers to beat themselves up or put themselves down – instead he is urging them to build up and lift others. As Walter Hansen rightly says in his magisterial commentary:

The focus is not negative, but positive. Let the needs and interest s of others surpass yours: put them in first place; give them the place of honour respect them; listen to them; speak about them; serve them; strengthen them; encourage them. Putting others instead of ourselves in the centre of our concern will cause a radical Copernican revolution in the community.

C.S. Lewis in a collection of talks broadcast on the BBC, which he later published under the title of Mere Christianity, described pride (or ‘self-conceit’) as “the great sin”. “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison… Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind”.  He went on to say that pride essentially competitive – for “pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man”. Humility, by contrast, is not thinking about self at all. Or as he said elsewhere, “humility is thinking less about yourself, not thinking less of yourself”.

Or to quote Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington:

If pride is wanting everyone to notice us and look up to us, humility is being secure enough not to draw attention to ourselves all the time, giving space for other people or things to exist and be themselves, refusing to impose ourselves and our agenda on others, and leaving them the opportunity to grow and flourish with or without us. It is the willingness and the ability to be the servant of others; to be more interested in hearing the stories of successes of others than in reciting our own. Just like God.

It is in the context of urging the Philippians to “be humble towards one another” (Phil 2.3 GNB) that Paul goes on: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who… humbled himself”. Here we see that humility is not to be equated with modesty – it is about giving up our rights”. Here we see too that to “look out for one another’s interests” (Phil 2.4 GNB) does not  mean being interested in the well-being of others, but rather giving ourselves in sacrificial service.  Jesus gave up all that was rightfully his – for our sake.

Here is a Christmas challenge to every Christian. Here too is a Christmas challenge to every Christian leader.

Let me end with some words of Augustine of Hippo. “When a certain rhetorician was asked what was the chief rule of eloquence, he replied, ‘Delivery’. What was the second rule ‘Delivery’. What was the third rule? ‘Delivery’. So if you ask me about the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third and always I would answer, ‘Humility’.

2 comments

  1. Just a thought: humility begins in and is underpinned by realism and self-awareness. Only a self-aware person can know when to speak and when to stay silent. Only such a person can offer a service or advice without it being a boast. Only such a person can keep his head when all around are losing theirs. Only the self-aware can take control in a crisis without a trace of self-delusion or pride.
    Happy Christmas, everyone.

  2. This excellent exposition of humility seems to me to be another way of describing letting go of the ego- a prerequisite for expansion of the spirit.

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