We are to be holy as God is holy (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 15-16). But are we to be humble as God is humble? Of course not, you might say—God isn’t humble, he is Lord of Creation! How could he be humble? And if being humble is a matter of properly seeing one’s status within a pecking order, seeing oneself as lower down than others on the ladder of skill, virtue, command or worth, then of course God cannot be humble. As the Creator, he does not fall within our ranking system—he is the standard, the measure, by which any and all ranking is properly done. But let’s not be too hasty. Perhaps there is more to be said about God’s humility.
Philippians 2:5-11 tells us:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (ESV)
There is much to be said about humility in this passage. including the way that it frames our understanding of the relationships between husbands and wives in Ephesians 5. But at present, we will attend to the role of humility in the divine life.
Paul tells us that we are to have in ourselves the mindset that was in Christ Jesus, and then specifies that mindset by the behavior, not of the incarnate Jesus Christ, but of the eternal Son, who was incarnated in human form, becoming the man Jesus Christ. In other words, the pattern, the mindset that we are to have is the mindset of the eternal Son. And what did this Son do? “He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself.” And this one, who was now found in human form, this one “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death.” Who is this one doing these things? Whose mindset is this? It seems clear from Paul’s argument that this mindset cannot be constrained to the incarnate Jesus Christ alone—this is no merely human characteristic we are called to emulate. Rather, we are called to have the mindset of the eternal Son himself—who revealed his humility in the way described in Philippians 2:5-11.
In short, God, the eternal Son (not just the incarnate Christ) is humble.
In what does this humility consist? Not in thinking himself unimportant. Not in locating himself below humankind on a scale of all the universe’s relative goods. Not in seeing himself as worthless. Not as finding himself without value. Of course none of this could be true for God himself, the maker of heaven and earth, the source of all worth and goodness.
What then does it mean? Essentially, Paul seems to be saying that humility is a matter of how we view our rights and how we view our relation to others.
First, humility is a matter of not clinging to that which is ours by right—in this case, honor and glory, all that attends being God. The eternal Son did not cling to or grab hold of that which should be or would be his as God. For honor, glory, reputation, status—all these were inconsequential to him. But this is a purely negative statement—a statement of what humility is not.
Second, and positively, humility is a matter of using ourselves and our sphere of influence to elevate others, to lift them up, bless them, encourage them, save them and honor them. Humility does not operate on a fixed scale of worth, but with a flexible one, using its resources to bless, and move others up, whatever scale they find themselves on. Are they weak? The strong use their resources to strengthen them. Are they poor? The wealthy raise them out of poverty. Are they downtrodden? Oppressed? The secure use their security, share their security, not clinging to it as their own, that others might share in those blessings.
Humility, in short, is the twin movement of not clinging to something that is ours, but using it for the benefit of others, that they might share in it to their benefit.
In this sense, we cannot take the first step in proclaiming the God of the Gospel without proclaiming him to be the humble God. The God who did not cling to his blessed eternal life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but made this life a means for sharing his blessings with us—a costly and sacrificial mode of sharing which took the shape and form of the via dolorosa and the cross on Golgotha. But this loss, this suffering on God’s part, is not all we have to say—cannot be all that we have to say, for humility does not embrace suffering and loss. It is not a matter of becoming lesser and smaller. Or rather, it is these things, but only as part of a bigger picture: for the blessing and exaltation of others. And this is why Philippians 2:9-11 is so vital: The humble God is simultaneously the exalting and exalted God. The Jesus who bore the cross is the same Jesus who was exalted above every power and principality. Yes, God is the humble God—but he is the humble God as the one who is simultaneously and eternally exalted and exalting.
Consider one brief implication of this beautiful doctrine.
There are those who think themselves called to humility by the Christian faith, and by this understand that to mean adopting a life of oppression, humiliation, and suffering. There are those who think that because they are called to be humble, they must remain under the rule of violent and oppressive spouses, bosses, and rulers, who think that anything but demure self-effacement is to violate their calling to humility.
But this is not humility!
The humility of God—the humility we are called to share—is a humility that takes its own blessings, resources, and rights, and does not cling to them, but uses them to restore, build up, and bless others.
Those oppressed should not harm their oppressors by allowing them to continue in their violent and abusing ways. This would be to hate their oppressor—allowing them to walk in their sin. The humble are called to an altogether different path: to use their gifts and their rights not to their own loss, and not to their own benefit, but for the benefit and true blessing of others.
Christians are not to be a people who embrace or tolerate sinful and abusive relations as a badge of their humility. They are to be a people and church who, like their Lord, use what rights, blessings, and powers they have to bless others, freeing the abused from the perpetrators and freeing the perpetrators from the fears, passions, and beliefs which motivate them to so many acts of hate.
Adam Johnson is a theologian and Assistant Professor in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University and was a CCT Research Fellow during our 2014-2015 year on Intellectual Virtue & Civil Discourse. He focuses on the doctrine of the atonement, exploring the many ways in which the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ effect the reconciliation of all things to God. He is author of two books: God's Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth and Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed. Visit AdamJJohnson.com for a free book chapter.
The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.