In Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, he enjoins the Christians there to practice humility by intending to “regard one another as more important than yourselves.” (Phil 2:4, NASB). Paul clearly indicates that this way of regarding others is an exemplification of humility. Throughout the narrative of Scripture, humility appears most frequently in discussions of the proper posture we should have toward God. If these are our primary pieces of data, the Christian might be inclined to conceive of humility primarily as a virtue belonging to us as creatures, one that informs how we should relate both to God and other human beings.
But what would happen if we considered humility as a feature of God’s own character? Immediately after the passage in which he describes how the church should exercise humility, Paul encourages us to “[h]ave this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” (Phil 2:5-7) This famous passage implies that the kenosis was an act of humility. What makes this important to the present argument is that Jesus acts humbly not as human being, but insofar as He is God. It is Jesus qua God who humbles Himself; indeed, He humbles Himself in order to become incarnate as a human bond-servant (or slave). The humility must have been exercised prior to becoming (or even the decision to become) incarnate. Jesus, as pre-existing and pre-incarnate Divine Logos, is humble, which suggests that it is proper to the character of God to be humble. Humility, then, is not merely a human virtue, but a virtue exemplified by God as well. Furthermore, it is in and through this divine humility of Christ Jesus that an account of Christian humility must begin. It is this divine humility that Paul expects us to possess.
Jesus, as pre-existing and pre-incarnate Divine Logos, is humble, which suggests that it is proper to the character of God to be humble.
When Paul enjoins the Philippian church to practice humility, he urges them to imitate something that Christ has done, or an attitude that Christ possesses. Moral imitation suggests that there is a moral similarity between the humility exercised by Jesus and the humility Paul urges the Philippians to develop and employ. If the humility of Jesus is divine humility, then Paul is challenging us to imitate the character of God. This implies that divine humility can be imitated by human beings; we can act humbly in a way that properly reflects divine humility. This is quite a daunting task, but it is hardly unique in Scripture, especially in the New Testament. In Matthew 18, we are urged to forgive our debts in imitation of God’s forgiveness of our debts. In Luke 15, through the story of the prodigal son, Jesus urges us to love without regard for the cultural or personal cost of loving others, just as God has loved us. In turn, the divine love and forgiveness demonstrated toward us in these passages can help us overcome our fear of (inevitable) failure to imitate Him fully. We can instead rejoice that God has chosen to allow us to participate in the kind of life that only He can enable us to live.
How can these points help inform accounts of Christian humility? We should first note the important historical shift effected by Jesus’ attitude as described by Paul. The ancient world regarded humility as a vice precisely because it seemed to suggest a willingness to be enslaved or humiliated. Contrast this with the attitude of Jesus (aka the Second Person of the Trinity). Jesus’ entrance into the world – and his willingness to do so – as a slave (or bond-servant) suggests that He was not concerned with maintaining status, privilege, or honor, but was willing to be humiliated and shamed in order to serve and demonstrate His love toward the creation made by and through Him. In His incarnation, Jesus effected one of the most dramatic moral reversals in history – no longer should humility be regarded as a vice, but as a great virtue.
This shift in moral lens bears on us creatures, as well. The idea that divine humility can be imitated by human beings is consistent with the long tradition of Jewish ethical theorizing in which God is understood as moral exemplar. There are compelling reasons – drawn from the Tanakh, Rabbinic writings, and the Septuagint – for understanding God as humble. More significantly, it would have been commonplace for Jews throughout their history to understand God in this way – as humble and (more generally) as moral exemplar for humanity.
This point should alert us to the suggestion that humility appears to have a long history. Regarding it as a peculiarly Christian virtue might obscure the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures can inform our understanding of humility in ways we might not have been aware of. However much the ancient Greeks and Romans thought of humility as a vice, Jews understood it as a virtue; there is a long history of discussion of humility in Jewish writings. The next wave of study of humility, then, would do well to take seriously the ways in which God reveals Himself as humble both in the New Testament and in the Hebrew Scriptures. If I am right about the commonality of humility between God and creatures, such a study should enable us to see what boundaries or limits we must place on our account of humility, since whatever we develop must be consistent with God’s character and nature.
Furthermore, such study should also enable us to see more clearly ways in which God reveals Himself as humble throughout the narrative of Scripture, and not only via the Incarnation. The theme of humility is present in a wide range of biblical texts, including many in the Hebrew Bible. It behooves us to search carefully so that we can learn all that God has revealed to us about humility, and so that we can become better imitators of our humble Lord. The venerable Christian tradition of humility is rooted in Jesus’ decision to descend to be with us, and his willingness to suffer great social and personal humiliation. If we want to follow and imitate Jesus, then that sort of humility is demanded of us as well.
For further reading on divine humility, enjoy theologian Adam Johnson’s take here.