St Matthew’s, Bloomington—Philippians 2:1-13
In the late Stephen Covey’s classic book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Habit #2 is “Begin with the end in mind.” In other words, know where you want to go before you set out to go there. Make sure that what you’re doing is consistent with the goal of getting you to that destination.
I think most of us would agree, that’s pretty sound advice. So, how might we apply that advice to our lives as Christians in this world and in this life? What is the “end” for a Christian? What is the goal and purpose of our lives of faith and religious practice? Well, to put it succinctly, the “end” of the Christian life—that is, the goal and purpose of religious faith and practice—is perfect union with Christ, being perfectly conformed to the image of Christ, having what we do or say be instinctively, un-self-consciously, what Jesus would do or say under the same circumstances, making Christ’s sufferings our own that we may also make his glory our own.
These are ambitious goals. These are challenging ends. We might well ask, then, what are the means toward those ends? The short answer is that grace is the means toward those ends—grace that comes only from God himself. And the means of grace are legion. Faith is the means of grace that makes all the other means of grace possible. Then there are the sacraments, which are effective signs—they transmit what they signify. Then there’s the community of the church—the fellowship of God’s people in worship, mutual care, service to the world, and study. Finally, there’s the discipline of emulating Christ. The question “What would Jesus do?” was a passing fad several years ago, almost a fashion statement. We might add to it the corollary question, what would Jesus be?” I’m not sure it’s always possible to answer those questions with any degree of certainty, but they are surely good questions to ask. The mere asking of them points us in the direction, at least, of an answer. Faith, the sacraments, the communion of the Church, the emulation of Christ—these are the primary and ordinary means of grace by which we grow more and more into his image, which is our “end” as Christians.
We do well to ask, next, what is the most important quality of Christ that we might strive to emulate?—and that answer is, I can say without any hesitation, humility. Listen again to these words from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Humility, of course, is related to the word “humus,” which is what composted vegetable matter eventually turns into. To be humble is to be low to the ground, close to the earth. St Paul also tells the Philippians
Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others
—this speaks of a capacity to be un-self-absorbed, reluctant to take credit, even when it is due, lack of selfish ambition, not calling attention to oneself. To be humble is to be focused in conversation more on others than oneself, yet not for the purpose of currying favor, because we know that the only opinion that ultimately counts is God’s and are therefore unconcerned about human approval.
Now, this is not to be confused with being shy or mousy or having a poor self image. A genuinely humble person can be as confident and outgoing and joyful as is humanly possible without compromising the quality of his or her humility one bit. Humility doesn’t necessarily comply with our stereotypes.
I would suggest that there are two distinct dimensions of humility that we do well to pay attention to. The first is un-self-conscious humility—that is, humility as an inlaid component of a person’s character. This is the sort of humility that doesn’t require intention or effort. This is really the best kind of humility and is what we should be aspiring to. But there’s a really thorny problem related to this dimension of humility, and it’s this: If you think you’re humble in this way, you’re automatically not, just by definition. The instant we think we’re humble, we’ve stopped being humble! So, if we ever truly are humble in this way, we won’t know it. Others might see it and think it and may even tell us, but we better hope they don’t, or else that we don’t believe them. Because if we believe them, then guess what?—we’ve stopped being humble. Of course, this means that there’s never any satisfying payoff of achievement (which, actually, would spoil the whole thing anyway!).
But there’s another dimension of humility, which we might call intentional humility. Intentional humility is a strategy—a strategy appropriate for the majority of us to whom authentic, unself-conscious humility does not come easily or naturally. If we find ourselves in that category, then acting humble—intentionally doing and saying humble things, giving credit to others, avoiding the limelight, shunning personal publicity or self-promotion, taking the proverbial “lowest seat” in social situations, making anonymous gifts, and the like—acting humble, if we do it long enough, might actually lead to being humble. We act humble in the hope that it will eventually become so habitual that forethought will no longer be required. Now, we might be tempted to think of this as somehow hypocritical, disingenuous, lacking in authenticity. But I would suggest to you that it is not hypocrisy at all. Rather, it is the purest form of spiritual discipline. We act humble in order to become humble, and we wish to become humble because we want to emulate the character and behavior of our Lord Jesus Christ.
St Paul continues with the Philippians:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
This sounds a little severe. I mean, who wants to do anything in “fear and trembling?” But, once again, we need to keep “the end” in mind, and by that, I mean not just the imitation of Christ, and not just being conformed to the image of Christ, but our very salvation!
Intentional humility is not particularly fun, but it brings us closer to Jesus by making us more like him, so we can share his “end” as well:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.