In a society that values winners over losers, the rich over the poor, the powerful over the weak, humility is seldom a virtue to which people aspire. That is true even among those who name Christ as their personal savior and a guiding light to the way they should live their lives. We claim love as our aim for, as the old song says, that is how others will know we are Christians. Yet we are often blind to our striking lack of humility. This is unfortunate because it is the doorway into the Christian life and into the very love to which we are supposedly aspiring. This begs the question, is there a way to tell how humble we are so that we might have a sense how brightly God’s love is shining through us?
Are We Willing to become One of Them?
One answer to this question begins with what the Scriptures say Jesus had as his rational for becoming human.
6 … though he was in the form of God / [he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited, / 7 but emptied himself, / taking the form of a / slave, / being born in human likeness. / And being found in human form, / 8he humbled himself / and became obedient to the point of death— / even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8
The most interesting thing about this description of Christ’s choice is the commandment preceding it:
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, (Philippians 2:5)
Jesus could have remained at home in the plush comfort of some heavenly penthouse, seated as coequal with God his father. Yet he chose to become one of us, to live among the fallen, the lost, the lonely, that he might show how much God loves the word – even unto death, — the death to self that spanned a lifetime of living and doing for others as much a he could while also remaining true to himself and his father.
This is the path each of us is called to walk in the name of Christian love. We are commanded to humble ourselves for the sake of love. We are asked to get off of whatever high horse we may presume to own and to walk with rather than ride. We implored to humble ourselves and become “one of them” – one of those others that we might otherwise prefer to despise.
But exactly how do we become one of them, one of those people from whom we seem so unreachably different? How does an adult become a child again, how does a person with a home become homeless, how does a white person become a black person?
As relates to this question, there’s a lesson to be learned from sitting down at the dinner table – the quintessential Christ-like activity – that I had not noticed until recently. When you sit for dinner, you all sit at approximately the same level as everyone else who is at the table. Disparities that were once great become much smaller. It is similar to how some adults instinctually know to stoop before speaking with a child, how they know to sit on the bed beside them, or to lie down next to them, or to cast of all of society’s artificial propriety and simply become one of them again – full of the wonder, laughter, and play.
It’s like when a black student of mine told me, a fellow African-American, that I had no expletive-deleted way of knowing what it meant to be a real black person, and so I moved into the inner-city to live among a way different type of black person than I had ever wanted to believe that I was or could be – scared (as I turned my bed around the first night so any stray bullets might hit my feet and not my head), culturally pliable (as I watch myself react to drug dealers in ways I once would have self-righteously condemned teens for doing), vulnerable (as my car was repeatedly robbed, the house next door burned down in the middle of that night, and. hit in the head with a crowbar ).
Many Christians like to condemn people who they see as openly hateful. But that is somewhat of a false flag. The more widely damaging attitude is one of separateness, snobbery and arrogance. This stealthy attitude springs from the simple and seemly fair desire to want a nice place to live and a good school for the kids to go to, not like the ones over there. It is hoping that homeless shelter, low-cost housing, or immigrants will fail to land in my neck of the woods. It is wanting to be safe, separate, and apart-from rather than a-part-of those other lives. It is participating in a type of willful segregation that allows us to live in manicured, well-kept haven (heavens) while assigning others to a dilapidated, underserved, and unsafe earthiness. If such a situation were forced on us in the style of the old segregated South we would protest, but many of us nonetheless embrace it of our own free will without even realizing what we’re doing, or not.
There in lies the first possible way of telling if we are humbling ourselves as Christ humbled himself. Ask if we are willing to become one of them – to sup with them, to live among them or at least have them live among us, to allow them into our lives. Will it be safe? Tensionless? Without discomfort? Then again, would Christ of left heaven for earth if he was seeking a comfortable humility?
Are We Willing to See Christ in Other People?
As I write this, Easter is already a month past. But I cannot get one particular image from this last Easter morn out of my head. If I have heard the Easter story once, I have heard it a thousand times. Yet the implications of Mary Magdalene meeting the gardener never struck me with such full force as it did this last holy season.
The disciples had come. They’d seen the absence of Jesus’s body. Then they had returned home without connecting the dots of what had transpired. Afterwards, Mary alone, weeping. She looks into the tomb one more time and sees two Angels, who ask why she is weeping. Because they have taken my Lord, she replies. Then comes Mark 20:14-16,
14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher)
Here Mary is, standing face to face with the person she probably holds most dear on earth, and at first she does not recognize him. She thinks he’s just some gardener. Not until he speaks does she recognize he’s the Messiah, who is her friend and for whom she would do anything. In that moment she is humbled, calling him “teacher,” as she realizes, once more, that she has much to learn.
How is this not just like us? We have read that everyone is created in the image of God. It is written in the scriptures we constantly tell the world is inerrant. And yet when we look at our neighbor – the destitute, the lonely, the stranger with the different skin – we fail to see the indelible image of God that resides there. If we did, would we, like Mary, not be humbled? Would we not listen and try and help them with what they asked?
No, too often we are more like the other disciples. When people stand before us, we see only empty tombs that are not worth staying around for. Afterwards, we return home, failing to grasp the great mystery that, whatsoever we do unto the least of these we do also unto Christ.
Mary’s willingness to take a second look when others had given up on situation, suggests the second way we can know if we are being humble enough to fulfill our God-ordained roles as Christians. We need only to ask ourselves, are we pausing long enough, are we searching actively enough, are we listening hard enough, to break through our preconceptions of the people standing before us and see in them the image of God, an image before which we are humbled into finally seeing them as worthy of our time?
Are We Willing to be Servants?
But none of these questions can be asked and answered honestly without returning to the observation with which this questioning began: We live in a highly competitive society that values the rich, powerful and imagined winners over supposedly poor, weak, losers. Which is to say we live in a highly hierarchical society. This is important because it allows the prior two question can be seen as different faces of this one final question: Are will willing to be heaven’s servants in a country that frequently prioritized and values earth’s masters more?
Many people have no problem going abroad to lesser countries where, by virtue of their first world status, they can still feel like king in the third world. But stoop to be a servant in their own backyard? Actively surrender a portion of their status to help someone they would prefer to continue keep lower on the social or economic ladder?
I remember reading a headline a couple of years ago where someone said something to the effect of, it is not good enough to be flying first class; I want to also make sure you’re flying economy!
That people hold such sentiments makes sense in light of research showing that: if person A is given a choice of him and everyone else winning a million dollars or just him winning $100,000 dollars, a surprisingly high number of people will choose the second option. Why? They figure that what good is a million dollars if everyone has it? They aren’t looking to improve their lot. They are looking to improve their lot relative to everyone else, who they can then, subtly or no so subtly, look down on.
Let that sink in, rich but equal is not good enough for most people. And that is before considering that God is asking us, at times, to completely reverse the social hierarchy and put others before ourselves.
Do you love me, Christ asked three times? Then humble yourself enough to feed my lambs, even if your neighbors look on disapprovingly. Humble yourself and take care of my sheep – these poor, these hungry, the huddled masses and wretched refuse of other countries’ teaming shores – despite other people calling you and them dirty, lazy, worthless. Humble yourself so that as you feed my sheep you number among the last who will be first-called and wholly (holy) reborn.
The term unconditional love carries in it a call to this very humility. It invites us to love not in spite of people’s faults but because those very faults are exactly where love is supposed to begin. We cannot love others with all their faults unless we humble ourselves enough to admit that we are possessed of our own set of equally difficult failings. It is this singular truth that makes humility the gateway to wise and godly love. These are the three best ways I know of gauging if we believe in a Christ for what we can get out of the deal or for what we can give in worship to him.
Questions for Contemplation and Discussion
- Philippians 2:5 says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” What does that mean?
- When most people look at Christians, do you think they would describe us as humble, arrogant, or neutral? And why?
- What would it look like for you, me, or other Christians to act in a more humble manor?
- When is the last time you can remember hearing a sermon on humility? Do you think it would be useful to talk about humility in church and sermons more or less?
- Is is possible to be humble (meek as it is put in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount) and to simultaneously supply an reason adequate enough to justify excluding various people from our communities?
- Thinking of Mark 20: 14-16, would you say you approach people looking/expecting to find at least a part of the image of God in them? And what does it look like to treat people like that?
- Would you say most American do or do not feel entitled? And do you believe servanthood is compatible with a feeling of entitlement?
Read More from Love: The Foundation
In 2002, I visited Maine to see Gregg, my college roommate, and his young family. At the Naval Academy, Gregg and I made strange bedfellows: