[A study on my last name: Tapeinophrosune.
So the last will be first, and the first last. ~ Matt 20:16
It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels. ~ St. Augustine]
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 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, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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. ~Phil 2:3-10
This never gets old. If I had to start a talk on humility (Greek: tapeinophrosune), I have to first start with the Man. God becoming a mere human in order to save sinful humanity is like us subjugating ourselves to becoming a little ant in order to try and save all anthills. This is severely limiting; but that’s what love does, isn’t it? Love stoops, just like how an intelligent mom making six figures would put her career on hold in order to spend time changing smelly diapers for a newborn who won’t even remember what happened within the next 5 minutes. Similarly, except to a greater degree of course, Jesus died for us puny humans in the name of love. And he didn’t die any death, like dying quietly in his sleep or suddenly in a car accident. He died on the cross: the most gruesome and torturous death sentence known to man. I’m not sure how much pain ants can feel but in order to attempt to make some kind of comparison, let’s engage in a thought experiment: imagine that you, a human, are the savior for all of the ants throughout the universe that you love. You want to save them from their ant-sins and so you choose to become an ant yourself and eventually die one leg and body section at a time from focused rays of sun slowly moving across your body from the almighty magnifying glass. That is severely painful. That is severely humiliating.
One other word I want to point out from the verses in Philippians above: the word “servant” in Greek is “doulou”. In other words, it’s the word that corresponds with the lowliest of form of slave. Even back in the Israelite days, it was said of even the slaves at the bottom of the food chain that they would do everything for their master, except this one thing: wash their feet. That was the limit. Compare this to something like… “I am your bondservant. I’m here to serve you pretty much literally in any way… wash your face, make you breakfast, etc. But here’s where I’ll draw the line: I will not under any circumstance, wipe your butt.” Sorry for the imagery, but I wanted to rub this in a little bit because that’s the shock factor that Jesus was going for. This is a portrait of our Jesus:
He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him… If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master. ~ John 13:4-5, 15-16
Jesus wanted to do it; he wanted to stoop that low and was willing to do humble himself to do the equivalent of “wiping our butts”. Jesus willingly descended to become the lowest doulou of all. So it seems pretty clear, then, that Jesus was definitely one person who was willing to humble himself – even humiliate himself – for us. These examples are so extreme: becoming a person and being obedient even to dying on the cross, and also, initiating the unthinkable of washing his disciples feet. Doulou. Tapeinophrosune. Humility.
What a challenge. How then, should we respond?
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. ~ John 13:34
Darn… I guess we really ought to take up this challenge, since Jesus told us to do so right after he washed all of his disciples’ feet. He even washed Judas’ feet. Remember Judas? The one to betray Jesus? Yeah, even him.
Remember the second greatest commandment, the one that came after loving God? “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We all love ourselves, even if we don’t necessarily like ourselves. What I mean is this: We take care of our bodies (to some degree) and make sure that our lives are (somewhat) in a functioning, or least non-explosive, state. We eat and drink enough to survive, even if it’s just 1 meal a day plus 3 cups of coffee. What I’m trying to get across is this: at least at a very basic level, you love and take care of yourself and actually have to put some thought into doing this day in and day out.
Now, when Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, he didn’t mean for us to like our neighbor as ourselves. Just as you may not always like yourself – and heck, there may be times that you simply loathe yourself – you still love yourself and meet your own needs to some degree of survival. At minimum, we can love others in this way: noticing others’ needs and meeting them, even if you hate their guts and you really would prefer not to have anything to do with that person. But the command still stands… and you can work on softening your heart as you move your hands.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. ~ Phil 2:3-4
Ok, Paul takes this a step further when he writes to the Philippians. He says that “in humility count others more significant than yourselves”. I think what he meant when he said that was to count others as more significant than myself. Yeah, right, Paul. As if I’m ever really going to do that. No, like really?
Uhm… really. Yeah. That’s how deep my pride runs. It’s oh so very hard to actually, honestly count others more significant than myself. Because clearly, everyone should know that I am the princess whenever I walk into a room, right? The fabric of reality ought to bend to my every whim. But the way of humility tells me to think otherwise: that whenever someone else walks into the room, that that person is the princess and I’m the doulou. Paul had it going on: I mean, how else am I really going to love others at least to the level that I love myself besides looking to the interest of others? Notice, he doesn’t tell us to neglect our own needs in order to meet others’ needs – he is tacking on something extra: “look… also to the interests of others.” There isn’t an either-or here, it’s both. I need to expand my heart to look to others’ interests. Not only that, but the harder thing to do is to count others as more significant, no matter how they treat you.
Fortunately, this actually isn’t too difficult to wrap your mind around, if you ask the right questions. Example: How is this person more significant than me? In what ways is this person better than me? If you ask this question, actually, a lot of answers come flooding in. Someone may be older than you, maybe with a few kids to take care of, so it’s easy to consider their free time as more valuable than yours. Someone may be more patient than you are, or more talented in a certain area. Someone may have valuable insights or viewpoints that you never thought about, because you never thought to ask.
I know what you’re thinking. “Dang it. I don’t think I’ll ever be that humble! To submit myself to the point of considering that they are more significant? To not demanding for others to be a good friend to me, but instead accept pain and betrayal from anyone without striking back? I don’t know about that… and besides, I just don’t feel like doing that today.” Yeah, I feel that way too. That’s why we can always look to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, for inspiration. I don’t think we’ll ever really get there. But we can pray for it, we can ask God for it, and don’t get me started on how God answers prayer.
God is kind of funny. Or actually, we’re kind of funny. We think very differently from God sometimes. But before I completely lose you, let’s start here, at a place that we can understand: most of us want to be great. Most of us don’t shoot for being lame; we shoot for the stars and fall short on the moon, which we suppose is good enough to keep us content. So, how do we achieve true greatness? You got it! Humility! Rolling your eyes already? No, wait, really… Jesus said so so it must be true. Instead of bickering and trying to prove your case to others and uplifting your own name, which is what is so natural to us, we can choose instead to be humble when we are slighted. What are some ways that we can be great and keep humble, at the same time?
For one, we can have childlike faith. This is in stark contrast to the disciples, who at multiple points argued about who was going to be the greatest. At some other points, they scoffed at the children and wanted to get them out of the way. Note: Children were valued much less than they are now. Back then, age was much more valuable than babies. So to them, this contrast is even more jarring. In response to their bickering, Jesus told the disciples something strange:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, ~ Matt 18:1-5
Whoa. Weird definition of being great: being like a child? What in the world? What does Jesus mean? Ok, first of all, we need to note the difference here between being childish and being child-like. Being childish is not what we’re going for. But childlike faith is precious to God, and that’s what Jesus was going for. Childlike humility. Childlike faith is a faith that trusts in God, accepting his words and promises as true, even if we don’t see the results right now. Children are like this if they are being good: they’ll trust you because they know that you are using your guiding wisdom to love them and therefore, they obey without really knowing the whole picture themselves. More likely than not, they don’t start waxing eloquence about why your command wasn’t said in the proper tone or why your command was factually inaccurate because they know about 3 other factors that render your decision ineffective. If they have a good attitude, they’ll just obey and trust that you know best, even though you may not be completely right down to the last detail. Although parents are imperfect and could harm their children even with their best intentions, God is perfect so his commands and his Word can be fully, 100% trusted. So, there is never any foolishness involved in trusting God’s word as an obedient child would.
To give some meat to the picture of faith and humility, let’s look at the only 2 instances in the Bible where Jesus commended someone’s faith. First was with the Centurion. Mr. Centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant and in response Jesus was ready to head over to his house. But he says,
“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” ~ Matt 8:8
The posture of the Centurion was one of humility. Remember, this Centurion was a man of authority and had servants under him! If anyone could have a smug air of importance around him as the above-average citizen, surely it would be him. But he simply says of himself, “I am not worthy.” Jesus responds:
“Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” ~ Matt8:10
Man! Do you see how humility and faith are matched up together here? Jesus didn’t even need to go to his house, and instead ends up healing the servant long-distance because of this Centurion’s faith. This is direct contrast to Thomas, who doubted and who believed that Jesus rose from the dead only when he saw him with his own eyes.
Let’s look at the other example of humility and faith, the faith of a Canaanite woman. This is rather uncomfortable because we might feel like Jesus is being mean here based on what he says to her. But let’s not get caught up in this for the purposes of this article; let’s just recognize that Jesus ultimately heals her daughter and let’s focus on the woman’s response. (Just as God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac but didn’t really mean it, I believe Jesus was testing this woman and ultimately was happy to heal and to hear this woman’s response.)
And [Jesus] answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” ~ Matt15:26-28
Jesus called this woman a dog because she was a Gentile. Um, excuse me? Being called a dog back then, or even now, isn’t something that’s cute – it’s derogatory. (In fact, dogs are much cuter to us nowadays than they were back then.) But notice, this woman doesn’t blink twice at the fact that she was compared to dog. I don’t know about you, but when I first read about this story, I was shocked and I wanted to say, “Woman! Have some dignity! Slap him or something!” Yeah, that’s my level of pride. But this woman is better than me. She knows that she’s dirt, that she’s less than a dog before Jesus and she’s willing to do anything, even humiliate herself for the sake of her daughter.
I need to make a very important note here about pride. Pride is the Great Sin, as C.S. Lewis coined. Pride is the “me” asserting itself too high, the pride that causes one to outgrow their need for God. Pride calls us to think about ourselves first, to recoil at the thought of submitting to even God – but also anyone else, in that matter. Before Jesus, before God, none of that is ever appropriate. So even if God were to call us dogs, I would never dare to say, “Hey! What did you just call me?” Instead, I would say, “I’m a sinner who deserves death and eternal hell – separation for your goodness and from the author of Life itself. To be called a dog is actually very generous. If I can go to heaven as even half of a banana slug, please, please let me remain in your presence.”
Is that “too much”? Is that being unnecessarily groveling? I think not. As the spiritually bankrupt ones, we know our stance. To be lifted up as servant – or even, *gasp* sons and daughters – is not our right to naturally claim. The only thing that changed the reality that we are debtors on the way to eternal misery was that Someone Else took our rightful death sentence for us and our great Pardoner gave us a new status as Forgiven. So, it’s only proper for us to all the more humble ourselves before Jesus because without his willing sacrifice to go to the cross, we’d end up literally dead in our sins. The completely wrong response is precisely to stand up and gather some scraps of pride and dignity left, and walk away in a huff. The right response? Humility. And Jesus commends this kind of faith. This faith that keeps us very low before Him. And more than that: God tells us to humble ourselves not just before Him, but also before sinful people.
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. ~ 1 Peter 5:5-7
Ok, are we still kind of caught up in wanting to be great and wanting to be exalted? The answer really is humility and considering others greater than yourself, even the people that you want to label “Judas” in your life.
But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” ~ Luke 14:10-11
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, ~ James 1:9-10
To be humble is the only way that you can bear with others even if your pride feels like they don’t deserve it from you. Remember, being humble means considering others as more important than yourself. You’ll be able to see other people as God’s children and that you are in a position to bless them! What a gift.
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. ~ Eph 4:1-3
Feeling frustrated because humbling ourselves isn’t “getting us anywhere”? Never fear, heaven is near! Just kidding. But no, really. Even if we don’t get brownie points on earth, it really ought to be ok. Every person who humiliates us now is a chance for us to humble ourselves even more.
The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. ~ Matt 23:11-12
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” ~ Luke 18:13-14
Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”… Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. ~ James 4:6, 10
Your job is to humble yourself before God and man. God’s job is to exalt you if you do so. Be assured of this: God keeps his promises and He will definitely keep this one because he mentioned it like 5 times or so in His Word already. The first thing that love is, according to 1 Cor 13, is patient. So, do your job to trust and obey and let God worry about the details of uplifting you… in due time, in due time. It might not be tomorrow, it might not be next week. In fact, “vindication” may come in heaven. But that’s ok, it’s not really about you and fending for your rights anymore. (Though please don’t take this out of context… If you were wronged, try to speak the truth in love in an attempt to curb sin. If you tried your best to reconcile but there is no foreseeable bridging of the gap, you just need to absorb the pain, forgive, and refuse to strike back. That’s what I’m talking about here: don’t stubbornly insist on your rights; just move on instead of being bitter that no “justice” was served.) Remember – before God, if you really wanted justice, you’d get hell.
Remember Jesus? He had every right to grasp onto equality with God, to use his mega-powers to take Himself off the cross and blow every single Pharisee’s head up with a snap of his finger. But he didn’t grasp for his rights, even before his dull-witted disciples, one of whom ended up selling him for 30 coins. He lowered himself to wash the disciples feet, to quietly die on the cross. As a lamb led to the slaughter, he was silent, instead of anxiously fending for his rights against his maddeningly false accusers. He willingly was that doulou for you and for me, and he calls us to do the same for one another.
I’ll end with this verse:
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. ~ Matt 11:29-30
This is true rest: to be with Jesus and to love like Jesus. There’s so much else in life that causes us to be weary and anxious, but peace and rest come from sharing in Jesus’ lowly state. (The word “lowly” here shares the same Greek root with the word “humility”.) No more will you need to be burdened about your name being slandered because you don’t really think about your name as much as you are burdened for the person who hurt you. No more will you feel restless in how things will pan out for you, status-wise, situation-wise, etc. because you will have rest in your salvation and God’s promises, which are sure. Walk with him in your life journey and share in his humility. That will keep you from the ultimate sin of pride, which will be so… freeing. So right – even if you were wronged. Humility may be one of the hardest things that you’ll ever strive for in the name of love, but take heart because that’s what love is like too: something that’s hard, but it’s worth striving for.
Humility. Tapeinophrosune. God help us.