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The Virtue of Humility (Philippians 2)

If humility is defined, in Paul’s terms, as “consider[ing] others as more important than” ourselves (Phil 2:3), then, clearly, humility is a uniquely Christian virtue. In this fallen, sinful universe, with its “survival of the fittest” mentality, the prize goes usually to those who are aggressive, assertive, and pursue their own interests, even if this means stepping over others to get ahead. Considering others as more important than ourselves does not come naturally.

But this is exactly what Christians are told to do in Scripture. How can this be so? In short: because humble is what Christ was. He who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for his own advantage. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when he had come as a man in his external form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross (Phil 2:5–8).

Jesus was God—yet he considered others—us—as more important than himself and humbled himself, not once, but repeatedly, in an ever-descending sequence: from God to man; from man to slave; from obedient slave to death; from death to death on an ignominious Roman cross. In this Jesus became a role model for his followers to emulate (see John 13:1–20, esp. 12–17; Paul may well have had this passage in mind as he wrote Philippians 2). Rather than arguing over who is the greatest (as Jesus’ disciples often did in the first, and still in the twenty-first, century), Jesus calls on us, as Paul puts it, to “carry one another’s burden” and “in this way … [to] fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).

In the church at Philippi (see Phil 4:2–3) as well as in our churches today, we often find it hard to get along with one another. Why is this? According to Paul, the reason may be rivalry, conceit, or selfish ambition—in one word, price (Phil 2:3). So what is the remedy? Again, it is one word that encapsulates Paul’s answer: humility: “in humility … everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil 2:4). May God help us to do so, and as we strive for humility, let us contemplate the outcome of Christ’s humility:

For this reason God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow—of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:9–11).