by Lawrence W. Althouse
Background Scripture Philippians 2:1-3:1. Devotional Reading: Matthew 20:20-28.
Behind Paul’s enlightened words in Philippians there is a dark shadow. The apostle does not acknowledge this darkness in so many words, but if we read between the lines, it is evident: the beloved congregation of Christians in Philippi is afflicted with a growing disunity. The congregation he loved so was in danger of falling apart.
We should not be shocked at the strife in this congregation, for it is familiar even today. German theologian Karl Barth observes: “Is it not a fact that it is sometimes
harder to get along with fellow Christians than with
Paul’s approach to this crisis was both subtle and powerful. Instead of focusing on what is wrong there, he is saying: If there was anything compelling about the gospel I presented to you, “complete my joy by being
of the same mind, having the same love”
(2:2). We cannot be united with Christ if we are divided from other people. THE ‘ONE THING’
“One mind” does not mean they have to think alike. Barth translates the “one mind” as “the one thing,” and other translators speak of the “one disposition” that should be manifest in all Christians. It means their purpose is to share one central purpose and work together to fulfill that purpose. The model for them is the mind of Christ, and the single purpose to which they must be dedicated is witnessing to the Good News.
This “same mind” or “disposition” means: “Do nothing
from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count
others better than yourselves”
(2:3,4). Humility is not the only quality of the “same mind,” but it is the starting place. I read a lot of religious articles in newspapers and magazines, but humility is hardly mentioned. If non-Christians were polled on what they would associate with Christians today, I doubt that “humility” would even be mentioned. “Militancy” is more the image we display to the outside world.
Why is humility important? Paul’s answer is clear: because we are called to be as much like Jesus as we can, and Jesus was humble. It is here that Paul uses or inserts one of the most serene passages in the New Testament. Philippians 2:5-11 may well have been an early Christian hymn, or something he carefully put together for this letter: “Have this mind among you
which you have 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….”
While we are “for” humility in general, it is likely an abstract humility we favor, not a real one. Karl Barth says that abstract humility “can be the grossest pride.”
We would all vote for “humility” – particularly in others – but that doesn’t mean we would personally want to be thought “humble.” The reason is that many of us secretly think that “humility” is really weakness. None of us want to be regarded as “weak.”
When we consider the qualifications of leadership, we often put “toughness” at the top of the list – and humility doesn’t even make the list. Rev. Ralph W. Sockman said, “True humility is intelligent self-respect
which keeps us from thinking too highly or too meanly
of ourselves. It makes us mindful of the nobility God
meant us to have. Yet it makes us modest by reminding
us how far we have come short of what we can be.”
If we are honest, some of us would protest that selfemptying humility seems all-give-and-no-take. If we even partially empty ourselves, there may not be enough left over for our own needs. But Jesus assures us that those who humble themselves will be exalted (Matt. 23:12 and Luk. 18:14), just as Paul tells us: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed
upon him the name that is above every name…”
(2:9). If self-emptying humility is a hallmark of Jesus’ life, it must also be a hallmark of ours. But if you’re proud of your humility, you’ve really missed the point!