Toorak Uniting Church

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It's all about Relationships – Humility

Psalm 25   Philippians 2: 1 – 13
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
25 September 2011

Just before the federal election Julia Gillard was reported in the Age newspaper as saying, "I'm too humble to compare myself to either Ben Chifley or Barack Obama." It is an intriguing statement because humility is not something one can really claim for oneself. If you do then you have probably violated the first tent of humility. It is for others to recognize humility in you. If you claim it for yourself it indicates that perhaps you are not so humble after all. I like what Helen Nielsen said, "Humility is a bit like underwear, it’s essential, but indecent if it shows." I suspect that Ms Gillard was trying to say that she was "not worthy" to be compared to these significant political leaders. Now that declaration could be recognized as showing humility.

Humility does not have a very good press in contemporary Western society. In a culture that prizes aggression, inflated self-interest and egotism, humility is not regarded as a desirable virtue. Of course this is based on a false understanding of humility which casts the humble person as mild, soft or lacking self-esteem. The children’s bedtime prayer "gentle Jesus meek and mild" falls into this trap. While Jesus certainly showed the virtue of humility he was defiantly not mild or timid.

The educational philosopher, Robert Kegan suggested in relation to humility is that we can either look at our self, or look through our self. The healthy personality has the capacity to "forget" about oneself, to lose oneself in a project or a conversation or another person and therefore able to achieve more than when one is self-conscious and self-promoting. Or to quote the power of positive thinking man, Norman Vincent Peale "The more you lose yourself in something bigger than yourself, the more energy you will have." That’s humility.

Humility is neither weakness nor docility. It is in fact the foundation of the Christian life. It was the 19th Century Baptist preacher C.H.Spurgeon who said, "Humility is to make a right estimate of one’s self." To be humble is to have a right perspective on yourself and ones relations with God and others. Humility keeps us from arrogance and being overly opinionated. We are always in danger of error so humility keeps us honest. So we can say to ourselves "maybe I didn’t get it right this time, I wonder what others think about this?"

I recall an intriguing episode of the Twilight Zone some years ago. The story had the lead character attempting to land his space craft on a distant planet. The attention is on the cockpit with the captain as the pilot giving instructions to his two co-pilots. Something isn’t going right and one of the co-pilots suggests the captain alter his landing trajectory. The captain snaps at him and tells the co-pilots that he is the captain and he knows what he is doing. The scene ends with the space craft crashing into the desolate planet. The screen goes to black and then we are back at the start of the TV episode repeating the same scene from the cockpit of the space ship. After a couple of minutes the voiceover says, "the captain will repeat this landing with its disastrous consequences until he learns to listen to his co-pilots."

Humility – Staying close to the ground
Humility is to have that right estimate of oneself. It is the opposite of arrogance and an over inflated view of oneself. I suggest that it means that one must stay close to the ground – to be "earthed" and not prone to flights of unrealistic fancy.

The word humble finds its origin in the word "humus" which means, of the earth. It reminds me of the process of composting. We take the vegetable peels and put them into the compost bin, then wait and watch as the worms do their slow work transforming these scraps into rich dark soil. That is similar to the work of humility. The humble person knows that earthing experiences gives their life both depth and richness.

Job, the ancient symbol of suffering, was brought close to the earth though great loss, hardship and personal pain. All that was of value to him was stripped away and what remained was only his bare life. From this raw baseline, Job reflected on his condition. His humiliation draws him into a place of humility before his God and his friends so that he could say, "…I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know." Job 42:3. This kind of suffering is not something one seeks, nevertheless, being brought to the ground can often reveal to us the very truth of life.

In the gospels, humility is often displayed by those who are powerless or at the edge of polite society. Luke’s story of the Pharisee and the Publican, both who go to the temple to pray illustrates this well. The Pharisee puffed up with self-righteousness, importance and contempt for others, pitches himself as on God’s side. The publican looks to the ground and humbles himself and says, "God be merciful to me for I am unworthy to be in your presence." Luke 18:13.

It is important to be clear that to be humble is not to be self-effacing, nor subservient, diffident or timid. The publican lowered his gaze; he looked at the ground and in true humility and sought the mercy of a gracious God. Humility is more about saying, "there but for the grace of God go I." And so humility breeds gratitude and the sense that all I am and all I have comes into my life as a gift from the gracious hand of God.

The Humility of Christ
I spent some time on the translation of the passage from Philippians that Tim read earlier. It is a central passage for our understanding of the nature of the person we call Jesus of Nazareth, particularly here in one of the undisputed letters written by the apostle Paul. This is quite a remarkable theological treatise which deals directly with humility and particularly its relationship to the Christian. I would suggest that rather than being an abstract theory of Jesus being God and man, that it is giving the Christian community a way of connecting their daily experience of living with the very essence of the life of Christ. Paul writes:

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. Or as the more familiar translation reads, "Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:"

This is practical theology. In some sense it’s the way we in our own lives connect heaven and earth, but more than that, how we can find heaven (the realm of God) on earth. Paul the theologian images the risen Christ, the cosmic Christ, not as separate from human experience or earthly life, but rather as one with:
Who, being in the very nature of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied or humbled himself, taking on the nature of a servant, made or shaped in human likeness. And as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!

I think the humility here is not a lessening of the person of Jesus, but a grounding, an earthing of God. This one who we call God who is the source of all life is also a participator in life and as Paul suggests even in death. And it shouldn’t be lost on us that in the beatitudes it is the humble, the meek who will inherit the earth, a complete reversal of common sense.
Lucy Negus has taken this hymn of praise from the letter to the Philippians and turned it into a prayer/poem called Christpower using some of the ideas she found in the writings of Bishop Jack Spong. She writes:
Look at him!

Look not at his divinity,
but look, rather, at his freedom.

Look not at the exaggerated tales of his power,
but look, rather, at his infinite capacity to give himself away.

Look not at the first-century mythology that surrounds him,
but look, rather, at his courage to be,
his ability to live, and
the contagious quality of his love.

Stop your frantic search!

Be still and know that this is God:
this love,
this freedom,
this life,
this being;


when you are accepted, accept yourself;
when you are forgiven, forgive yourself;
when you are loved, love yourself.

Grasp that Christpower
and dare to be

We experenice that Christ power, that power of Christ within us not by leaving this earthly plane, but by being earthed, by being grounded. The 2nd century church father Irenaeus said it best when he wrote that "the glory of God is man fully alive." And it is a sense of humility that grounds us and helps us to be fully alive in all our relationships.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2011

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