Humility is a signature virtue of the Christian faith.  Joy is its signature emotion.  Today, in the West at least, we love joy but are ambivalent about humility, partly because we suspect that humility cravenly elevates acquiescence to our own inadequacy and inferiority to the status of a virtue.  The theologian Miroslav Volf offers this reflection in a collection of essays on the connection between humility and joy.  After digging deep into the old Reformer Martin Luther’s writing, Volf comes to the conclusion that Philippians 2 offers us some insight.  If we are to be truly joyful, we must be humble.  But what is humility?

A colleague from a denominational program I’m involved in sent me a quote from Eugene Peterson’s book Run with the Horses.  The title of Peterson’s book is a reference to Jeremiah 12:5, in which God asks the prophet: “If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?  And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?  The implication is that our own strength is limited, and we fall short in the best of times.  So how do we face the overwhelming circumstances we encounter?

Flavius Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, did not hold a high opinion of the Samaritans.  In his Antiquities, he said this: “…they alter their attitude according to circumstance and, when they see the Jews prospering, call them kinsmen, on the ground that they are descended from Joseph and are related to them through their origin from him, but, when they see the Jews in trouble, they say that they have nothing whatever in common with them nor do these have any claim of friendship or race, and they declare themselves to be aliens of another race.  Josephus alludes to the duplicity of the Samaritans, who he claims would lie and bear false testimony when it benefitted them.

Epicurus was a Greek Philosopher who lived about 300 years before Jesus.  The core of his philosophy—at least what we remember most—is this idea: the chief purpose of humans existence was to be happy.  And you were most happy when you avoided the things that caused pain or stress.  Obviously, if you strip away all the stuff that causes stress or pain in your life, you’re going to be left with only the good stuff, which opened Epicurus to the charge of hedonism, and an unbridled embrace of pleasure.  And while some “Epicureans” certainly went that route, Epicurus was more about avoiding the bad stuff than chasing the good stuff.

My mother was a school teacher, and so that meant there were times when I got to hang out in her classroom after school as she finished up some of her work of the day.  In her second-grade classroom, she had an old portable record player, and a collection of records on American folk-lore and legends.  There was a record on Pecos Bill, and Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe.  There was a record on “steel-driving” John Henry and one on Johnny Appleseed.