“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?
Paul, when he wrote to the Philippians, encouraged them to have the same mindset as Christ, who—“though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” That’s part of the 6th verse of that chapter, and it offers an interesting perspective when we look at the Greek. The Greek leaves a quite a bit of room for the translator—the literal words are “who in form God exists also plunder considered the existence equal God.” So, obviously, there has to be some contextual study to figure out what Paul is getting at. Modern English translations—like the NRSV above—go one way, and older translations like the venerable KJV put it another way: “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God…”
Either way, the translators agree on this idea—Jesus could have claimed the authority of God as His own. It wasn’t robbery, as the KJV puts it. But instead—as we see in the NRSV—Jesus didn’t exploit that authority. The interesting word for me, which I believe has an impact on this idea of humility, is the word that gets translated as “robbery” in the KJV, and I think is encompassed in the idea of “exploitation” in the NRSV. In the Greek, the word is harpagmos—which according to the Liddell and Scott Lexicon means a seizing or a plundering—robbery. The English Standard Version says “something to be grasped.” I love the way that Paul frames this idea of the authority of God as something that could be grasped—like a pirate might grasp the booty, or a thief might grasp the gold.
This is the mark of pride, the virtue of humility’s corresponding vice. Pride grasps. And specifically pride grasps what it has no right to. In his essay, Volf highlights our modern propensity to be “sovereign individuals”—a concept developed by Friedrich Nietzsche to describe what he considered the ultimate state of human development, in which the individual’s consciousness of “freedom, of his power over himself and fate has settled in him to his utmost depths and has become instinct, the dominating instinct.” To paraphrase, the sovereign individual instinctively believes that he calls his own shots, and that he can do what he wants. And so he doesn’t really consider it robbery to grasp and to accumulate.
In his reading of Martin Luther, and his reflection on Philippians 2, Volf seems to come to this conclusion: to be prideful is to grasp and grasp to one’s self—to be a sovereign individual that puts their own needs and desires first—instinctually. There is a false humility that grasps, trying to act humble to receive the admiration of others—the person who martyrs themselves to their families or their occupations in an effort to gain some recognition, for example. And there is the outright prideful grasping of the greedy, the one who must have more than anyone else to have value. And to be truly humble, one must follow the example of Jesus, and not grasp.
The way to resist the grasping is to realize that God gives generously. We might consider ourselves empty vessels, and we will be filled with something—either the things we plunder, or the gifts God gives. To be humble is to recognize that God is constantly filling us with unfathomable good. Grasping and accumulating are pointless—nothing we are is a result of anything other than God’s wonderful grace. To recognize that everything, even life itself, flows from the Giver of all good gifts is an exercise in trust. We trust God, that God will provide—not just our daily bread, but everything we need to flourish in life, to live with wholeness and peace.
Think about the difference this perspective offers us: now, instead of the constant striving and grasping, the ill-fated attempts to secure our own position, the empty hope that by acting humble someone might validate us and make us feel better, we can experience the joy of trusting God. We need neither false humility or sovereignty over our existence. We don’t have to plunder the world to get what we want. God is already giving us what we need—in abundance. This is the mindset that Paul is encouraging us to have—a mindset that doesn’t have to grasp, because it’s already been given. Jesus was able to take on the form of a servant, and be born in human likeness, because He already had everything. We can humble ourselves, too, because God has promised to give us every good thing—has already given it. Only by surrendering to God in humility can we find true joy in the abundance God offers. But that’s much better that trying to grasp it ourselves.