Not all words are created equal. Some have more weight and importance, and more theological or ethical freight than others. This is just as true in Greek as it is in English. In Phil. 2.8 we find the use of the verb tapeinoo in the middle or reflexive sense talking about something the Son of God did to himself. We normally translate it— ‘he humbled himself’. You can look high and low, and you will have a hard time finding ‘humility’ listed among the virtues in the Greco-Roman world’s lists. Partly this is because it is an honor and shame culture, and so it was a duty for the head of the household to establish the honor of themselves and their families in public. There were many ways to do this but public bragging in the form of honorific columns, and even boasting on one’s tombstone were common. There is even a famous treatise by Plutarch on ‘Inoffensive Self-Praise’. Self-humbling, not so much. Not a virtue in the Greco-Roman world. No authors were writing books like John Dickson recent stimulating study entitled Humilitas (Zondervan, 2011). No humbling oneself is what a slave did, was expected to do, and I doubt it is an accident that in the Christ hymn in Phil. 2.5-11 we have both the calling of Jesus a slave (doulos) and the reference to self-humbling. And all of this in a passage which begins— ‘have this mindset in yourself that was also in Christ Jesus….’. But what sort of humility are we in fact being called to in this passage?
To begin with, Phil. 2.5-11, while it does have to do with attitudes, is not chiefly about the attitude that the Son of God had about himself. The verb tapeinoo is an action word talking about something the Son did– indeed did before he took on human form. He ‘humbled himself’. Now a moments reflection will show that whatever this means, it cannot refer to feelings of low self-worth, or self-degradation. If there was one person who did not struggle with self-esteem, it was the Son of God, perhaps particularly in his pre-incarnate condition. Whatever humility means in this text, it doesn’t refer to feelings of low self worth or the like. Nor does it mean under-estimating nor downplaying one’s ability—- something my grandmother used to call ‘poor-mouthing’ (‘poor little ole me….’). On the contrary, this passage is about the action of a strong person, stepping down, stripping himself of his divine perks, and taking on not just human form, but the form and simple lifestyle of the slave. Humility is the posture of a strong person renouncing things that are rightfully his for the sake of others. In other words, it has to do with self-sacrificial service, it has nothing to do with berating oneself or feelings of low self-worth, or even under-estimating oneself or downplaying one’s accomplishments. None of that.
I’m afraid in the age of endless end zone dances, self-promotion, self-exaltation and the like this passage is likely to seem like terra incognita or worse like really bad advice if you want to ‘win friends and influence people’. The irony is that it must have sounded as or more offensive in its original context than it does today. One of the real problems with being overly familiar with a passage like this is we become selectively deaf and blind to its content— we hear just what we want to hear, and see what we are looking for. In an age where self-fulfillment and endless seeking of self-satisfaction and personal happiness and other sorts of narcissistic pursuits are seen as normal indeed as encouraged, taking on the mindset of Christ as exhibited here must seem completely contrary to such aims. Who really wants to be obedient unto death for an increasingly unpopular cause?
One of the real dangers with modern Christian discussions of humility is that the discussion is overly-spiritualized, and never gets to the point of discussing faithfulness to the faith unto death. The ultimate humility of Jesus meant his ultimate humiliation on the cross. Are we prepared to be humiliated for Jesus’ sake. And what should our attitude be about such things? This passage helps us see the naked truth of the matter— and to the modern eye, a naked body on cross will not seem like a virtue. It will seem like a total loss of common sense and common decency. Think on these things.