If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
For the last several years one of my spiritual practices is to choose a ‘word for the year’. I enjoy this practice of holding a word, returning to it as the events of the year unfold, and learning from it. Sometimes I choose the word. More often than not a word chooses me – often coming to me on a star picked out of a basket on the Sunday when my congregation celebrates Epiphany.
In 2021, my word chose me. I would have never chosen this word for the second year of the Covid pandemic, for this ongoing season of digging deeper into my own work around antiracism. My word? Humility.
To be honest, there was no ‘oooh’ when I read this word, no momentary excitement at the prospect of a year focused on humility, the word. Just, ‘huh’.
So, a word nerd by nature my first step was to look up ‘humility’ in the dictionary. Merriam Webster defines it quite concisely: freedom from pride or arrogance. Sounds so simple. Unimpressed, and a pastor by vocational calling, my next step was to see where this word shows up in scripture. I found many uses of humility as an encouragement. We are to: ‘walk humbly’ (Micah 6), ‘clothe ourselves with humility’ (Colossians 3), ‘humble ourselves’ (James 4), and ‘lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility’ (Ephesians 4).
But it was in Philippians 2 that I finally found a description of what humility actually looks like. A description that was, well … humbling.
After encouraging followers of Jesus in Philippi to, ‘in humility regard others as better than yourselves’, the ancient hymn that follows describes how Jesus was humble – emptying himself, becoming like a slave, born in human likeness, obedient to the point of death on a cross.
That got my attention. In a hierarchical culture that ranked people by social standing, followers of Jesus – no matter their social standing – were to be the lowest. To be servants of others, completely reliant on God for their needs and their sense of value. There was nothing superficial about this. Such humility may well, like it did in Jesus’ case, lead to death. No wonder we find true humility so difficult to live ourselves and so amazing when we see it in others.
Here’s the thing, the ancient hymn is about Jesus, not us. We can’t fully empty ourselves like Jesus did. Nor do I think that is the point. After all, we are also fearfully and wonderfully made, knit together with God’s love in our mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139). We can’t all live humbly, can’t all be the ‘lowest’ at all times. For ‘low’ to matter, someone else has to be ‘higher’, and the point certainly is not to keep lowering the bar by being lower than the person next to you. Which honestly, is how the game of humility sometimes goes – I see your humility and I lower it one.
The gift of community, wherever you find it, is that we take turns. Some days I serve you. Other days you serve me. Some days we together serve people we hardly know but who need God’s love in food or water, or in words and deeds of love. Some days it is important that I speak out of my experience, my truth. Other days, it is important that I listen. That I tend to my deep soul work so that I can make room, empty myself of my need for pride or attention, and instead listen to your stories, your experience, your truth. With humility.
Good and gracious God, you stop at nothing to show us love, and in the process make room for us to love you and love others. Help us each take our turn in humility, that we may have more room in our hearts for connecting with others and hearing their stories, all for the sake of expanding the circle of your love in this world. Amen.
- Rev. Kim Gonia
Thriving Leadership Formation Cohort Leader, Region 2
Pastor of Risen Lord Lutheran Church, Conifer, CO