The Discipline Of Humility


A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on September 25, 2011.

Philippians 2:1-13

If you were a student of Greek mythology, you will remember the name, “Narcissus.”  Narcissus was a stunningly handsome man, and he knew it.  Everywhere he went men and women alike stared at him because of his physical beauty.  Rather than being grateful, Narcissus felt nothing but disdain for his many admirers.  You see, Narcissus admired no one but himself. 

One day as Narcissus prepared to drink from a clear pool of water, he spotted his reflection in the pool.  Not realizing he was viewing his own likeness, Narcissus was enthralled with the beautiful face staring back at him.  In fact, Narcissus was so infatuated with his own beauty that he could not pull himself away from the pool.  He became his own fatal attraction, eventually dying on the spot, staring in amazement at himself until his last breath. 

Mental health specialists derive the term “narcissistic personality disorder” (NPD) from this mythological Narcissus.  People with NPD display a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, expecting to be treated as persons of superior importance and achievement.  They think of themselves as “special” people who can and should ignore the “little” people so they can rub shoulders with other movers and shakers.  They have a sense of entitlement, expecting those around them to see it their way and do it their way.  They don’t hesitate to use and exploit others when it comes to accomplishing their own agenda.  And they typically lack any empathy for the feelings and needs of others. 

To put it simply, life is all about them.   And what’s more, classic narcissists are blind to their own narcissism.  Trying to help narcissists see their narcissism usually feels like you are spitting into a gale force wind. 

Now as I examine Paul’s teaching about humility in Philippians 2, I have three operating assumptions:

1)     We don’t not all have NPD (fortunately, otherwise we could not survive together!) But all human beings have narcissistic tendencies, inherited not from Narcissus but from our spiritual ancestors Adam and Eve. 

2)    Most of us are blind to our own narcissism.

3)    That’s why we can read Philippian 2:1-13 and with a straight face affirm its eloquent truths about humility.  In fact, we certainly hope those vain people we know who think and act like they are God’s gift to creation will read it and change their proud ways.     

Two thousand years ago, long before psychologists identified mental health disorders, Paul could recognize the ravaging effects of narcissism on the young congregations he had planted around the Mediterranean world.  In Philippi, for example, there were troublemakers inside and outside the newly planted church that were threatening to rip the church apart. 

These self-promoting troublemakers were casting aspersions on Paul because he was in jail, and they asked, “What kind of church leader would be serving time in prison?”  Of course, these naysayers were conveniently overlooking the fact that Paul had been imprisoned for his faith.  They simply wanted to gain control of this vulnerable congregation by planting seeds of doubt, and the church was becoming more divided by the day.   

True, these fussing and fuming Philippians were new Christians.  But Paul understood that to profess faith in Christ was a far cry from being conformed to the image of Christ, and narcissistic patterns of behavior of the Philippians wouldn’t fall away until they were well into the journey of spiritual formation.   Consequently young Christians in the Philippian church were competing against one another for control, and power plays were going down in all directions. 

It was an ugly situation, and one that sadly continues to play itself in churches to this day. 

This was a teachable moment for these young Philippian Christians.  And Paul did not intend to waste it. So he writes,

It 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. 

Paul is pleading with the Philippian congregation to get their act together by coming together.  Surely, he says, if you share the Spirit of Christ, you will display the love and sympathy of Christ with one another.  That sounds good so far.  But then we’re tempted to tune Paul out because he seems to be calling the Philippians to be in perfect agreement with one another on all things, being of “the same mind…full accord…of one mind.” 

Has Paul lost his mind? We are, after all, independent thinkers, free members of a free church.  And besides, where two or three Baptists are gathered, you will always have ten opinions! 

But a closer inspection of the Greek shows that Paul is urging the Philippians  to be one in disposition, united in attitude.  It’s not uniformity of opinion Paul is after – he’s not insisting that we agree on every matter of theology.  He’s insisting that we place a high value on unity in spirit, that we fight not for our own agenda as much as the unity of the body, that we be unified in our love and devotion to Christ and each other. 

That kind of oneness is indispensable for the body of Christ.  With unity in spirit churches can flourish.  Without it they die.

And the only way to attain that unity, says Paul, is to do something counterintuitive for narcissistic human beings.  That “something” is  practicing the discipline of humility.    

Here’s how Paul puts it:  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. 

I have read these words several times in recent days, and with each reading I am more amazed at how radical Paul’s thought is.  And I am keenly aware of how every narcissistic nerve in my body resists what Paul says.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it easy to eliminate selfish ambition, nor do I naturally regard others as better than myself.  And despite all my lip service about caring for others, my default mode is to see the entire world through the prism of my own self-interest, and then advance those interests.

By the way, it was not a given in the ancient world that humility (from the Latin humus, or “ground”) was a virtue.  In fact, many thought of humility as servility, as groveling on the ground,” and rejected it outright.  And to this day, many intellectual and political elites do not think well of humility.  

Once Sir Winston Churchill, who served two terms as Prime Minister of England, was commenting about another Prime Minister (who defeated Churchill after World War II) named Clement Atlee.  Not too surprisingly, Churchill was rather critical of his political adversary.  The other person in the conversation remarked, “At least Atlee is a humble man.”  To which Churchill reportedly responded, “Yes he is, and he has plenty to be humble about.”    

To be sure, some of us resist humility because we have distorted views of what it means.  It does not mean to act with false modesty.  It does not mean groveling with our faces in the mud, or loathing ourselves, or operating with no self-esteem. Healthy humility means acting as though life is not just about us, as though the feelings and needs and interests of others really do matter, as though they themselves matter as much if not more than we do. 

Paul flatly admits there is only one way to practice the discipline of humility, to routinely regard others as better than ourselves.  We can’t conjure up this kind of humility in our narcissistic souls.  It only happens by acquiring a new mind, no less than the mind of Christ…

            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.

One person who absolutely despised Christianity was Frederick Nietzsche, and passages like Philippians 2 explain why.  Nietzsche believed in the supreme worth of the supremely talented individual.  Individuals of superior talent needn’t apologize about their ability.  In fact, they owed it to themselves to pursue their own interests above all others.  Only weak people actually worried about the rights of others.  Strong people didn’t concern themselves with the interests of others.  They allowed their own will-to-power to elevate them to the top of the heap.  Those lower down in the  heap would just have to fare for themselves. 

Nietzsche couldn’t stand Jesus because he should have been the Superman of all supermen.  He supposedly had the power of the universe in his grasp, and he willingly gave it away, even to the point of dying on a cross for the worthless rabble of humanity.  Nietzsche was disgusted with Jesus because at the end of the day this so-called Son of God was nothing but a pathetic weakling. 

What Nietzsche didn’t get—and in all honesty what we often don’t get—is that Jesus was never acting more like God Almighty than when he voluntarily left the comforts of heaven and laid down his own life on the cross.  Never was the love of God for his people so plain as it was on that old rugged cross. 

Ironically, God ultimately exalted Jesus in ways Nietzsche and his power fantasies could only dream about.  Unlike the “first Adam” who foolishly attempted to be like God and lost everything, Jesus “the second Adam,” humbly obeyed God and gave everything away, only to get it back in spades…

            So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

                        In heaven and on earth and under the earth,

            And every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

                        To the glory of God the Father. 

And here is a second irony that applies directly to us—it’s only when we let go of our need to get our way, to control everything to advance our own interests that we live the life God intended for us.  That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their live will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Luke 9:23-24).

What that means, my friends, is that narcissism may feel good and even right in the moment. But it ultimately not only harms those in our immediate community—it harms us, it kills our souls. 

This is why Paul let go of his own ambitious life plan and wound up in jail for Jesus.  Paul was supremely talented, many would say a genius.  He could have had it all, and done it all in the Jewish religious system. But he obeyed the one who created him to be the first Christian missionary, and the primary author of the New Testament.  Yes, that choice cost Paul a cushy career, his freedom, and ultimately his life.  But because Paul emptied himself of his own agenda, God used him to literally change the world.

Here’s what I’m learning about the Christian life.  It only really works when I practice the discipline of humility, when I let go of my need to control God and everybody else.  It only works when God is actually in charge. 

And God remains in charge only as I continually work out my salvation with fear and trembling, when I understand that as long as I live and breathe I will never be done allowing God to be at work within me, conforming me to the image of Christ, enabling me to will and to work not for my good pleasure, but his. 

Being a Christian does not work as long as I am enthralled with the image of David Hughes.  But if I become focused on the image of Jesus Christ—well, that’s another story!

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Tags: Christian Life, David Hughes, Humility, Sermons