St Paul’s Guide to Self-Conscious Humility

‘What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practise these things, and the God of peace will be with you.’ — Philippians 4v9

Christians know we ought to be humble, and often assume we know what we mean by that. Being humble means drawing attention to our flaws and failures, and not presuming to be a good person. A humble person can never accept a compliment, for the ego is very easily inflated. Preachers particularly (at least in the UK) are expected to hedge comments about themselves with caveats about their inadequacy, and to stick to stories about failure from the pulpit. That’s what many think is involved in humility. Alternatively, we go with C. S. Lewis’s definition: humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. The humble person is totally self-forgetful. They may not even own a mirror, and have, on occasion, been known to forget their own names and mealtimes, such is their progress in this area.

But when we turn to Scripture, we find Paul the apostle an awkward fit in either of these definitions. We suspect that we must consider him to be humble, because we don’t think God would pick a proud man to write most of the New Testament, but then he constantly says things that we would not class as especially modest. He even commits the cardinal sin of referring to himself as humble: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility’ (Acts 20:18-19). On top of that, he talks about himself a great deal, and often favourably, and even tells people that they should be more like him: ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Cor. 11v1), ‘For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us’ (2 Thess. 3v7), ‘Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us’ (Phil. 3v17).

Of course, there are self-deprecating remarks (‘as to one abnormally born’, ‘the chief of sinners’), but generally Paul seems to think there is something commendable in himself, and makes sure that his readers know it. So he fails on both our definitions. If humility never says anything positive about about oneself, Paul is a bad example. If humility never says anything about oneself at all, Paul fails — he talks about himself a lot. So what do we do? Often we give Paul a free pass as an apostle: ‘We couldn’t say things like that, of course, but Paul could. God is up there, we’re down here, Paul is maybe… I don’t know… in the middle somewhere?’ This is obviously unsatisfying. There are not three categories of being, and if Paul is some super-being that can say this, then why would he tell us to copy him as though we are in the same boat? And why would he tell us to copy the examples of others like him, i.e. non-apostles, as he does in Philippians and 2 Thessalonians?

We save ourselves moral contradictions and mental contortions if we simply allow that humility might not quite fit so neatly into the definitions above. Perhaps Paul is humble and at the same time can tell others to follow him — in fact, perhaps it is because he is humble that he tells others to follow him. Here are some features of humility that we see from St Paul’s self-conscious example, particularly from Philippians 3 and 4.

Sometimes the Most Humble Thing You Can Do is Tell People to Copy You
I have a running joke with a friend that always starts with the phrase, ‘Sometimes the most humble thing you can do is…’ followed by whatever we happen to have done or whatever we intend to do. For example, you’re at a barbecue with friends, and no one wants to go get their food first, because that appears very selfish. The Canadian stand-off ensues, no one goes first, the food gets cold, everyone eats later, and everyone loses. Sometimes, the most humble thing you can do is just go ahead and serve yourself first. (N.B. the best way out is to take the lead and then serve someone else — you both get things moving quickly, and the humility points, which is what it is all about). Of course, this may not be true humility, but you get the point. What appears to be humility serves no one particularly well in situations like this.

Humility Gives Access to All Areas
Is St Paul in on the joke? Sometimes the most humble thing you can do is tell people to imitate you? Perhaps — because refusing people the possibility of imitating you may not be an act of self-abnegation, but of self-preservation. In telling the Philippians to copy his example, Paul does not intend to place himself above them so much as to make himself as their servant in all things. In inviting them to imitation, he opens up every area of his life to scrutiny, and places it in front of them for their benefit. He doesn’t draw attention to himself to be served by them, but in order to serve them. In 2 Thessalonians 3, he continues from where I quoted above, ‘It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.’ The key to humility in this is that Paul’s invitation to imitation leads to a change in his own behaviour. He could exercise his own rights, but for the sake of giving the Thessalonians access to an example of humility and hard work, he chooses to waive his rights. This humility lets down its guard and gives access to others, and this humility gives up its rights for the sake of benefitting others.

When we decide not to let anyone imitate us, it may be due to humility. But it may be because we want to hold on to our rights. It may be because we know that we would have to change our behaviour to set a good example that is worthy of being copied.

Humility Knows None of Us are Original Thinkers
A large part of why Paul draws attention to himself is that he knows that none of us are really trailblazers. It’s been said that each person is the average of the five person they spend the most time with, and we all know how quickly we pick up the habits and turns of phrase of close friends. Paul knows that if people don’t imitate him, that doesn’t mean that they will be independent thinkers who make up their own mind and imitate no one but Christ. Paul knows that if people don’t imitate him, they will just imitate someone else, and who knows what they may be like?

In Philippians 3v17-18, Paul deliberately contrasts two types of people one may imitate: ‘Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.’ Paul wants people to copy him, because otherwise they might end up imitating those who walk as enemies of the cross. When we refuse to ever tell anyone to imitate us, it may be a dereliction of duty. Who might they end up imitating instead?

But how do you know the difference? Surely it is the good pastors who will not draw attention to their lives, and the bad ones who want to start cults who will tell people to follow them? This is why Paul’s example is so important — he does not call people to imitation without deep knowledge. When Paul calls people to imitate him, he points to the ways in which he has put his whole life on display before them. When people call for your imitation without their transparency, put on your running shoes and get out. When people put their whole lives before you to display Christ in their daily victories and losses, you are in safe hands.

Humility Calls Attention to the Process, Not the Present
It is worth saying that Paul doesn’t break all the rules of humility, as defined by the Western middle-class. In Philippians 3v12, he stops the ego trip, and the reader breathes a sigh of relief: ‘Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.’

In calling people to imitate him, Paul is calling attention to the direction of his life, and keeps us fixed on the destination. Paul knows that to aspire to be like him in the present would be too low an ambition for those whose bodies will one day be transformed to be like Christ’s glorious heavenly body (Philippians 3v21). Paul is drawing attention to his direction. He isn’t saying ‘You should want to be as I am now, as I have arrived’, but rather ‘You should want to go where I’m going, and there’s only one way to get there. Follow me!’

This takes deep humility and real courage, for this move requires the courage to let people see your failures, and the humility not to be devastated or humiliated when they do. We often hide from others because we want people to see us as complete and finished products, heroes of Christian living. The greatness of Paul’s example is his humility: he lets people see his flaws and foibles without it destroying him, because that only magnifies God’s grace. C. H. Spurgeon said not to worry if people think ill of you, because the truth is much worse, and it is knowing that that allows you to put your example of progress in front of others without fear of rejection when you do fail. By calling attention to his progress, he calls attention to Christ’s work, and that is true humility.

Humble Self-Giving Seeks the Other Person’s Good
All these things are ultimately ordered towards the good of those around us. Paul says that those who imitate his example (and, by extension, the examples of people who imitate his example, by however many degrees of separation) can expect the presence of the God of peace with them. It would be a strange humility that, after prayer, study, reflection, hardship, and time, gained the spiritual insights that Paul had gained, and then refused to let anyone in on how such progress is made. This may have an appearance of godliness, but lacks any power. It is the spiritual equivalent of loitering at the barbecue: it all looks very humble, but it just means everyone gets their food cold.

Substance over Style
There is no doubt more to be said. The two definitions of humility offered at the start are not totally wrong, and there is scriptural warrant to say that we ought to have low views of ourselves, knowing our weakness and frailty. It is true that humility certainly doesn’t boast, which is to simply say that humility can’t be proud. Yet there is a self-consciousness involved in the humble self-giving that we see in the example of St Paul. It is a humble self-giving characterised by the consistent choice to renounce privileges and preferences for the sake of others, and the invitation to others to give up their privileges and preferences for the sake of others too. This was never, of course, original to Paul. He was right to tell the Corinthians that to imitate him was to imitate Christ, who himself said, ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Matthew 11v29)

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