Humility and humiliation

When I was in the university CU, I remember a friend saying once, “Don’t pray for humility. God may just give it to you.” We laughed about it, but the point was well made. If we did ask God to make us more humble, what would he have to do to make it happen? Would we be willing to be humiliated?

We just have to open a newspaper and read about the latest celebrity getting up to something they shouldn’t to see what humiliation looks like. Or watch programmes like Britain’s Got Talent or the X Factor. Amongst all the really talented people who audition, there are the ones who appear to have been selected to be shown on TV because they’re rubbish. Millions tune in to watch them humiliated, to give us something to laugh at. But, hey, it makes great television. Honestly, though, what does this tell us about the state of our society? But that’s another matter.

Who would knowingly, willingly, deliberately put themselves up to be humiliated? It is utterly counter-intuitive.

We often forget the connection between these two words – humility and humiliation. To be humble means to think less of ourselves in favour of others, not to ‘blow our own trumpet’ and so on. In Philippians 2, Paul encourages the Christians he’s corresponding with to be humble, to consider others’ needs above their own. That’s great. But the example he uses is an uncomfortable one: Jesus himself. It might seem strange to say it’s an uncomfortable example, but it is.

There is the pre-existent Son of God, receiving the praise of heaven, but wiling to ‘take the form of a servant’, be born as a lowly man, and then die on a cross. It’s easy perhaps to think of humility here. But read the gospel accounts again. This is what we find. Jesus was:

– Betrayed by his friend;
– Brought before a court full of people who have already made up their minds that he should be killed;
– Declared innocent by Pilate, but then still given over to be crucified;
– Given a mock kingly purple robe, with jeering Roman soldiers bowing in fake deference, and a crown of thorns, not placed delicately on his head, but rammed down hard;
– Beaten, scourged and spat on
– Led out before a crowd baying for blood;
– had that robe taken away, leaving him probably naked, as he’s placed on the cross;

And then there is the cross itself, not just an instrument of torture, but a fate reserved for the worst criminals. And while on the cross, all that could be heard was the sound of people shouting up abuse, watching him die. They kept on shouting his words back at him, like knocking down the temple and rebuilding it in three days, but misunderstanding and misinterpreting his words.

This isn’t just humility. This is humiliation.

So when we think of the cross this Holy Week, we have to keep in our mind not just that Jesus was humble, but that he was willing to be humiliated. Willing to do this to bring about God’s plan to save people like us – and people like those who did all of the above. Now, that is love.

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