The Celebrated French novelist Gustave Flaubert, whose 1857 classic Madame Bovary established him as a literary force, had strong opinions about the craft of writing. Flaubert believed that writers (especially writers of fiction) should serve their work rather than merely using a story to promote themselves or push their own agenda. In one of many letters to his friend Madame Louise Colet, Flaubert made the point plainly: “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”
Flaubert was reacting to an artistic culture that encouraged inflated egos. He insisted that despite the fact that an author was the “creator” of the world on the page, good writers would recede out of sight and allow the story to have its own voice and integrity. In other words, they would limit self-displays and instead give the narrative higher priority. For Flaubert, the example that best illustrated such self-surrendered modesty was God, the ultimate Creator who regularly demonstrates precisely this kind of humility.
Read Philippians 2:1-11
Before opening your Bible, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal what He wants you to take away from this passage. Then read the section, jotting down your first impressions: What questions do you have? Is anything confusing? Which verses speak into your present situation, and how?
With his appeal to the Lord’s humble example, Flaubert got things half right. God certainly provides the preeminent display of humility. The apostle Paul, while encouraging Philippian believers to surrender their demands and self-aggrandizement, appealed to Jesus’ sacrificial love. Even though He was God in human flesh, Jesus “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant” and came to us as an ordinary human (Phil. 2:7). What’s more, Jesus demonstrated a radical relinquishment through the definitive act of humiliation: He “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Flaubert was correct: In a remarkable display of costly love, God did not grab center stage but instead yielded His own rights and privileges. Put another way, God surrendered His own needs and even His own life for the good of others.
Yet Flaubert was also wrong. Far from going hidden, God became visible in Jesus. That is, Jesus is God with skin and bones. However, the God we find in Christ isn’t what we expect. In the Savior, we find a God who never grasps for the limelight or wields His power to exact our allegiance; we discover a God who lays down His life and dies—then rises from the dead (Phil. 2:6-9).
In fact, Scripture describes God and His character far less than we might anticipate. Rather, the Bible prefers to show us what God is like: God is like Jesus. God is Jesus. And in humility, Jesus stoops down in love toward all of us who are so desperate to be welcomed. Jesus surrenders to death so we might be set free and truly live.
This is why Paul insisted that with Jesus as our exemplar, we should “in humility value others above [o]urselves” (Phil. 2:3 NIV). When we feel the temptation to guard our resources or protect our image, when we feel the pull to step toward center stage or use another person as fuel for our ambition, we remember Jesus’ way of humble love and lay our ego down. Arrogance and self-promotion are the energy of our age, but Jesus calls us to a radically different way.
Write your thoughts in the space provided for notes or in a journal.
• Reread Philippians 2:1-11 slowly. At least part of this text was likely an early hymn. How would it form your posture in the world if these words were the story you heard regularly or a song you sang each week?
• Read Ephesians 4:2. Which other qualities does Paul connect with humility? What do you think the interplay is between all these words and ideas—how do these various attitudes and actions depend on one another? Describe the unique shades of meaning related to each.
• Pick one or two favorite gospel stories about Jesus. In what way does He demonstrate humility and sacrificial love in these accounts? Describe His bearing in contrast to the attitude of those around Him. How does Jesus’ humble manner feel at odds with what you experience in your relationships?
• Where do you find it most difficult to live out of humility? Is there a relationship, social setting, or place of insecurity where you regularly feel tempted to claw for recognition or fight to maintain status or power?
• What’s the difference between a Jesus-style humility and the kind of self-effacement that honors neither your own life nor those with whom you’re in relationship? How would you describe the difference between faithfully living out a courageous humility and simply capitulating to fear and the appeasement of others?
• Where is one place you think the Holy Spirit may be inviting you to practice humility? How will you respond to this invitation? What obstacles do you think might hinder that response?
• Think about a movie or book character who lacked humility. Then, reflect on another character who exuded humility. What differences do you notice between the two? How do you respond to each? How would you describe each one’s quality of life?
• Watch the various messages that you receive this week—from management at your job, from patterns of life within your family, from the media. Is humility modeled or encouraged? How?
• Consider offering this prayer over the next several days: God, You own everything, and yet You surrendered it all. You are the all-powerful, but You didn’t let that get in the way of loving us with all You have. Teach me to live in humility, just like You. Amen.