In Eastern cultures, the tradition of bowing has always been a part of refined social etiquette. By bowing and bending to each other, members of Eastern cultures show respect and humility before others. There exists a whole language of bowing ”bows of different depths, for different purposes ”to subtly communicate agreement, disagreement, reverence, even challenge. Those in lower, less exalted positions show their respect and humility before those in power by bowing.
Perhaps Western culture has never gone in much for bowing because it has never gone in much for humility. The challenge to which Christians must rise is to balance their attitudes:
Confident without being “puffed up”
Humble without being a doormat
When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that donkey colt, he did just that. The little beast bearing the travel-weary wandering teacher into the city illustrated Jesus’ humble obedience to the divine plan of redemption. This was no sign of power; it was a sign of love at work. He knew this was a triumphal entry. This was divine love in action and the power that would break the cycle of sin and death.
When we bow our bodies before God in prayer, we are emptied of any illusions we may still harbor about our power and our importance. A kneeling spirit is no longer full of itself. It is at the same time emptied out and opened up for the filling of the Spirit of God. And it is from a humble, kneeling position we are able to receive into our lives the power of God’s redeeming love.
When Paul urged the Philippians to be of the same mind as Christ, to imitate him in humility and obedience, he was saying, “kneel down and empty out.” Jesus emptied himself of his divine rights in order to come to us in humble human form. Likewise, we must empty ourselves of our pride and self-confidence in order to be filled with the divine love Christ offers us. The kind of attitude that Jesus modeled for us is the challenge to love. In learning the lesson of love, we learn from Jesus what it means to be fully human – not fully human in the dark sense of the word, but human in the good and whole sense of being human and made in the likeness of God.
The late Frank Stagg, one of last century’s great Baptist thinkers and theologians, identified this as a paradox and he’s right in tagging this issue as one in which we must find the balance between the dangerous polarity of either issue. They are both true and meant to be kept in careful balance. He refers to Reinhold Niebuhr’s book on the nature of man and social existence, which he wrote late in his life and concludes the book with an analysis of the paradox of the fulfillment that comes through self-assertion and self-denial. In this argument, Niebuhr takes the words of Jesus, “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39). In his argument, he claims that “consistent self-seeking is bound to be self-defeating; on the other hand, self-giving is bound to contribute ultimately to self-realization.”
Stagg reminds us that there’s a ditch on both sides of the road. Absolute self-negation can lead to all kinds of problems. While it is often done for supposedly spiritual reasons, too much is given away. The attempt to empty the self of its essential components is much like the body emptying itself of iron; the result is anemia of the soul, where all the vitality of what it means to be healthy is drained out as well.
The other ditch is obvious: everything is consumed with self-gratification that embodies the statement, “The world is my oyster and belongs to me.” The Christian gospel moves us away from ego-centrism and points us to the way of Christ. The gospel message points out to us the problem of sin and its capacity to binge the soul by gratuitous meeting of its every desire.
At the heart of this passage is an idea conveyed in a single word. The passage itself is labeled by the use of a Greek word that attempts to depict what was involved in Jesus’ entering the world of human beings. In order for one of the Godhead to become a part of the creation, Jesus had to open himself completely to all the possibilities of what becoming a human being could mean. He had to be willing to expose himself to all of the powers that are set loose in the world. Obviously we are dealing with mystery here. There is no way our limited minds could possibly consider and understand all that is involved with this process.
Paul’s words here are helpful because of the image he employs in this letter to the believers in Philippi. At the heart of it all is the idea that Jesus “emptied himself” of at least some of what it meant to be God. It is cloudy and vague at best because our only experience is that of human experience. The word Paul uses is the word kenosis. It literally means, “to be emptied out,” similar to what happens in the morning when pour the milk into your bowl of frosted flakes and empty the plastic jug. It’s the same as when you empty out your piggy bank to pay the Girl Scout at your front door. It’s a relinquishing of that which you have. It is “a letting go” of that which is yours to control in order to get hold of something else. In taking the form of man, Jesus had to let go of at least some of what was meant to be God.
For centuries we have scratched our heads and searched our hearts to understand what it meant for Jesus to enter the world of human beings. Kenosis is the open door by which we consider just what it meant for Jesus to be a veritable human being. Only by looking through that door can we even begin to understand who Jesus was and to stand in awe of the humility of the Creator God who not only can spin the worlds into existence, but who can also suspend whole galaxies in space and time.
The early church and the church throughout the centuries have struggled with the dual nature of being both fully human and fully divine. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was killed in the last days of the death camps of Nazi Germany for resisting Hitler, noted that “God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross, and the God who makes us live in this world without using him as a working hypothesis is the God before whom we are ever standing.”
There is also an emerging theological dialogue in our day between East and West that has fostered great discussion about the relationship between the Christian paradoxical notion of kenosis and the Eastern concept of ÃšÃ»nyatÃ¢, (Sanskrit for void) where “emptiness is fullness and fullness is emptiness.” The conclusion reached through some of these discussions is revealing. In this discussion we realize that Christ’s self-emptying ability is likewise the self-emptying nature of God. Kenosis is not a negation of divinity then, but is rather a genuine expression of divinity. To be fully emptied of divine glory is to fully express the true nature of the divine.
One of the Benedictine monks from the West says that the extreme humiliation that Christ underwent when he emptied himself of divinity and took on human form reveals the true essence of divinity. Self-emptying on that level demonstrates divine love – revealing in fact the core of divinity: “God is love” (I John 4:8, 16).
Kenosis, as the most genuine expression of divinity, is therefore the free expression of the will to love ”the true definition of God. By seeing kenosis as an expression of divine love, we can avoid the theological confusion over Christ’s truly dual nature of being both fully human and fully divine.
Now the most difficult part of this passage … for the whole dialogue is built on the command to “have this attitude in you…” Obviously the message pulls us into the image of being emptied out so that we might be fulfilled. In the same way that God is expressing his true nature of love by emptying himself, we are encouraged to follow his model of humility in order to grow and actualize our fullest self.
Do you remember where all of this tension comes from? It’s the tension of realizing that the words of Jesus contain a deep truth: “Only in losing myself will I ever find myself.” In understanding that Jesus let go of some of the demands that he might have held for himself in order to grow and move into the struggles of being a full human being. Only when he opened himself up to the demands of relating to the world in human terms without the protection of his divinity was he able to offer his body for our reconciliation.
It’s the gospel message for those of us who travel this week to Jerusalem. Do you remember Edith Ann, the imaginary little girl created by comedienne Lily Tomlin? Edith Ann wrote her autobiography sharing the wisdom that perhaps only a five year old can freely grasp: “I thought back to what Dr. Lopez said once. I wrote it down ”quote ”’Love may be hard to understand,’ she says, ‘but it is not hard to love. It’s so simple. Love is so much easier than we think; what’s hard is getting to the place where you see how easy it is.’ Those were almost her exact words, I’m pretty sure.”
Keith Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. He holds degrees from Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a doctor of ministry degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He and his wife, Wanda, have a son and daughter, Ben and Alex.
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Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).