Bible Exposition

What Does It Mean to Be a Humble Dad?

by Kristopher Schaal

man kneeling on a beach praying with his head bowed

Is there a Bible verse you have never understood? In Philippians 2:3, Paul says “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.” The last phrase of the verse used to trouble me.

Is Paul telling me to consider others to be better human beings than myself? For instance, is the teenage girl supposed to look at her friend and think, “She’s so pretty; I’ll never measure up to her!”? Unfortunately, that is how many people think of humility.

However, there are two problems with that interpretation of Paul in this verse.

  1. It can be intellectually dishonest. (What if the teenage girl in the example is prettier than her friend?)
  2. It turns humility into some kind of Jedi mind trick.

In the book, The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis, Screwtape (a demon) counsels Wormwood (another demon) about how to keep his “patient” from being humble.

You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it, not as self-forgetfulness, but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it, and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible.

According to Lewis (and I think he is right), humility, at its core, is “self-forgetfulness.” It’s not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

Lewis put it this way in another book, Mere Christianity.

To even get near [humility], even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert. Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

So, if esteeming others better than yourself doesn’t mean being (in Lewis’s words) “a greasy, smarmy person,” what does it mean? It means valuing others more than you value yourself. This interpretation is confirmed in the next verse. “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). It is also illustrated in the example of Christ in the verses following Phillipians 2:4. Right after telling us to be humble, Paul says, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” He goes on to explain how Jesus did not grasp equality with God, took the form of a bondservant, became flesh, and humbled Himself to the point of death on a cross. Jesus is the ultimate example of what it means to humbly serve others. Are you following His example?

What are some ways you can do this? Here are several suggestions.

  • When you come home from work, help set the table when you feel like vegging on the couch.
  • When you play with your kids, choose the game they like to play. Playing “family” can get old really quick for a dad, but your four-year-old daughter never gets tired of it. Play what she wants to play.
  • Try to be home from work when you say you’ll be home. If you have to be late, text your wife so that she knows what to expect.
  • Don’t interrupt. Interrupting sends the clear signal, “What I have to say is more important than what you have to say.”
  • Before you say yes to that next hunting trip, consider the stress this commitment will put on your family’s budget and schedule. Has your wife had time to recharge lately? Have you consulted her opinion about the trip?

When you begin thinking of ways to apply this passage, you discover that the possibilities are literally endless! Here is a simple exercise you can do to help you apply Philippians 2:3-4 in your home.

  1. Make a list of all of your family members.
  2. Under each name, list several of that person’s interests. (An “interest” is something that matters a lot to that person–see Philip 2:4.)
  3. Next to each interest, write down a way you can serve that person by honoring that interest. (For instance, I can honor my wife’s concern for safety by fixing that loose board, even though I don’t think it’s a problem. Etc.)
  4. Put your ideas into action!

Christian Dad, when God commands you to be humble, don’t think for a moment that He is telling you to lack confidence. That is not what humility is about! Instead, He is telling you to embrace the mindset of Christ and put the interests of others (including your wife and your kids) ahead of your own desires.

Let’s be strong and confident leaders who always put others first.

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