The idea that many seem to have is that humility involves thinking less about yourself, to have a negative or even morbid self-concept. Justification for this sort of thing comes from texts like Philippians 2.3:
Philippians 2.3Humility, it seems, is considering others as "better" than yourself. And if others are better than you it stands to reason that you are "worse." Humility, in this view, is having that sort of morbid self-concept: Others are "better" than me.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.
But is that what Philippians 2.3 is saying?
The word translated as "better" in this text is hyperechontas from the root hyperechō. The word (in various forms) occurs only four other times in the NT:
Romans 13:1As can be seen in these texts hyperechō means, broadly, "to hold above." In Romans 13.1 and 1 Peter 2.13 the context is explicitly political, with a political power being "held above" other powers. In Philippians 3.8 the value of knowing Christ is "held above" all other things. In Philippians 4.7 the peace of God is "held above" our ability to understand.
Every person must be subject to the governing (hyperechousais) authorities because there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and those that presently exist have been instituted by God.
More than that, I regard all things as loss because of the surpassing (hyperechon) worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and regard them as rubbish, in order to gain Christ
And the peace of God, which surpasses (hyperechousa) all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
1 Peter 2:13
Submit to every human authority on account of the Lord, whether to the king as supreme (hyperechonti) authority.
Which brings us back to Philippians 2.3. Translating hyperechontas as "better" doesn't really get at the root meaning of the word. Some translations to compare how well they do getting at the root meaning of "to hold above":
NIV:The NRSV goes with "better than." Which I think is the worst translation. The NASV and CEV go with "more important" and the ESV goes with "more significant." I don't think those are much better.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
Don’t be jealous or proud, but be humble and consider others more important than yourselves.
The Kingdom New Testament (N.T. Wright)
Never act our of selfish ambition or vanity; instead, regard everyone else as your superior.
The NIV isn't bad with "value others above yourself." We hear a bit of hyperechō's "to hold above" in this translation, but the word "value" might muddy the waters. Finally, N.T. Wright does an interesting thing in going with the hierarchical/political meanings we observed above in Romans 13.1 and 1 Peter 2.13: "regard everyone else as your superior."
To be honest, I really don't like any of these. I sort of like staying with the basic meaning of hyperechō, "to hold above." Alternative phrases might be to "lift up," "elevate," or "place." For example:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility hold others up above yourselves.To be sure, when we hold up, elevate, and lift up others this is being done over against the self. But I don't think that has to mean that the other is "better" or more "important." It simply means that the other is honored (elevated, help up, lifted up) and put first. And I think the context of the passage supports that reading. Here's the NIV with my tweak for hyperechō:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility lift others up above yourselves.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility elevate others above yourselves.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility place others above yourselves.
Philippians 2.3I think that works. Humility is less about thinking other people are "better" or "more important" than you are. Humility isn't about a morbid ego or a low self-esteem. Humility is, rather, a form of honoring and care-taking.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility lift others up above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Humility is lifting up (hyperechō) the concerns of others, placing them above and ahead of your own.