If humbling ourselves is returning to the truth about who we are, then the best description of that journey and process can be found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ (Phil. 3:5-9)
Paul begins by stating that if salvation was something to be earned, he could muster an impressive resume, more impressive in fact than any of the legalists.
But when Paul came to Christ and received salvation, he reckoned his spiritual resume—beautifully printed on 60lb. ivory cover stock—to be nothing more than dung sitting on a piece of Charmin two-ply. An admittedly disturbing word picture, but “dung” is the actual word in the text, not “rubbish” as the Victorian translators have rendered it. The word “dung” not “rubbish” was selected by God to shake us awake and we are not aided by toning it down and making God speak in his “indoor voice.” God chose “dung” here and uses it elsewhere in Scripture because dung has been, is, and will always be, tied to our sense of shame.
And it is dung that depicts the outrageous nature of Paul’s salvation and ours: the humiliation and shame in realizing our unsanitary spiritual condition and the humbling absurdity of the transaction—trading our dung for Christ’s righteousness.
Martin Luther, the German leader of the Reformation, was asked when it was that he realized salvation was by faith and not works. His response was “in cloaca” which sounds rather spiritual until you translate it; it means sitting “on the toilet.” Many scholars believe Luther was actually using a common metaphor for ‘humbling oneself’ which was popular in the Middle Ages, the term, “sitting on the toilet,” a metaphor that’s almost identical – and equally repugnant – to Paul’s “dung” allusion.
And it is a perfect metaphor for humbling oneself, for if there is ever a time or a place when we are completely without pretense or posturing, it’s sitting on the john. Here there are no facades, no keeping up appearances, no image management, no cover-ups, no masks, no masquerades, no make-up—you are what you are. The toilet is ground zero for humanity. The key to the kingdom is in fact the key to the rest room.
But now here’s the part of the passage that’s easy to miss—and again due to translation problems. Clearly, Paul humbled himself when he came to Christ, we get that—couldn’t be clearer. But the passage also states that in a manner similar to his salvation, Paul continued to humble himself. This was an ongoing practice in Paul’s life. The text of Philippians 3:8 literally reads, “What is more, I continue to consider everything a loss.” The translators fail to indicate the ongoing verb tense and omit the word “continue.” Fortunately they weren’t the translators at, say, a Nuclear Arms treaty as the difference between “I’m sorry we bombed you” and “I’m sorry we are going to continue to bomb you” is not insignificant.
Paul “continued” to humble himself; he made the trip back to truth over and over, as many times as he wandered from it, as many times as he sought to find or define his sufficiency in anything other than Jesus Christ. Like a man with an aging prostrate, Paul was always back and forth to the bathroom.