God Abides in Himself as Nothing

The mystery of humility in Numbers 11 and Philippians 2

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If Israel’s Scriptures are to be trusted, there are two and only two ways that open before us: the way of haughtiness and the way of humility. Martin Buber, in his Hasidism and Modern Man, explains what the sages taught about the differences between the ways: 

It is not humility when one ‘lowers himself too much and forgets that man can bring down an overflowing blessing on all the world through his words and his actions.’ This is called impure humility. ‘The greatest evil is when you forget that you are the son of a king.’ He is truly humble who feels the other as himself and himself in the other. Haughtiness means to contrast oneself with others. The haughty man is not he who knows himself, but he who compares himself with others. No man can presume too much if he stands on his own ground since all the heavens are open to him and all worlds devoted to him. The man who presumes too much is the man who contrasts himself with others, who sees himself as higher than the humblest of things, who rules with measure and weights and pronounces judgment … He who measures and weighs becomes empty and unreal like measure and weight. ‘In him who is full of himself there is no room for God.’ … As long as a man sees himself above and before others, he has a limit, ‘and God cannot pour His holiness into him, for God is without limit. But when a man rests in himself as in nothing, he is not limited by any other thing, he is limitless and God pours His glory into him.’

The Book of Numbers identifies Moses as the humblest man alive (Numbers 12:3). It does so on the basis of what he has done in the previous chapter. When Joshua warns him that he must be careful not to share his spirit with others, Moses reproves him sharply: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29). 

The lesson, as the sages saw, is unmistakable. In the words of one of the early zaddiks, which Buber cites, Moses regarded all of his companions as more important than himself, teaching Israel that each should love the other “through being inferior in his own eyes.”

Joshua was apparently worried for Moses’ image, if not also his well-being. But Moses was too self-aware and too God-aware to be concerned with managing his reputation or worrying about what would become of his influence. Resting in himself as nothing, Moses received from God’s Spirit and gave of his own, pouring himself out in the enlivening and strengthening of others. Because he was not full of himself, he could share his fullness with others. Because he was not obsessed with his persona, because he did not fret about losing face, trusting himself and his people to the hidden wisdom of God, Moses reflected the light of the knowledge of God that shines in the face of Jesus Christ. 

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Philippians 2 teaches the same humility that Numbers 11 does. Paul, remember, calls the Philippians to take on the consciousness of Christ just after urging them to humbly regard others as better than themselves (Phillipians 2:3). When Jesus “makes himself of no reputation” (Philippians 2:7 King James Version), when he “empties” or (better) “annihilates” himself, he vindicates Moses and reveals that the sages of old were right. The mystery of humility is the mystery that holds all things in being. 

Contrary to popular conceptions, the incarnation was not a humiliation for God; it was a revelation. It did not obscure or diminish his divine nature; it unveiled it. Nothing—truly, nothing—could be more fitting than for God to take on flesh, because God is humble. To be human is to be small—but not nearly as small as God. Our insignificance is relative; God’s is absolute. 

Our smallness is not only a limited reflection of God’s but also the interval or breach through which the divine humility can reach and revive all things. It is Mary’s lowliness, after all, that makes it so that she can contain the uncontainable—and give birth to it (Luke 1:46-55). The Hasidic masters were right: we must never forget that we are children of the king—a king who is impossibly meek, even shy, and unstintingly kind.

Pseudo-Dionysius was also right: God’s fullness remained unaffected by the incomprehensible act of self-emptying. Instead, God’s fullness became effective for us and in us precisely through that unfathomable self-emptying. Assuming the lowliness of his mother, Jesus not only demonstrates God’s humility but also establishes it as the fundamental essence of our being. Taking on our human nature did not alter his identity or his relationship with God; instead, it established his relation to the Father as our own. By abiding in himself as nothing, dwelling in the selflessness of the Father, he created for us the possibility of the deepest joy. That is why it is truly more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). 

This, then, is the truth that burns at the core of Numbers 11 and Philippians 2—the mystery of humility. When we stop comparing ourselves with others or passing judgment on them, living before the Father with a child-like abandon, not trying to be humble but simply happy to be ourselves, we begin to bring down an overflowing blessing on the world.

  • Chris E.W. Green

    Chris EW Green is Professor of Public Theology at Southeastern University (Lakeland, FL) and bishop-elect of the Diocese of St Anthony. You can find his full bio and CV here and his newsletter and podcast here.

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