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The elusive virtue, gelassenheit, and feet washing.

Akin to grasping a slippery bar of soap is the Christian believer's attempt to possess humility. Humility is not to be confused with humiliation, which is the act of causing someone else to feel ashamed. Rather, to be humble means "to give place to another." Any human relationship that values reciprocal attention is a humble relationship when one sentient individual gives place to another. While a character quality may be nonmaterial, it may be meaningfully expressed in physical ways. Jesus clearly exemplified humility (Phil. 2:5-8) and called his followers to embrace humble servanthood as a way of life. Yet, we who desire to truly follow Jesus often find humility to be so elusive! Why?

The life of Jesus was an illustration of humility and service. Jesus came not only to serve created humanity (Matt. 20:28), but also to call human disciples into humble service that involves self-denial and a commitment "to take up his cross and follow [Christ]" (Matt. 16:24-25). Within my Anabaptist religious tradition, gelassenheit (literal German meaning: yieldedness or resignation) was taught as the way to follow Christ. (1) For example, the Moravian Anabaptist, Hans Haffner, wrote a tract in the 1530s entitled, About the True Soldier of Jesus Christ, where he described gelassenheit as true surrender, a letting loose of everything for Christ:
 True surrender (gelassenheit) is to put to death the
 flesh and to be born another time. The whole world
 wants to have Christ, but they pass him by. They do
 not find him because they want to have him only as
 a gift, only as a giver of grace and a mediator which
 he certainly is, but they do not want to have him in
 a suffering way. (2)

In listing character virtues in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3-5), Jesus begins with poor in spirit, mourning, and meekness as the first three qualities of a Christ-like life.

In contrast to the way of Jesus, our society and culture call us to be proud, strong, and motivated to get ahead of others thereby demonstrating our superiority. Rather than giving place to another, we quickly claim our spot, and if possible try to add to our place by absorbing space from our competitors. We vie with each other to make the new discovery and to get it published first. We cultivate relationships with those in administrative power, rather than the janitorial staff, because we know promotions have much to do with perceptions. We consider ourselves as above the average, e.g., based on self-evaluations, most college professors rate their teaching effectiveness above average. Can a Christian be a nonconformist to the world in this area and still be a successful scientist? What would happen if instead of explaining to my colleague or mentor the unique and creative insight that I have, I would take that time to describe how another colleague demonstrates creativity and initiative?

In my local congregation, we periodically practice the congregational ritual of foot washing to commemorate the humble example and command of Jesus (John 13:14). As a ceremonial participant when I stoop over the basin with a draped towel washing a fellow congregant's feet, it is sobering to think that even the practice of this lowly symbolic act of humility can be conducted with a proud heart. What does it say about me, when I think more about how "I look with my bare feet in church" or the "efficient foot washing job that I am doing" rather than about the needs and feelings of my brother? Oops! Again, humility slips out of my grasp, like a slimy bar of soap!

Although I too frequently express the characteristic of pride, my intention by God's grace is to walk in Christ's path of humility and to truly "wash my brother's feet" by periodically giving up my place for another's needs and concerns. When that happens, humility boosts an intimate spousal bond, facilitates the close fellowship of congregational believers, and promotes harmony and productivity by scientific colleagues in the laboratory.

Let's walk together. I will provide the basin and the water. Can you bring a towel?


(1) Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973), 66, 124.

(2) Peter Hoover, The Secret of the Strength: What Would the Anabaptists Tell This Generation (Shippensburg, PA: Benchmark Press, 1998), 34-5.

Roman J. Miller, Editor
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Title Annotation:The View from Shepherd's Knoll ...
Author:Miller, Roman J.
Publication:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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