In a popular cultural perception, evangelical Christian ethics is summed up in a single-sentence question: What would Jesus do (WWJD)? This question has the merit of placing Jesus at the center of one’s life and ethical inquiry as he or she attempts to imitate Jesus as Savior and Lord. However, in reality, the inquiry of WWJD is not that simple because, without a clear understanding of Jesus’ character, our answer may end up being a projection of our own cultural bias and ideology. Therefore, many Christians rightly rely on the four Gospels as their source in pursuing WWJD.
Here is an interesting thought experiment: How did Paul and his contemporary Christians deal with the situations they encountered? While pastoring diverse Christian churches in diaspora, Paul faced many challenging moral issues confounding these churches, from the circumcision of Gentiles to rivalry and factionalism among Christians, from the right to eat idol meat to gender-specific roles and head covering for women. How did Paul respond to these challenging issues, and what was his moral reference point (that is, what was his WWJD), especially when he was not one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and when the synoptic Gospels were not canonized yet? For me, Paul’s version of WWJD seems to be, “what is the mind of Christ?”
In his letters, Paul consistently referred to Christ as the authoritative source of the Christian life for both Jews and Gentiles. In Philippians (and similarly 1 Corinthians) in particular, Paul introduced the mind of Christ,1 with kenosis (self-emptying) at its core, as the key reference point of Christian discipleship and ethical discernment. The mind of Christ refers to the moral outlook or mindset of Jesus—what Christ is mindful of and cares for. In short, his disposition and character. To have the mind of Christ is, therefore, to have his mindset in one’s thinking, desiring, and doing. It is easy to imagine that to know and have the mind of Christ ourselves is the foundation of our discipleship, because we cannot imitate Jesus without first knowing and sharing his mindset. For Paul, to have the mind of Christ is specifically to be kenotic in accommodating the needs of others, especially those who are poor and weak in the community.
This essay first examines a critical role that the mind of Christ (centered on kenosis) played in Philippians, and then explores its moral implication for our own Christian life today: what is the kenosis of Christ, why is it important, and what does it mean to live with this disposition in our current social contexts? I conclude that although having the mindset of self-emptying may appear foolish in our highly individualistic and self-assertive society, it is indispensable to our discipleship because kenosis shows what the mind of Christ is.
The Mind of Christ in Philippians
Philippians 2:5–11 shows the inextricable connection between Christian ethics and the mind of Christ in Paul’s thought. Scholars say that one major pastoral concern of Paul’s in Philippians was the unity of the church in the face of external opposition (1:28) and internal discord resulting from competition, rivalry, and quarrelling. To Paul, the integrity of the gospel and a long-term effectiveness of ministry depended on the unity of the church; for the unity of the church is not merely a matter of organizational efficiency, but ultimately is concerned with the very nature of the gospel and the identity of the church as Christ’s body.
In order to restore unity to the church, Paul exhorts the Philippians to take an attitude of humility and respect toward each other (2:3), which is not extraordinary advice at all in addressing the problem of discord. However, Paul quickly moves to admonishing the members to have the mind of Christ (2:5). Then he strengthens his exhortation by citing the story of Christ (2:6–11), which some scholars claim to be one of the oldest hymns used in the early Christian community: Jesus, though equal to God, did not claim his rightful divine privilege and power but rather gave it up for the good of humanity even to the point of being crucified on the cross. One may say that, for Paul, the Christ hymn is a narrative commentary on the mind of Christ; in a dramatic and vivid way the hymn shows what led Jesus to make the decisions he did, and how he practiced humility and self-sacrifice in his own life.
At the center of the Christ hymn is the notion of kenosis (self-emptying, self-restriction), an extraordinary moral initiative that Jesus took to reconcile with humanity. For Paul, kenosis is not just one of many virtuous attitudes, but a decisive one that claimed the entire person of Christ including his own life, let alone his power and privilege. The notion of kenosis plays a critical pastoral and ethical role in Philippians. Immediately, it serves as a polite but a firm critique of competition, rivalry, and friction within the church, which was probably motivated by a desire to protect, or, if possible, to expand one’s own privilege and power, turf or territory, to speak metaphorically. Kenosis, the surrendering of a space, is the stark opposite of such a turf war. The kenosis of Jesus also has the effect of giving a concrete living example of humility and self-sacrifice that radically alters the ordinary meanings of these words. Humility is more than a mental attitude; it takes action by the conscious replacement of self-serving with serving others and sharing one’s entire life to the benefit of others.
Although Paul’s message on kenosis was addressed to all Philippian Christians, it targeted particularly those with power and status within the community.2 Paul is directly telling them to exemplify servanthood by “giving space” to others as Jesus did rather than holding on to power and privilege. It is Paul’s premise that the church as the body of Christ will be built truly in one accord when all members, starting with the leaders, adopt and practice this kenotic mind of Christ. Paul’s message obviously coheres with Jesus’ own teaching at the Last Supper: “You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:13–15).
Theological Significance of Kenosis
Why is kenosis so important? Does it really capture the essence of the mind of Christ? If it is so important, why do we not find the same word (ἐκένωσεν) or its variations used in reference to Christ in any other places of the Scripture? Another complication: is kenosis relevant today? Doesn’t the notion promote self-subservience that undermines our moral agency, especially for those who have been historically oppressed and marginalized as feminist and liberation theologians have pointed out?
Kenosis has profound significance in Christian theology. It refers to the very disposition of the triune God who is the communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Perichoresis, mutual interpenetration among the three trinitarian persons, is possible through the kenosis of each trinitarian person for the others. That is, God exists as communion and love through mutual kenosis. This observation indicates that kenosis is not only soteriological (opera ad extra) but also ontological; as love, God has the eternal disposition to make room for others. Daniel Migliore notes, “God is eternally disposed to create, to give and share life with others. The welcome to others that is rooted in the triune life of God spills over, so to speak, in the act of creation.”3 For example, creation was a result of the kenosis of the triune God. Out of kenotic love, God graciously allowed all kinds of creatures, humans in particular, to exist alongside God, and grow and thrive in God’s love. Therefore, kenosis is not an isolated incident in Jesus’ incarnation but a key to the mystery of God as communion and of God’s economy.4
Interestingly the word “accommodation” clarifies what we attempt to explicate here. To accommodate means (1) “to provide lodging or sufficient space for” and (2) “to fit in with the wishes or needs of.” “Accommodation” positively describes how God’s kenosis works in redeeming us creatures: Jesus emptied himself to accommodate us into the divine life; through his accommodation, Jesus met our desperate need for healing and wholeness (salvation); he exchanged his goodness, bliss, and wholeness for our sin and brokenness so that we can now be reconciled with God. Athanasius summed up the salvific meaning of kenosis and accommodation in a shocking phrase: the Son of God became a human so that a human might become a god.
What Does the Kenotic Mind of Christ Mean for Us?
In this era of breakneck competition, a win-by-any-means-necessary attitude, growing litigation, self-assertion, and promotion, what does it mean to have the mind of Christ, specifically to be kenotic? Is it sensible at all?
Kenosis may sound counterintuitive (even self-defeating) to many ears because it is antithetical to the grain of our cultural ethos that glorifies material possession, self-assertion, and power. A kenotic attitude may look to contemporary competitive minds like being defeatist or servile. However, one should not take kenosis as a sign of weakness because it is actually a demonstration of inner spiritual strength. Kenosis is the paradoxical form of power that God uses in saving and bringing shalom (koinonia of all life) to the world. Kenosis tells that God is powerful enough to give up his own privilege in order to empower others. God’s kenotic love is therefore powerful, not powerless or sentimental. Paul preached that this kenotic power of God revealed on the cross is the true wisdom and salvific knowledge for the world (1 Cor 1:20). Because of its subversive nature, the idea of kenosis is very relevant to our common life.
Kenosis offers a critique of a current form of globalization and a common economic system that is driven by competition and profit motive alone; ruthless competitions are producing millions of displaced people, while concentrating inordinate amounts of wealth and power into a few powerful nations and multinational corporations. Many Christians are also dragged into this rat race. However, the message of kenosis teaches us that the way of Christ is to share our wealth and power, and the benefits of knowledge (especially technology) with others. It is the wisdom and witness of Scripture that such voluntary sharing and distribution ultimately serves the well-being of everyone. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level, attests,5 severe economic inequality undermines social trust and contributes to the breeding of various forms of social ills (obesity, juvenile crime, young pregnancy, even physical and mental illness) that undermine the well-being of every member of a society—both rich and poor.
The attitude of kenosis is urgently needed to address our ecological crisis. As Christ did, we need to restrain our privilege and power as a dominant species and realize the need to share the planet with other creatures for their survival and thriving. Our planet has been brutalized by our reckless consumption and ruthless exploitation, so other species are losing their habitats as the result of human aggression and violence. Kenosis tells us that we cannot be anthropocentric any longer. We should remember that the mind of Christ is the mind of the Creator; God cares for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air (Matt 6:26). Bearing the image of God, humans are called to reflect God’s compassion, humility, and care for every life, especially the vulnerable ones. To be kenotic in this context means that we must live within our own means and limits in respect of the boundaries and rights of other species, sharing the space and precious resources with them. It should be noted that the Sabbath was designed for humans to exercise a regular practice of human self-restriction in order to render a relieving space to other species and the planet for their rest and restoration.
The idea of kenosis has a surprising social relevance at a time when numerous marriages and families are breaking down, communities are disintegrated, and relationships are turning into utilitarian contracts. People are hungry for long-term genuine relationships of trust and affection, and a community of good company. This thirst for belonging and genuine friendship cannot be quenched by money, instant sex, or power alone; it can be satisfied only by genuine love. Genuine love has a kenotic quality—the quality to go out of oneself in good will toward others. Only love with such a quality can nurture trust and friendship, and any society that denies adequate “space” for its members will be self-destructive. Today people are beginning to realize that privacy, tolerance, individualism, or self-assertion alone cannot build a community. Individual bricks alone cannot build a house; we need a mortar that holds bricks together. Likewise, a society is more than an aggregation of individuals. A society made of self-centered individuals will be a miserable, even dangerous, place to live no matter how advanced its technology, how great its accumulated information, or how powerful its military. Society and its institutions cannot be functional without a constant infusion to even a minimal degree of kenotic spirit among their members. To build a community, we need to move beyond individualism and invite others into our hearts through self-emptying.
The message of kenosis reminds us that the church is a community whose ruling ethos (mindset) and organizing logic is different from the world’s. The church, as a colony of the kingdom, operates by the logic of love, not power. The church is the place where the rich share with the poor and the powerful empower the powerless. The church is the accommodating and liberating space—the space of life and love. As a new human life grows in the space of a mother’s womb, all life is to live and thrive in the womb of the church. Therefore, the church should welcome and offer a space for all life, human and nonhuman, as Noah’s ark did. By nature, the church of kenosis rejects all forms of domination—economic, racial, military, and religious. As the keepers of our brothers, sisters, and the earth, we should not be afraid to be the voice of the voiceless, especially those who are exploited and left behind in global competition—the poor, unemployed, displaced, along with other creatures.
How Can We Have This Mind?
How can a mortal human have this divine mind? How is kenosis possible for sinful human beings? The mind of Christ becomes ours only through the work of the Spirit. Our kenosis is possible when God’s reign takes deep root in our own lives through the Spirit, and when our hearts are filled with thankfulness to God’s love and conviction in the final victory of God. Kenosis is not duty. It cannot be coerced, and it should be voluntary as in the case of Jesus. Ironically, kenosis or self-emptying is the fruit of exocentric, overflowing love made possible through Christ. If kenosis is possible, then it should ultimately be a natural overflow of our lives in response to God’s love.
Kenosis is not a theory but a practice that emulates Christ’s own life. Therefore, it takes time for a kenotic pattern to settle and mature in our hearts and minds. To have such a mindset, we need to grow in a network that exposes us to such living examples. Paul beseeched the Christians in Philippi to imitate the examples set by Timothy, Ephapadous, and Paul himself. Inspired by the exemplars around our lives, we may practice kenotic love starting with a small circle of friends, a church cell group, or our next-door neighbors.
Paul’s message on the mind of Christ challenges our individualistic, self-centered, and materialistic lifestyle and cultural ethos. To have the mind of Christ is to reorient our life away from the mindset of the world toward caring for others and God’s creation. To do so requires the transformation of our attitudes, values, and desires, namely, “the renewal of the mind” (Rom 12:2), including renunciation of our social privileges and powers.
To have the mind of Christ looks foolish to the world, but that is what the gospel is about. Today, to have this pattern of thought requires strong faith and courage because to be kenotic will turn out to be countercultural in many aspects.
Those who have the mind of Christ should even expect inevitable clashes with some prevailing social and cultural forces, just as Jesus and his followers did in their time. We may be ridiculed, humiliated, and even persecuted, but God’s power will be more visible through our kenosis because kenosis is the mystery of God and God’s power. It is a worthy risk to take because the poor, the future generations, and vulnerable creatures will find their breathing room in the space that we procure through our kenotic ministry in imitating Christ.
1. “The mind of Christ” is a paraphrase of the Greek clause “ὁ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ” (lit.: “that was also in Christ Jesus”). In connection to the immediately preceding imperative (“Let the same mind be in you”), the paraphrase is not a stretch.
2. Notably, Paul’s greeting in the opening of the letter was specifically addressed to bishops and deacons. Euodia and Syntyche, whom Paul beseeched to “agree in the Lord,” are also believed to be female leaders of the church.
3. Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 101.
4.In fact, one finds a kenotic character in every trinitarian person—the kenosis of the Spirit in his hiddenness in the divine economy, surrendering his identity to be completely present in every creature in respect for its particularity; the kenosis of the Son in the abandonment of his glory and life in incarnation and crucifixion as we saw above; the kenosis of the Father in the surrendering of God’s only begotten son and the generous outpouring of God’s Spirit for humanity.
5. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why the Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009).
This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2013, “Have This Mind Among You: Philippians 2:1–11.”