Self-Emptying (Philippians 2: 5-8)

by T.V. Philip

T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India.

The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It was the self-emptying Christ who was the attraction for the Hindus. Jesus emptied his life utterly that he became the transparent medium through which people can see God.

Philippians 2: 5-8:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ

Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

This is a beautiful hymn, but full of paradoxes. In two or three sentences the writer has portrayed very vividly and simply the whole life and work of Jesus Christ and then advises the Christians in Philippi, ‘Have this mind among yourselves’. Christian spirituality is to have the mind which we see in Jesus Christ. What is the mind of Christ?

The Christian church always believes and proclaims that Jesus Christ is the centre of all things. ‘He was in the beginning with God and all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made’ (John 1:2-3). For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities - all things were created through him and for him (Colossians 1:15-18).

In 1980, there was a World Missionary Conference in Melbourne (Australia) organized by the World Council of Churches. Addressing that conference, Kosuke Koyama, the Japanese theologian, pointed out that this Jesus Christ who is at the centre of all things is always in motion towards the periphery.

The whole life of Jesus is a movement towards the periphery and finally, on the cross, he stops the movement. He cannot move any further. He is marked down. This is the point of ultimate periphery. No one can crucify him because he is already crucified. No one can mutilate him because he is already mutilated. On the cross he cried, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Koyama went on to say that Jesus Christ lived as a periphery man. It was at the periphery that he established his identity and centre. His identity was his cross, his exaltation was his humiliation. He was the Lord because he was the crucified one. His centre was the periphery and he became central because he gave up the centre.

During the last century, there were several Hindu leaders in India who were attracted to the person of Christ. Their interpretation of the life and work of Christ form an essential part of Indian Christian theology. One of them was Keshab Chunder Sen. In a public lecture on, "Who is Jesus Christ?", commenting on the words of Jesus, "I and my Father are one", which is a key text for Christology, Chunder Sen observed:

When I come to analyse this doctrine, I found in it nothing but the philosophical principle underlying the popular doctrine of self-negation. ... Christ ignored and denied his self altogether...He destroyed self. And as self ebbed away, Heaven came pouring into the soul. For... nature abhors a vacuum, and hence as soon as the soul is emptied of self Divinity fills the void. So it was with Christ. The spirit of the Lord filled him, and everything was thus divine with him.

For Sen, Jesus by his utter abandonment of self, by his kenosis, becomes filled with divine life. Then he says, Jesus manifested this divine life in human being as no other person had ever done before. He said:

There is Christ before us, a transparent crystal reservoir in which are the waters of divine life. There is no opaque self to obscure our vision. The Medium is transparent, all we clearly see through Christ the God of truth and holiness dwelling in him.

It was the self-emptying Christ who was the attraction for the Hindus. Jesus emptied his life utterly that he became the transparent medium in which God dwells and through which people can see God. Philip once asked Jesus, ‘Show us the Father’. ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’, was the reply of Jesus.

St. Paul exhorts the Christians in Philippi to have the mind of Christ. The real human problem is ‘self-centredness’ - selfishness, self-justification and self-glorification. The elimination of ‘self’ from the centre and God coming into the centre of our life is to have the mind of Christ.

Christian spirituality is the growth in transparency of our life. There is nothing hidden, nothing dishonest, nothing opaque and there is no cover up in Christian spirituality. Everything about our life is transparent. It is only as we move to the periphery, forgetting our self interest, for the love of those in the periphery that we grow in this transparency. As Christ has manifested God in the world by his ‘self-emptying’ we become the medium of God’s divine life as we grow in selfless love for others. Christian spirituality is the experience of being liberated from self-love.