Last time I preached we looked at Philippians 2:1. There Paul is prompting his readers to recall the benefits of being reconciled to God through Christ, being brought into the fellowship of the Church. I asked you to reflect personally on God’s grace in your life, and I’m grateful that some of you shared those reflections with me.
These reflections brought us to a question: what do we do with all this kindness we’ve received? And, of course, that’s exactly why God’s Spirit led us to these reflections on the goodness of God, so we are spurred onto some response. Let’s read again v. 1, and then continue through v. 4:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
- “Being of the same mind, having the same love” – React in kind to God’s grace… and not to persons.
God has encouraged, comforted, brought you into His work, set His affection on you, acted in wise sympathy toward you. Respond in kind to God’s goodness: as you have received encouragement, comfort etc: be of the same mind, have the same love.
People will criticize you, be cold toward you, dismiss you, be skeptical of you, not appreciate your investment into them, ignore you – maybe that last one is the hardest. The temptation is to let their bad actions toward you fill your mind…and then respond in kind. To at least be a little cold toward them!
Don’t respond to the treatment of others; do fill your mind with and respond to the kind goodness of God.
Keep the goodness of God in front of you; learn to expect and then shrug off less than stellar treatment of others.
Choose to cultivate a disposition of gratitude and then act out from that gratitude. Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
- “Being in full accord and of one mind” – Respond in kind to all the grace you’ve received in the context of deep friendships within the Church.
This is a key detail – When you respond in kind to all the grace you’ve received from God, respond in kind in the context of deep friendships within the church. When Paul writes “be in full accord and of one mind,” we automatically ask, in full accord with whom? And then our minds return to the first verse of the letter – to all the saints of Christ Jesus.
Church members respond to the grace of God in their lives by extending that same encouragement and affection specifically to fellow saints.
- “Being in full accord and of one mind” – Don’t just tolerate the Church but strive for unity of purpose and direction with your fellow members.
The kindness of God received and recognized is transformed into the energy to work at being in full accord and of one mind with the Church. I’ve been treated well. So… I want to work together with the church. I want to work together with these saints at clarifying what is true, learning together how to respond to the truth, discovering what work there is to be done.
Rather than being put off by and aggravated by other Christians, I remember the grace of God to me, and from that I’m motivated to work at coming to agreement. At overcoming the obstacles to working together.
To repeat: the energy for working together comes from this realization of grace. We must keep the goodness of God in front of us.
And what we do with this goodness of God is to strive for common cause with church folks and get to work alongside them.
- “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit” – In your life together, don’t make any decisions out from the assumption that it’s about you.
In responding to the grace of God…in coming to agreement about what work needs to be done…in working together alongside the church: “Do nothing from selfish ambition.”
“Do nothing from…” We’re not left any wiggle room here. After God’s kindness to us, our whole life is given over to Christ, and that is in the form of service to others, especially within the Church.
A fellow Christian was talking to Tonia who has retired from a para-church ministry. She said, ‘I’ve ministered for 40 years and now I deserve a break…’
Well, that makes perfect sense, except there’s this: Christ died for all, that those who love might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. 2 Corinthians 5: 15
Let nothing be done for selfish ends. Even our leisure and rest and retirement should be in service to Christ and His Church. For instance, we rest in order to come back to service with more energy. We retire from some work in order to concentrate more fully on other service.
It’s never about me. Nothing in our lives is strictly for personal advancement, certainly not to draw attention or praise to ourselves. It’s very easy to live in other people’s minds, to act or not act in order to gain attention or recognition or admiration.
- “In humility” – Choose the narrative of humility over the narrative of entitlement and self-promotion.
The Greek word for humility is tapeinos. It’s a well-established fact that in Greco-Romans times tapeinos was considered negatively, a word that smacked debasement, even failure. Not that the Greco-Romans weren’t people who prized virtue – just the opposite. They just didn’t think tapeinos, humility, was virtuous.
Instead, love of honor was sought after. Take pains to show that you’re in the right, that you’re highly regarded and should be highly regarded. Keep your resume up to date. Broadcast your intelligence. Your acumen. Your accomplishments. Don’t waste time with the humble brag…go straight for the brag. Be sure that other people are treating you with respect, that you’re getting all your rights.
Well, we’ve been living for 2000 years in a “Christ-haunted” western culture, and now humbleness is considered virtuous, proper, manly. And yet, still, this love of glory, this sense of entitlement keeps rearing its head.
I remember when my kids were young, and one sibling would tell another sibling some piece of news, the favorite reply of the receiver of the information was ‘I already knew that.’ I’m in the know. Almost everything runs through me. I’m important like that.
That’s it. Everyone wants to be seen as important. I bet the church almost closed down when I was away last week. Did you guys even have a service?
The anecdote to conceit, entitlement, big-shot thinking isn’t self-degradation. I’m such a sinner. I don’t have any talents. You’re so much better than I…
No, Christian humility has much to do with forgetting oneself. C.S. Lewis spoke of humility:
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him, it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
- “Count others more significant than yourselves” – Instead of honoring yourself, operate under the idea that other members are more important than you.
I don’t think that Paul is offering an abstract, philosophical truth here: that everyone else is objectively more significant than you.
Instead, he is giving us what a couple of years ago was called a life hack: here’s how to think: operate under the principle that other people are more special than you. Deliberately put yourself in the back seat. We’re so egocentric that the only way to combat it is to keep telling ourselves that others should be treated as more important.
Jesus said, I’m not here to be served, but to serve. That’s exactly the mindset to cultivate. When you gather with the Church, you don’t enter with the mindset of who’s going to notice me, who’s going to validate me, who’s going to sense how hard my life is? Rather…
And though Paul has in mind the context of the church, of course this will spill out into other settings too. Fathers, do you come home from work and say, ok, now it’s me time, downstairs to play video games, or whatever? No, there’s your wife, and you’ll need to talk with her. I don’t feel like it. Well, hmm, let’s review – count others more significant than yourselves.
Sometimes we parents complain: man, I wish we’d have a manual for rearing these kids. But if we just think about it, we’re preparing our kids to follow Christ. And what does that look like? We’re preparing them to count others [here, specifically, others in the church] more significant than themselves.
So how do we prepare them for that? Well, we don’t flatter them. We don’t make everything about them. We don’t let them think that the world revolves around them.
Example: your child gives you a picture, hastily drawn, and it says something like I love Daddy on it. You say brightly, thanks. And then she asks you, do you like it? Well, I like that it’s from you, and I appreciate the sentiment, and I love you too. But if she could have done better, don’t rave about the picture itself.
When your child gets older, he’ll be presented with an opportunity to play club sports, and the coach will send you signals that he’s very talented, could even go pro, and you’ll want to replay your high school career through him. And…playing will also involve your missing a large number of gatherings with God’s saints.
Here is a teachable moment – to teach little Johnny that it’s not about him but the Church is more significant.
- “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Don’t look out just for yourself but actively practice concern for others.
Both times its deployed, the word “interests” is not part of the original but has been filled in by the translators. Let each of you look not only to his own, but also to the others’. The others’ what? Job. Happiness. Family. Success. Kids success.
It’s not about us. Sometimes we can be so egocentric that we pay attention to other people only so we can compete with them, to make sure we’re ahead of them. It’s easy to be wrapped up in ourselves and look at other people as just satellites revolving around you.
Tonia and I have a couple of friends who never ask us any questions. We’ll ask questions about their jobs, their commute, their families. But they never get around to asking us anything. It seems like they’re so self-absorbed they can’t spare thoughts for anyone but themselves.
And that would go against the word of the Spirit here. Since God has gone out of His way, He has stooped low to deal with us, to deal gently and sympathetically and fully with us, we’re to respond in kind to the Church. To take interest in the lives of others.
But, hold on, let me complicate this a little. Here is a large hole for self-righteousness to worm its way in. Because we could become a people good at asking questions of others – how was your week? How are the kids? We recall Jane has struggled with chemistry – how’s Jane doing in chemistry?
And throughout, we can almost hear people saying to themselves, Man, they’re so caring, they ask me so many questions, they didn’t even want to talk about themselves.
I went through a period in college where I refused to talk about myself. Someone would ask me something and I’d immediately turn the tables on them: but how are YOU doing? It was along the lines of something an attorney friend of mind has shown me – when you go to shake someone’s hand, do so palm up. The other person will grab it from the top, unconsciously thinking he’s dominating you, but because you set up the whole thing, you’re dominating him. I’ll ask questions and let the other person talk, thereby establishing control of the conversation. Thereby garnering respect for my unselfishness. Thereby winning.
Man, he doesn’t even care to talk about himself, he’s just interested in me.
Do you see how twisted and self-righteous all this can become? I mentioned these folks that never ask questions, but then I also have noticed they keep track of our kids’ birthdays and are champs at keeping up in detail with our lives.
Point being: a lot of unselfish action can be motivated by selfishness. And vice versa.
A character in a David Foster Wallace novel who has entered and exited religion and church broods over what he discovered in the process: “The real truth here being how quickly I went from being someone who was there because he wanted to wake up and stop being a fraud to being somebody who was so anxious to impress the congregation with how devoted and active I was.”
The Spirit’s instructions to us aren’t about looking like you’re interested, but about a sincere unfeigned interest in others. Paul is calling us not to a certain look of humility and self-forgetfulness and concern for others and working alongside the church toward a common goal – but to the real thing. He’s not calling us to look like we’re unified, but to be united in work.
Christ is calling us not to righteousness, but as it says in Ephesians 4, to true righteousness and holiness.
And what’s a great test of a genuine, unselfish care for others? For my money, that returns us to Philippians 1: 8ff – 8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.9 And it is my prayer…
A key test of interest in others is your prayers for them. When no one is watching. When they’re not in front of you so you can receive their look of appreciation. Don Carson, the theologian, wrote something about his dad: he never put anyone down, except on prayer lists.
We don’t just focus on ourselves. But also, we don’t just express interest in others, we should truly keep up with them. And step in to help when that’s appropriate. And always, pray for others.
Turning away from selfishness is hard, and we’ll need examples. Which is why Paul’s next move is to bring us to Jesus Christ, and His cross. It’s only the Spirit of Christ who can – over time – rescue us from the Land of Egocentricity. We’ll look at that next week.
Father, we pray for Your Spirit to deliver us from our native self-centeredness, and to conform us to Jesus Christ.
Now we come to the table of Jesus Christ. This is a table for baptized Christians and an opportunity to enjoy a unique fellowship with Jesus and with fellow saints. Before we partake, would you take time in your seats to pray:
- Thanking God for the grace that’s come into your life through the cross of Jesus.
- Confessing before your native pride and selfishness and rivalry with others, and asking God to lead you away from these and to bring you into deep friendship and service among the church.
- Asking God to do the same for believers who are at this table with you.
- Finally, asking God for His Spirit to be poured out on the worldwide Church, especially to bring comfort to those who are afflicted by hostile governments.