But in Humility

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Philippians 2:3, 4.

How does one read such a statement?  I mean when I read it the first time, I went in a different direction than I am now simply because the first reading was influenced by some pretty heavy religious bias.  And that’s not to say I haven’t been influenced by the other side of that pendulum swing—though I hope I’m more leveled out than that now.  Although Paul goes on to give us the answer in a pretty vivid way, I would like to chew on this a bit more, since it’s one of the key verses I use for how I believe we should structure our lives.

What is “selfish ambition”?

Is it having personal goals or pursuing one’s passions (the good kind)?

Is it being ambitious in our careers or success in our family life?

Is it seeking positions of power or prestige?

Yes and no to all of those questions, because what motivates our ambition is far more important than what they are, if we are going for the above list that is. Think about it for a moment and you’ll see what I mean.

For example:  A famous pastor who merely seeks to be a good shepherd to his personal flock who goes viral on the internet because he’s a good teacher may have one goal in mind:  to bring people to Jesus or a greater knowledge of Him.  This kind of ambition doesn’t even enter the scope of selfishness.  At the same time, if he’s a charismatic, intelligent person, figuring out how to use the Bible as a means of self-improvement isn’t all that hard, since the principles work no matter what a person’s personal commitment to God.  Anyone who practices honesty, integrity and generosity will find a blessing—God rains His blessings down on the righteous and unrighteous alike.  By being open to those moral truths people open themselves up to a part of God’s heart, which may not mean they accept God as God though they buy into the principles taught by Him.  My point is a person could start off with high standards and end up with selfish ambition once they “arrive” wherever fame and fortune take them, or, they could remain untouched by it all because they are hidden with Christ in God.

The word “vain” means “vain glory” or empty glory.  To seek one’s own glory or to pursue that which would give one an honorable reputation in the eyes of the world or church.  Vine’s says the word “glory” primarily signifies an opinion, estimate, and hence, the honor resulting from a good opinion. So seeking the good opinion, honor or estimate of men is empty, while seeking to be honored by God is not.  Yet if we seek to be honored by God for our works without faith, our pursuit will come up empty.  Faith is the key to our success in Christ for without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.

Shooting for the moon in a go-cart won’t reach the goal.  All man’s efforts to please God without His input on what is pleasing to Him is kind of silly.  Say a man wants to give his wife a gift that tells her he loves her.  If she enjoys quiet evenings at home with no kids but he gives her roses instead, what has he really told her?  Nothing except that he’s completely out of touch with her heart.  On the other side of that illustration, women who tell their husbands they love them then set out to change everything about them say exactly the opposite.  That isn’t even “like”…I don’t know what that is but it definitely doesn’t equal love.

The Master gave us a warning about this issue,  “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” Knowing we have the good opinion of the people around us isn’t a bad thing necessarily, yet the value we place on it is dangerous.  I’ve noticed human opinion is fickle depending on the circumstances.  The moment who we are stands in contrast to the norm of society we can expect problems and bad-mouthing.  Now if we’ve done something outside the boundaries of love, then we need to stop and take stock.

Jesus said,  “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” What did He command?  “And this is my command:  Love each other.” Before we get too far we have to define to ourselves, at least, what Jesus means by “love each other”.  Looking out for one another’s interests like we would our own.  Notice the wording above doesn’t subtract looking out for our own interests, rather Paul instructs to not only look out for our stuff but include others as important as our own.

This rule of Christian conduct can be misused, however, for there are plenty of people who will use this very text to manipulate and harness for their own goals fellow believers into a form of slavery.  Paul troubleshoots this problem in Galatians 6:1-5 by making two vital points within the context of restoring and helping other believers remain on the path of Christ:  We need to carry each other’s burdens, yet each one should carry his/her own load.  The first is easy to understand, I think, as a specific load someone struggles to carry on their own—a sin perhaps, health issues, etc.—the second could be read as each one should carry their own life, for isn’t that the burden of every person?  Someone who leeches off of others generally sucks them dry eventually.  In the meantime, because the person being used submits to such a “burden” out of misunderstanding the gospel they put the chains of enslavement on themselves.

The Bible is chockablock full of stories where God required something specific of one person He didn’t ask from anyone else.  This should give us pause when we try to foist our own calling on others—an action, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve been guilty of many times.  Our experience is ours alone, as Proverbs says  No one can share another person’s sorrow just as no one can share his joys.  We are not islands, but we definitely are autonomous and individual.

Following the path while walking with others means we might have a similar experience, but picture a path wide enough in the mountains so that two or three can walk side by side.  If there’s a root on the right side of the path, an incline on the left and relatively level in the middle, each person’s going to experience the journey differently.  One will have to walk rather stilted and off-balance, one will have smooth steps and the farthest toward the other edge will probable either hop over or step on the root.  It may not seem significant to anyone but me, I guess, but these things make for unique experiences.  But say the middle dude or dudess is walking through mud because it rained really hard, their experience is going to be a lot different as well.

Before we judge another person’s journey, we have to be able to see where in the path they happen to be at the time.  May be we can pull them onto better footing, or may be, just may be, we have been hiking the path so long we’re used to the rugged terrain and don’t realize how difficult it is for a new comer to navigate.  Some Christians bulldoze their way into the level ground by displacing others because they feel it is their “right” to be on an easier path.  What’s so sad about these types is they look at those they’ve just shouldered out of the way and shake their heads in either condescension or disgust because the others aren’t in the same place as themselves.  The others, however, start preaching to the people on different sections of the path about how to walk it effectively, many times completely unconscious of the obstacles or ground those people are facing.  The one hopping over a root sees the person on the incline struggling at an odd angle and yells,  “Hop over the roots and use the branches to help you stay upright!” which confuses the one on the incline since there are no roots or branches.  It’s even funnier when they say the same thing to the person walking on relatively level ground.

In other words, instead of judging merely by our own experience what a another person needs to do to be more effective in their lives, we should observe where they are on the path.  Then and only then should we advise, and that only if we see a better way they could deal with it or have been on that side of the path.  Otherwise, it’s better we concentrate on not tripping up ourselves by being too worried about someone else’ journey.  If someone does trip though, the best person to help them is the one who’s experience gives them the wisdom to assist without falling down themselves.

All this to say, looking out for our fellow travelers is part of our job with grace, mercy, understanding and love.  Looking out for the “interests” of others is easy once we care about them.  God made everyone the same in basics and unique in characteristics.  I say let’s enjoy the unity where we have Christ in common then celebrate the diversity.

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