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THINK LESS: Wrestling with Scripture #24

In Philippians 2:3, Paul says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” The verse reminded me that, some time ago, a Christian friend who really knows her Bible commented that this passage sometimes twists in her head until she’s tempted to believe that anything she does for herself is selfishness. This idea was reinforced a few weeks ago when another Christian friend, who is the consummate caregiver, mentioned that she often feels selfish if she doesn’t put the needs of others ahead of her own.


But is that what Paul is teaching? Are we called to be so altruistic that we neglect our own needs? Are we out of God’s will if we find ourselves proud of ourselves or of our accomplishments? Although the Bible certainly contains many admonishments to humble ourselves and put on a servant’s heart, I don’t believe God expects us to disregard our own needs in service to others or to crush our self-esteem in order to see others as superior.


One problem we may have with the verse is the word “better,” because the next logical question has to be, “Better at what?” Rembrandt was “better” at art that most. Bach at music. Einstein at physics. As intelligent, moral people, it’s silly–and disingenuous—for us to try to see everyone as superior to us in all things. We’re clearly not morally inferior to an unrepentant murderer. We aren’t less bright than a newborn or someone with a cognitive disability.


Consider that the word translated “better” can also mean “important” or “significant,” and we’ll land closer to Paul’s meaning. A humble attitude that focuses on the needs of others doesn’t mean we should ignore our own. After all, the very next verse states, “Let each of you look not only to his own interest, but also to the interests of others” (Phi 2:4).  The balancing act is not to think more of ourselves than we should, but not to think less of ourselves either, since God created each of us with special gifts to use for His glory. As His children, we are all loved and valued—deserving of the same care, concern, and support that we offer to others.


As important as it is to serve physical and emotional needs, I think there’s more here that God wants us to see. The New Testament clearly teaches that our focus should be on spiritual rather than earthly things—the eternal rather than the temporal. We should never consider our own personal worldly ambitions and desires as more important than the spiritual condition of another’s soul.


Although we can’t compromise on God’s Word, it’s important to consider that many of the things that divide us are little more than differences of opinion—usually involving political agendas or how best to solve thorny social issues. If we become argumentative or lose our temper on non-essential issues, we may well forfeit an opportunity to share Jesus with an unbeliever. Can debating a point or “proving” that we’re right, ever be more important than a person’s eternal destiny?


That’s not to say that we should avoid controversial issues. An unbelieving world desperately needs to hear the Truth found only in God’s word. Sharing our Christian worldview and how our faith informs our politics are important conversations to have, but they must always be tempered with love and respect. Our egos should never come before our efforts to share the Good News. Even if our words fall on deaf—or resentful—ears.


In a world full of thin-skinned people who pounce on any opportunity to feel insulted or marginalized, Christians need to be noticeably different. My pastor recently called us to be “unoffendable.” Armed with God’s undisputable truth, the knowledge of our precious relationship with Christ, and a sure confidence in the glory that lies ahead, how can we react with hostility, hurt feelings, or resentment when met with negative reactions or unfair criticism? Why become defensive? We have the unconditional love of the Creator of the Universe.


Unfortunately, pride comes far more naturally to us than this type of humility. Ego will lead us to excuse and/or justify ourselves. Most of us are quick to overestimate our own importance and to minimize our flaws—while doing the exact opposite toward others. Then there are those who take an odd kind of reverse pride in how insignificant and worthless they are. Neither attitude is healthy—or Biblical. Self-deprecation can undermine our confidence, making us doubt our ability to accomplish the very things God has set before us to do. Conversely, when we focus too heavily on ourselves, our opinions, or our preferences, we, by necessity, minimize or ignore the needs and views of others.


By practicing Godly humility, we can respond to friction with patience and self-control. We can ask questions rather than quarrel. Discuss rather than debate. Listen rather than speak. This is especially crucial in our churches. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of criticizing God’s children or His church because we prefer a shorter sermon—or a longer one. We can’t become annoyed if our preferred worship style isn’t featured or the music is too traditional or too contemporary. Praising God doesn’t adhere to any one mode of expression. Don’t feel slighted if your contributions seem to go unnoticed. Don’t get angry. Don’t gossip. Don’t church hop. Love the body that Christ died to save.


In the area of humility, John the Baptist is a shining example. He was a special prophet of God, entrusted with preparing the way for Jesus’ earthly ministry. Huge crowds flocked to hear him preach. He was honored to baptize Christ and heard God’s voice from heaven proclaim, “This is my beloved Son …” (Matt 3:17). Jesus Himself said, “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11). Yet despite the praise and all his accomplishments, John remained humble. He did not begrudge Jesus’ rising popularity or resent the fact that his followers were abandoning him to follow Jesus. Instead, John said, “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).


This Lenten season, may we all pray likewise, “More of Jesus, less of me.”

 

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