When Paul wrote, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves (Phil. 2:3), the Greek for conceit means “empty glory.” Think of your recycling container. It probably contains a box that used to have cereal or some other food in it. The box makes all kinds of claims for what the contents can do and how good they are. But the box is empty. There’s nothing inside to live up to the claims. That’s why it’s in the recycling container in the first place.
Do you claim to be a godly person? Does your church claim to be a godly church? Paul challenges us to make sure that we contain the glory. It’s not enough to proclaim it on the box. Containing glory ought to be easy enough. After all, numerous scriptures in the New Testament proclaim that God (and each person of the Godhead) lives within us. The verse in Philippians reminds us that the difference between a box full of selfishness and a box full of glory is humility. And too often, we don’t really want humility. Today, even Christian writers lean heavily on building self-esteem.
But let’s take a closer look at self-esteem. It says, “I’m as good as you.” And then it has trouble believing that, so it has to assert itself all the more. It’s an empty box, looking inside itself to find the claims printed on the outside. It says, “I’m as good as you,” in fear. What if I’m really not as good as you? What if you don’t think so and decide to walk all over me. Self-esteem, at its root, means that if I don’t think I’m as good as you, then I have to think I’m worse than you. I’m a worm, a doormat, somehow unworthy. And I don’t want to feel that way.
Paul here is not telling us to think less of ourselves. He’s telling us to think of ourselves less—both individually and as congregations. Each of us was made in the image of God. Sin has marred and damaged that image, but can’t erase it. The humility Paul encourages does not say, “Your better than I.” It says, “I see the image of God in you, and I rejoice to see it.” Now, how can seeing the image of God in you me a threat to my self image? I, too, bear the image of God, only, I’m not looking for it in me. I’m seeing it in you. When I look at you in true humility, I don’t see myself at all.
Jesus himself models humility for us–not as the risen Lord of glory, but as the poor Nazarene rabbi. Never once did he act like he thought he was a worm or that some other human being was somehow superior to him,. But at the same time, his time and energy were never his own. Think of how many times the gospels record some great work or another that Jesus performed while he was on his way to do something else! His words would often sound like insufferable arrogance–a box of food with seriously false claims–if the humility of his actions did not demonstrate a genuine and sacrificial concern for others long before he went to the cross.
Glory is like a bright light, like the light that this morning glory appears to generate within itself. If the box says it contains glory, the glory will shine through the box for everyone to see. That is, if humility is there, too. Selfish ambition, the very opposite of humility, shuts out glory. In that case, everyone can see the emptiness of the box.
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