We have an entire industry devoted to helping us raise our self-esteem. After all, everyone wants to get ahead. And who can get ahead without good self-esteem?
Anyone who wants to get ahead God’s way.
God has a way of giving very simple instructions that demand we act exactly the opposite of what our society and our human nature expect.
Philippians 2:3 is a very simple verse, easy to memorize and hard to live up to:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves (NIV).
Does the thought of considering others better make your blood start to seethe? Let’s take a closer look.
It’s impossible to do nothing. Sitting on a rock staring into space is something. And even when our bodies are most idle, thoughts parade through our heads. Some capture our attention.
There’s no period after these two words. They tell us to do nothing described in the next few words. And they admit no exceptions. They mean rest of the verse applies to
- Deliberate, decisive actions
- Unconscious, unplanned actions
- Actions other people know about
- Actions no one else will ever know about
- Words, whether spoken or written
- Unspoken thoughts
Out of selfish ambition or vain conceit
“I don’t ask much out of life,” I said as a young man, “I just want to set the world on fire.”
I think I spent more time day-dreaming about fame and success than I did exploring what I would have to do to achieve it.
I set myself conscientiously at whatever task was in front of me. I wanted to do everything well. To satisfy my ambition.
I wanted to find something I’d be better at than anyone else. But whatever I did, someone else always got more recognition. And it bothered me. A lot.
I became a Christian in my early 20s. I soon learned the that God, not myself, belongs on the throne. It took years to recognize my own selfishness or conceit.
Actually, the Greek word translated “selfish ambition” means “strife.” When others got what I wanted for myself, I could be difficult to get along with. After a while, I became bitter.
And since I never experienced the level of success I expected, my self-esteem plummeted.
If you have much Bible knowledge, you are thinking of all kinds of scriptures that deal with those issues. I knew them, too. I taught them. I learned slowly how far my life was from living them out. I have only recently begun to realize how much strife remains in my thought life. Even after I have managed to purge the worst behavior.
Some people with the same ambition I had manage to claw their way to the top of the heap. And when they get there, they spend as much effort on boosting low self-esteem as anyone else. Money, success, or a good reputation don’t bring happiness.
At least not if achievement results from strife and empty self-glorification. Satisfying relationships don’t come that way.
But in humility consider others better than yourselves
But low self-esteem is in fact a form of pride. If I consider myself inferior to others, I’m still considering myself.
Ralph W. Sockman, a prominent preacher of an earlier generation, said, “True humility is intelligent self-respect which keeps us from thinking too highly or too meanly of ourselves. It makes us modest by reminding us how far we have come short of what we can be.”
If I think of myself and Jesus at the same time, I realize how I am much more godly than I used to be, but only with his help. And I have so far to go to be like him.
Even if I choose a lesser model and imitate Paul as he imitated Christ, I know I have not arrived at Christlikeness.
So if I try to make others think I think I’m small, I’m putting on a show. If I genuinely think myself small, I still have my focus on myself. When I manage to focus my attention on others, I disappear from my own view.
So Paul does not say that we should consider other people to be better than we are. I think he intends “better” to refer to “consider” and not to “others.” He means to consider other people instead of ourselves. In that case, we’re doing better at considering others than we are at considering ourselves.
It’s when we’re not thinking of ourselves at all that we’re our most nearly humble. And we’d never say so. We wouldn’t notice.
The example of Paul
When Paul left Ephesus on his last visit to Jerusalem, he said that they’d never see each other again.
He had recently written Romans, where he expressed his intention to visit Rome and then go to Spain. The opposite direction from any of his previous ministry.
He wrote Philippians from imprisonment in Rome.
In Philippians 1:19-26, his legal situation seems much more dire than what is implied in the last chapter of Acts. He doesn’t know if he’ll be released or executed.
So he considers his preference. He seems satisfied with the accomplishments of his ministry. He expresses no unfulfilled ambition. On the contrary, he writes, “to die is gain.” Christian hope depends on faith in bodily resurrection, and that life in Christ in our new bodies will be glorious.
But the Philippian church needs him. So he says he knows he will continue to live and return to Philippi.
What about Spain? Has he lost interest? Probably not. But he has such pastoral concern for the churches he has already established that he’ll give up his desire for heaven and his ambition to blaze new evangelistic trails. He chooses to return to them instead.
The example of Jesus
Paul describes Jesus’ humility in Philippians 2:5-11, with the commandment to have the same mind.
- Jesus is eternally God the Son. He “left his throne and his kingly crown.”
- He became human.
- Being both God and man, he relinquished his godly powers and attributes to live within the limitations of humanity.
- He did not become a great man in the eyes of the world. He made himself nothing. A villager of no distinction. Not even especially good looking or otherwise anything but ordinary.
- Constantly interrupted in whatever he planned, he never displayed impatience or irritation.
- Constantly subjected to all manner of disrespect, he never pulled rank.
- His disputes with hypocrites never had anything to do with his own rights or personal dignity.
- He chose to die the most humiliating and painful death imaginable.
We don’t know what became of Paul after he wrote Philippians. We do know what became of Jesus.
Because of his humility, God declared that every knee shall bow at his name, whether in reverence or admission of defeat. So that Jesus would receive glory? No. To the glory of God the Father. The resurrected Jesus still displays humility.
Quincy Jones, one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time, explained humility this way:
I tell my kids and I tell protégés, always have humility when you create and grace when you succeed, because it’s not about you. You are a terminal for a higher power. As soon as you accept that, you can do it forever.
I might add, those who apparently do not succeed need humility and grace just as much. Having or not having human fame fades to nothing in comparison to hearing God himself say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Self esteem shop. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
It’s all about me. Some rights reserved by Randy Willis
Humility quote. Some rights reserved by Ron Mader
Paul writing epistles. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons
Crucifixion. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons