If one ever begins to doubt if Christianity is strange and countercultural and unnatural, you need look no further than this passage to remember that indeed, Christianity calls us to a very different way of being in the world:
“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. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing.” (Phillipians 2:3-6)
If there is anything that we are naturally, it is selfish. We generally think ‘all natural’ is good, but in this case, its not. Whats natural for us is to think of our own interests, and neglect the interests of others. I see that in my own life daily. Whats normal is to not be committed to others, to not take time to fit others into our lives unless its convenient, to let relationships lapse as my own concerns fill my heart, mind and time so that there is no time left for others.
Consider others better than yourselves— Hobbes, the great English philosopher wrote that all are created equal– equally sure that they are superior to everyone else. We may have our humble exterior, our self-defacing caveats so that others don’t expect too much of us, but often we are secretly sure of our own superiority, of the lack of value of the other persons perspective or project. And we demonstrate this by generally not investing in the concerns or lives of others. Individualism and a Christian life of concern and sacrafice do not fit together very well.
In humility, consider others better than yourselves. This isn’t a command to have a poor self image, and some people do struggle to realize their own worth. Sometimes we feel so behind the curve– like we have so much less than others– that we feel like we have nothing to offer. So it is important to realize that we do have something worth offering– and then offer it, not because we think we are worthless, but because, in humility we consider others better than ourselves. One of my greatest fears personally is that I will give myself to others who will not care for me: that I will invest in friendships (or even a marriage!) which will be one-way. With all the selfishness that we see and practice ourselves, these fears aren’t unfounded…but we are not here asked to act selfishly because it seems sensible or like the wisest idea. We are asked to do this because of Christ.
Perhaps one of the greatest reasons we don’t live selflessly for others is that we are not in a spiritual state to do so. Each of you should look not only to your own interests: just like on the airplanes they tell you to put the oxygen mask on your own face first, we need to be making sure that we are spiritually strong. Ironically, the reason that we are often not spiritually strong enough to help others and die to self for others is that we haven’t been dying to self to submit to Christ and take time to be built up. If we don’t look to our own spiritual life, and spend time having something to offer, we will be like the person who loved giving away tomatoes and onions and watermelon to others, but didn’t ever take time to grow their own garden to do so. We sometimes find ourselves wanting to be generous, and even attempting to do so, but we have squandered away whatever we had so that we have nothing. Its fun to be a philanthropist, but hard to be at a place to do it. Its fun to give to others at one level, but it takes hard preparation work sometimes to be at a place to be able to do it. We want the joy of giving without the hard work of having something worth giving.
So as if our task was not already hard enough, Paul adds: your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…(thanks a lot, Paul). This is where it gets interesting: the model of Jesus is this: He was God (Trinity), but he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing. When we begin to consider our own projects to important to lay down for others, when we consider our own life projects and apparently world-historically-important personal issues to be of utmost importance, we need to step back, step down, remember the example of Christ, and make ourself nothing.
Paul is commanding us here, and so this is about an act of the will. Some tend to think that to be truly of God it needs to happen apart from our will, but this is clearly a command which we have options to obey or disobey. At the same time, this is such an unnatural way of being, that it is not sustainable without a real transformative relationship with Christ– meaning– that we are daily submitting ourself to God in prayer and giving our heart and strength to Him asking that He use us as He wills. But the submission can not be merely ethereal and theoretical or ‘spiritual’– it has to be embodied as well in our getting out of bed to take time to pray or read– in going to fellowship to be with others and to encourage and be encouraged– and to be in real relationship with others where we are counted on, serve others, and provide for the needs of others through encouragement, mutual edificiation and service. Loving others is hard, because it involves giving up our own selves not theoretically or when convenient, but consistently, conscientiously, and when its not part of our plan.
In the verse just prior to this passage (verse 2) Paul says having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Real Christian unity is found in this other-centered love. When a Christian meets a Christian, one should have some sense that here is a fellow deadman– someone who has died to themself. There is freedom– a reckless abandon sort of freedom– in deciding to lay down your life for others. To finally accept the call to stop making your concern yourself, and to make it the concern of Christ for others. The call of Christ on our lives is a call to reckless abandon– a call to spend our lives, to pour them out, for others, knowing full well that others are as sinful, selfish, likely to fail us and prone to disaster as we ourselves are. We aren’t called to give ourselves to others because they are worth it, or because they will respond in kind or be faithful in return. We are called to pour ourselves out for others because this is what Christ did and we want to participate fully in his death and resurrection-life and to more and more identify with Christ and know his sufferings and power in our own body and life.
We are lucky to have gotten such a call. Because its our way of escape from a life of pointless selfishness. Thank God that we have something better than our own lives to live for– and its not that other people’s lives are any more important– what we have to live for is a life of sacrifice identifying with Christ: for me to live is Christ and to die is gain… If we act like Christians, we will not be normal. And if we are acting normal, we proabably are not acting like Christians.
May God have mercy on us all.