"Why Can't Everybody ELSE be Less Selfish?!"
July 13, 2008 Philippians 2:1-4,12-22
The Problem and the Potential
I have a basic problem. We all do. We're born with it. That problem, that 'default faultiness', is selfishness. It comes naturally to approach things in a way that maximizes our own personal advantage. Selfishness prompts us to ask, "What can I get away with? How will I benefit from this? How can I use this to get ahead, to obtain some advantage over others?" We may not verbalize it, but that little question, "What's in it for me?" is always part of our unconscious analysis.
This fallen emphasis on self is not news. In the movie Air Force One, Harrison Ford plays the US President; in one scene he and his daughter are relaxing on the plane watching a football game. His daughter says something to the effect, "That player's cheating?" The President replies, "Not if he can get away with it." She objects, "But that's not right!" The father shrugs it off by responding, "That's the way of the world."
So although we are saddened by the mean things people do to each other in the news, we are not totally surprised. A Canadian model working in Shanghai is followed home, robbed, and killed. The man who made the bombs for the Air India attack is granted parole after serving 20 years in jail, despite public objection. People resort to violent means to advance their own agenda, not caring about the impact on others. Selfishness is our fundamental problem.
In Philippians 2 the apostle Paul describes both our problem and the potential if it could be overcome. V3 he mentions "selfish ambition" and "vain conceit" (literally, empty-glory or pride). V4, "Each of you should look not only to your own interests..." 14, "Do everything without complaining or arguing..." Selfishness says, "When you don't get your way, complain!" When we argue, we try to convince the other person that WE'RE right, not them. V21, "Everyone looks out for his own interests..." NLT, "All the others care only for themselves..." V15 he describes society as "a crooked and depraved generation". 'Depraved' comes from a Greek word meaning to distort or turn aside. 'Crooked' is skolios, crooked or curved; 'scoliosis' is an abnormal curvature of the spine in which it starts to be shaped more like an S or a C than a straight line. Bent out of shape. In our fallen human condition, each baby is 'born with the bents'. Paul in Romans 3(10ff) quotes the Psalmist, "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away [depravity], they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one."
We have a big problem. 'ME'! Selfishness destroys relationships and erodes community.
Yet Paul also describes the POTENTIAL of true community when selfishness is overcome. V2 "being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose; v4 looking "to the interests of others; 15, being "blameless and pure" or as New Living Translation puts it, having "clean innocent lives". There's so much good that could be if we could just overcome that selfish sin problem!
Our grabbiness can intrude and spoil even the most caring acts. Kim Culberson of San Francisco was driving home after a quiet family Fourth of July party when she noticed a three-story house engulfed in flames. A screaming woman was dangling a young girl from a second-story window. Twenty-six-year-old Culberson, the mother of a young son, abandoned her car in the middle of the street and called to the woman to drop her child. After catching the girl, Culberson held her until the mother also jumped out of the window. Culberson said, "When she got her baby, the mother gave me a hug and a kiss and thanked me so much for saving her daughter." Though happy to have helped, Culberson paid for being a good Samaritan. When she returned to her car, she found that someone had stolen her purse! Someone's selfishness spoiled even that act of kindness.
So how do we get from the Problem to the Potential?
The Attitude of the Almighty Servant
For a problem that's so prevalent, the cure has to be pretty profound, reaching right down deep to our core. In chapter 2 Paul suggests 4 ways to overcome selfishness; the first is the most important, actually, essential. Look closely at v1: "If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion..." These are all qualities springing 'from being united with Christ'. Literally in the Greek, those 4 words 'from being united with' are just 2 letters, "en" or "in": so, 'If you have any paraclesis (help/comfort) IN Christ..." It all hinges on or starts from being IN Christ. When we confess we can't do it on our own, acknowledge our sin, trust Jesus is who He says, and receive Him in a saving way to be 100% our Lord - THAT'S when transformation starts. We need to be IN Christ or all attempts to overcome selfishness will only make us more prideful and (perhaps secretly) self-focused.
Look also at v13 - remember Paul's addressing believers here: "for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose." NLT puts it, "For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him." See the connection? V1 is about US IN CHRIST; v13 is about GOD IN US. Receiving Jesus, we receive God; and through the indwelling Holy Spirit, God's willingness and power are released inside us to shape us according to His purpose and pleasure. Maybe we'll anticipate chapter 4 a bit here - 4:13 is one of the key promises in the New Testament: "I can do everything through Him who gives me strength." That power and desire to overcome self has got to come from outside us.
Selfishness is a defensive response for protection in a broken, uncertain world. It will always be difficult to love others until we know deep-down we are loved ourselves, and loved ultimately - by a gracious, forgiving, agape-embracing God. Hence the necessity of repentance and faith in Christ if we ever want to die to self.
So, the first clue - "Us In Christ / God In Us." Second, Give up grasping! Empty yourself for service. Verses 5-11 in chapter 2 are thought to be an early Christian hymn. Paul quotes it as describing the attitude (or mindset - we'll come back to that) Jesus had, which we can adopt as well. Though He was 'in very nature God' - co-existing with the Father before the world began - Jesus the Son 'did not consider equality with God something to be GRASPED'. There's a word that suits selfishness - grasping, grabby; like Adam and Eve following the Tempter's suggestion, reaching for the forbidden fruit supposing it would open their eyes and make them 'like God' (Gen 3:5). No, Jesus didn't grasp at equality with God but (v7) 'made Himself nothing', emptied Himself, took the form of a servant; v8 'He humbled Himself and became obedient to death...' Those aren't power-hoarding words, but power-sharing: emptying, serving, humbling, obeying.
Humility isn't something you hear promoted a lot these days, but it's partly what has made leaders of the past truly great. Winston Churchill was one of the greatest figures of the mid-20th century, but he retained a healthy humility. Once he was sitting on a platform waiting to speak to a large crowd gathered to hear him. The chairman of the event leaned over and said, "Isn't it exciting, Mr. Churchill, that all these people came just to hear you speak?" Winston responded, "It is quite flattering, but whenever I feel this way I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big."
So, give up grasping: empty yourself for service. Third, Learn to "think with" and share a common outlook with the community of believers. Thought control is key to both attitude and action. Advertisers today want to capture your attention: if they can get you thinking their product's the best - however outlandish or imaginative their brief 'bite' - then they can be confident people will be demanding it. The world knows capturing people's thoughts and attention is half the battle.
Several times in these verses Paul stresses the importance of how we think, our mindset, our attitude or outlook. V5 we're to have the attitude or mind of Jesus. V2 be like-minded, same-minded; last phrase in the verse, "being one in spirit and purpose" is more literally harmonious (synchronized) in soul, thinking the one thing; 'being in harmony and of one mind'. V3 'humility' is literally 'in lowliness of mind'. V4, we are to 'look [scope]...also to the interests of others'. It's an outlook thing, what are you giving your attention to?
In our thinking, be like-minded, souls on the same page, lowly-minded. Carl Jung told of someone who asked a rabbi, "How come in the olden days God would show Himself to people, but today nobody ever sees God?" The rabbi said, "Because nowadays nobody can bow low enough."
Developing a common mindset, learning to 'think with' other Christians, is not something you can do in isolation. It requires fellowship - gathering regularly to meet, share, and listen to one another. It requires teaching - learning in worship and Sunday School, studying the Bible to acquire 'the mind of Christ', learning to think God's thoughts after Him. We've got to learn to think together as a community, understanding one another, discussing and sharing until we're on the same wavelength. Synchronizing souls isn't going to happen if we don't get together and share thoughts! And that in the context of God's Word, living and active, penetrating as deep as the division of soul and spirit, becoming THE reference point for the thoughts and attitudes of our heart (Heb 4:12).
So, invite someone from church over for a break. Ask them what they've been reading lately that they'd recommend. Don't be afraid to discuss meaningful topics - at least by the end you'll understand another perspective. Be vigilant in your entertainment, striving to take every thought captive in obedience to Christ (2Cor 10:5). Fast forward or delete the commercials if you can; it'll save you half an hour of 'world' in every 2 hours of viewing. Learn to 'think with' other Christians.
Last, Get it in gear. Christianity requires mental training and transformation, but it isn't a head trip! Selfishness diminishes when we put faith into practice. In v8 Paul notes how Jesus 'became obedient unto death'. He picks that up in v12: "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed...continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling..." Faith truly alive is a 'workout': obedience buckles down and applies Christian muscle. God works in us, but then we work out our salvation (with Him powering us, He's our Energizer). [How many just thought of a bunny? Capture those thoughts, now! Think Christianly.]
V15 says believers "shine like stars in the universe". Jesus told His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, "You are the light of the world...[then added] let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (Mt 5:16) Real faith has something to show for it - something good and positive that prompts others to thank God. V16, we're to 'hold out the word of life' - extend it to people, for them to taste and see the Lord is good.
Then in vv20 on, Paul refers to 2 men who are already demonstrating how to 'get it in gear' for the Lord - Timothy and Epaphroditus. V20 Timothy 'takes a genuine interest' or concern in their welfare; 22, he has proved himself, he has served (or slaved) with Paul in gospel work. The word for serve is the same root as back in v7 for Jesus taking the very nature of a servant.
Epaphroditus is a messenger from Philippi who has brought Paul a love-offering from the church while Paul's in prison. He has put feet to his faith: Philippi to Rome is about 1000 km as the crow flies, not counting mountains, sea crossings, poor roads, and bandits. Then v27 tells us "he was ill, and almost died." V30, "he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me." How many people would volunteer to courier a considerable sum of money such a long distance on foot given such dangers? (That's like from here to Quebec City - with downtown Detroit on the way!) Timothy and Epaphroditus 'got it in gear' so became worthy of honour for their selfless humble obedience, caring for others.
Re-try and Recycle
ChristianWeek tells the story of a humble believer from Saskatchewan who gives God glory for his business and is helping make the world a better place at the same time. 15 years ago Shane Olson began recycling rubber and it wasn't long until he ran into difficulties. He recalls, "I was too naive to know what I was getting into and too stubborn to quit." With his cousin he started producing paving stones, parking curbs and speed bumps. A limited market forced them to take second jobs. He says, "We looked at each other and decided to commit our business to the Lord every morning and thank Him every evening."
There was success for while with an automotive ramp, then sales plateaued in '96. The cousin left to work the family farm. Olson bought a tire shredder in 2000 and moved to a bigger shop, but the tire shredder never worked. He bought another one but in 2001 Saskatchewan's tire recycling program faltered and his revenue was cut by 45 per cent, bankrupting the company. Olson was ready to shut down but a friend offered to partner with him. They moved to a large facility north of Saskatoon and worked long days for 3 months getting the plant ready. Two days before re-opening, he received a call in the middle of the night that the plant was on fire. It took a few months for his determination to return.
By spring 2004 he had a 3rd partner and a new facility. Today they employ upwards of 30 full-time workers, and are expanding to meet mushrooming demand. This past Christmas Olson and his partner took their families to Haiti where they supplied a rural community with clothes, toys and school supplies.
It's been quite an adventure overall. Olson humbly persevered when others might have gotten angry and given up. Looking back, Olson reflects: "We've had a number of things happen where we just have to give thanks to God: 'Thank you God for bringing this customer and this opportunity.' ...Whatever we go through in our life, I think God is first and foremost concerned not necessarily with the events happening, but about our relationship with Him...It's not about ownership, it's about stewardship. Saying 'God, this is your business, and for whatever reason, you've called me to lead it. So please grant me wisdom today to manage it and look for ways to glorify you.'"
May the Lord help us to unselfishly rest in Him whatever happens, learn to have His mindset about things, and serve faithfully as lights shining in the darkness. Let's pray.