Over the centuries there have been thousands of books, articles, sermons, lectures, hymns, treatises, you name it, on the subject of the Bible and of Theology. Here's some more to add to the pile!
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Have you ever noticed how much we tend to compartmentalize our theology? Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have categories and to think about specific things at specific times. I mean, this whole series of articles has been all about forgiveness. But what we often tend to do is study a topic, then study another topic, and then not spend much time thinking about how those two topics affect one another.
Why am I bringing this up? The first article, about forgiveness being rooted in eternity, was specifically about all of the uses of the word “forgive” in the Bible, so pretty easy to understand it as a study in forgiveness. Then there was the article about forgiveness stretching to infinity, which took a more anecdotal approach. It looked at examples of forgiveness actually taking place in the Bible and being taught about in the Bible. This third, and final, article is going to be very different. The passage that we’ll be talking about today doesn’t mention forgiveness in any way. Why am I analyzing it in a study about forgiveness, then? Well, in a shameless tactic to make sure you read all the way through, I’ll say that you’re just going to have to wait and see!
Philippians 2 begins with Paul exhorting the church to “be of one mind” (v2). In the next verse he defines this “mind”: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (v3-4). So the mind that the church is encouraged to have is one of humility, defined here as “counting others more significant than yourselves” and “looking not only to one’s own interests.” I want to take a second and just think about those two elements, because it’s really a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it thing if we’re not careful.
Paul has, simply and in no uncertain terms, defined what it means to be humble. One of the great villains in the Christian life, brought up time and again in the Scriptures, is pride. It is arguably the root of every single other sin. Here, we see a clear description of what it looks like to be rid of pride. It means putting other people above yourself, not just serving their needs first, but actually esteeming them as “more significant.”
Let me just take a second to clarify what this is not saying. It does not say “count yourself as insignificant.” Neither does it say to “look only to the interests of others.” Self-deprecation is just another, slightly more insidious form of pride! Let me say that again another way. Yes, pride can look like arrogance. But pride can also look like self-deprecation, self-loathing, dwelling on guilt and shame. Pride is to be always thinking of yourself, and if you’re always thinking about what a loser you think you are, then guess what? You’re still just thinking about yourself! And if you run yourself so ragged serving others that you stop taking basic care of yourself, you’ll burn out, get sick, or worse. Then you’re not looking out for anyone’s interests at all. Let me be clear: you are significant, and your interests are important.
This should only serve to intensify what this passage is saying. If self-worth and self-care are important, and we’re called to esteem others more highly than ourselves, then how high our esteem for others should be, indeed! The tendency in our culture, when thinking about our esteem and our interests as being important, is to elevate them above the needs of others. The movement towards encouraging better self-esteem and self-care has over-corrected, turning us into a generation that can never seem to stop talking about self. We have become “lovers of self,” often to the exclusion of others (have a look at 2 Timothy 3:1-6 for what Paul has to say about “lovers of self.” Spoiler alert – it’s not good!). Have you not noticed how much more easily people get offended these days? Even in the span of my short life, I’ve seen a serious uptick in just how quick people are to offence, and this has quickly turned us more and more into a harsh, unforgiving society.
Ah! There it is. Lack of humility leads to easy offence, and easy offence begets a lack of forgiveness. The more offended we are, the harder it is to forgive. If we could instead aspire to greater humility, esteeming others more significant than ourselves, and looking to their interests, we would find forgiveness to be much more forthcoming. So how do we become humbler? I don’t know that I have a comprehensive answer, but I think that two things help. The first comes right in the context of Philippians where Paul offers four examples of humility as a pattern for us to follow, the greatest of these being Christ Himself. The second thing that I think can help us comes from Psalm 51.
This is David’s psalm of repentance in the wake of the whole Bathsheba affair. In v4 he writes something very interesting in speaking to the Lord: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Bear in mind here that 1) David committed adultery, betraying his family; 2) This also dragged Bathsheba into adultery against her husband, making her share in the guilt; 3) He literally murdered Bathsheba’s husband by having him left alone on the frontline of battle (a battle that David should have been fighting in himself); 4) He then lies to everyone covering the whole thing up; 5) Oh, and he’s a king, meaning that this is a scandal that affected the entire nation of Israel! In other words, there’s a whole country full of people that David will have offended here.
And yet, he says to the Lord “Against you, you only, have I sinned,” as though God is the only offended party. Saying this doesn’t mean that he hasn’t wronged all those other people. What it means is that the offence against them so pales in comparison to how much David has offended the Lord God Almighty, that it fades well into the background! Anytime someone sins against us, they are sinning all the more against the Lord, and frankly that’s a much bigger problem for that person than our hurt feelings.
Once again our forgiveness should find root in eternity as we realize the eternal consequence of a person’s sin is so much more important than our wounded ego. Offences against us to not demand retribution on our part, but instead they demand we point the offender to the cross. If it’s a non-believer, then we preach salvation through repentance and faith to them, because their sin is leading them to destruction. If it’s a brother or sister in the Lord, then we remind them of the Gospel which they have first received and call them to live in conformity with the image of Christ in which they have partaken, restoring them back to a place of strong relationship with God.
I hope this little endeavour into the source, scope, and shape of the forgiveness proves to be fruitful in your life as you read, and continue to meditate on and study these things. My hope is that we all continue to grow in sharing the “one mind” that is “ours in Christ Jesus”; that prayerfully integrating these things leads to greater unity and fellowship among the body of Christ. Forgiveness is a hard thing to understand, accept, and apply. I pray that as we continue to ponder forgiveness’ root in eternity, have it stretch to infinity, and begin sharing it in humility, the kingdom will grow both in maturity, coming to greater conformity with the image of Christ, as well as in number, as the supernatural capacity for humility and forgiveness from God’s people shines a beacon to a selfish, unforgiving world.