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.
We live in a culture in which selfish ambition has become a moral good. It doesn’t matter what you choose, it is simply the act of choosing—sheer, uninhibited self-expression—that has become the one moral good on which we are all meant to agree. As Justice Kennedy famously expressed it in the landmark case, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
For the Christian, of course, the exact opposite is true. Writing from his prison cell, Paul’s life illustrates what he so often says: The Christian life is not one of self-expression and self-determination, it is a life of self-sacrifice and surrender to the will of God. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,” the apostle exhorts us, focusing our attention on that shadowy inner world of motive, impulse, and almost subconscious desire. To ignore this unseen realm from which we, often unreflectively, order our loves and formulate our presuppositions, is to, by default, slide into a life lived, “according to the flesh.”
To militate against this aspect of our fallen nature, Paul tells us, “to count others more significant” than we count ourselves or our desires. When our motives and assumptions are relocated to the good not of ourselves but of others, we discover that many of our fears and many of our decisions—our impulse to self-expression, self-preservation, and self-defense—simply cannot stand as Christian convictions and Christian actions. Moreover, to seek the good of others, to count other lives as more valuable than our own, is not a command whose reach extends only to our family members and friends. Rather, it encompasses, as it did for our Lord, even our enemies, even those who seek our harm. Paul knew this. His ministry to those who had imprisoned him and to those who would eventually take his life, became for him simultaneously a source of tremendous suffering and of deep, Spirit-filled joy. Having been the enemy of God who nonetheless received the free gift of new life, Paul knew that his life was now a “living sacrifice” rendered to the Lord in the service of others and not himself.
What is true of Paul is true of every Christian.
Lord, help us to take stock of our motives and desires. Help us to be willing to sacrifice to you our impulse to consider our lives, our thoughts, and our desires as more significant than that of others. Help us to embrace the suffering self-denial may bring, not only to our will but to our bodies. In this way, make us more like our Lord Jesus, for it’s in His mighty name we pray, Amen.