Living Humbly in Unity

3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Last week, if you were with us or have just recently read through Philippians 2, in the first two verses of Philippians 2 we find that Paul makes several “if/then” statements. The “if” statements are statements of what we have received through Christ as Christians. He reminds us of some things that we have in Christ.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, (Philippians 2:1)

Paul is reminding us of the encouragement, the comfort, our participation in the very Spirit of God, and the affection and sympathy that have come to us from God. He wants us to remember the things that we now have as Christians, as those who are in Christ. We need to remember these things. We need to know how God views us, how He looks at us, interacts with us, all of us who belong to Him. These are simply reminders. Yet sometimes we read of these things and may say, “I don’t feel so great about these things. The Bible says they’re mine in Christ, but I don’t really feel that way.” If that is true for you, then that is why we need reminding. Paul says elsewhere that he doesn’t tire of saying the same old things over and over again. Why? Because we are prone to forget. Our minds race from one thing to another in this society. And when we forget all that God is, who He is in us, our minds tend to move toward things like, “Poor me,” or, “Why can’t I have more? Why am I stuck with this job, or this house, or these people?” We set aside the grandeur of God and begin to focus on ourselves, and what we want, and we need to refocus on who we are in Christ and of His affection for us.

So here comes Paul with a reminder. He goes on in verse 2 to say, “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” His aim for us is loving unity. He is trying to teach us that a focus on Christ helps produce unity with each other. Living in Christ, walking with Christ, does what? It unites us. But Paul gets even more specific. Paul can be a real philosopher and yet he gets very practical. When he says, “by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” We may still be left with “Okay, but I’m not exactly sure what to do with that.” So he goes on to say this,

3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

I read these two verses and I say, “Whoa!” I mean really, if we just took these couple of verses and refocused our lives or reordered our lives to live them out – just these couple of verses – that would be huge, that would have huge impact. In fact I think I can say that regarding Christian attitudes and behaviors, these two verses capture most of the spirit of all New Testament commands and attitudes that we are to have. I think they capture most of what we see regarding Christian living in the New Testament. That is how big they are.

Now, we are going to go look at these two verses today, really mostly just verse 3, but let me note in case you haven’t read ahead, that Paul then goes on to lift up Christ Jesus as an example of what he’s teaching us now. He’s an example who lived this out rightly and perfectly. Jesus fulfilled this, these attitudes, in His earthly life. We have an example to follow. And don’t forget it is His Spirit living in us that helps us move in this direction as well. This is Christlike living. We see this in Christ who is our model for living. We see this in Christ who is our strength for living. 

Paul begins with “do nothing.” So far, so good! We can do that, right? If he stopped there we would be good. No seriously, it gets about that bad in biblical interpretation sometimes, taking things out of context. Paul doesn’t stop with “do nothing,” of course. He goes on to tell us what not to do. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” He gives us what not to do and then what to do.

First, what are we not to do? “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit.” Are you ready for this? Let’s define some words.

Selfish ambition – Before I define this word or phrase, let me clarify something. Many of you know that I am reading from the ESV primarily, and you may be looking at your ESV and it may say “rivalry,” rather than “selfish ambition.” There is actually more than one version of the ESV, and I go back and forth between them. So your ESV may say “rivalry,” or it may say “selfish ambition.” So just to clear that up. Either word captures the meaning well.

So what does selfish ambition or rivalry mean? Selfish ambition or rivalry is someone who is persistent in doing things for his own advantage. This would be to do things for one’s own advantage or building up oneself even while tearing down someone else. It is selfishness. Some would say, and I would agree, that this is the root of all sin. It is a universal problem, and yet it is something that as Christians we are to put off, to put away from our thoughts and our actions.

Selfishness is so destructive. Any of us can see that if we project our selfishness out, unbridled selfishness, selfish pursuits, that it will eventually destroy all of our relationships, it will. If unbound, it will sow seeds of relational corruption and, most importantly, our relationship with the Lord will be harmed. Not harmed in that He withholds His love from us, but harmed in that we no longer desire to seek after Him, to be with Him, or long for Him. Why? Because our love will be love for self. We adulterate the great command so that it becomes, to us, “I will love me with all my heart, all my soul, and with all my might.” If we go in that way in which we doggedly pursue our selfish desires, there will be collateral damage all around us, and that damage will most often bring down those who are closest to us. That’s part of the consequence of selfishness.

If we choose selfishness then we are also making another choice: we are choosing to bring harm to those nearby. And even to those who are not so close, for them we distort the gospel. How? Because we are saying that we love Christ, but our lives show that we love self, and that is a terrible distortion of the gospel. That is the nature of selfish ambition. “I win, you lose. If I must pick between you, your good, and me, my good, I will pick me.”

It’s no wonder that Paul would bring in selfish ambition into his discussion on unity and love. Selfish ambition destroys both unity and love. And it’s not just about being nice, it’s about loving Christ and His church. It’s about being ambassadors of Christ in this world by living out the Christian life so that others see that we treasure Christ.

We face daily, hourly, this important choice: “Who will I choose to love most, me or others? Me first or my wife, me first or my children, me first or my friends? What is best and most profitable for me, or what is best and most profitable for you? What makes me feel fulfilled, or what is most helpful for you? My feelings or your feelings?”

The Corinthian church struggled with this. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 we begin to see this.

1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)

Jealousy and strife are rooted in what? Selfishness. It’s sort of funny that at the end of verse 3 Paul accuses them of acting like humans! Behaving only in a human way! Don’t act like humans! No, really, don’t act like “mere” humans. Regular humans, unregenerate humans.

To live in selfishness, selfish ambition or rivalry, is to act like one who has not known Christ. Okay, so does anyone struggle with this? Anyone been selfish in the last twenty-four hours? The last twelve hours? The good thing about this is that we all have room to grow. The question may be: “Are our lives moving more and more away from selfish ambition, and more toward godly living?”

When it’s time to make a decision dads, who is at the top of your list of wanting to please? For whose good are you primarily concerned? Maybe prayer time before our feet ever hit the floor in the mornings would be wise. “God, help me to consider others ahead of myself. Lord, by your strength, help me not to live selfishly today. God, please keep me from my most common sin of selfishness today.” And then as soon as our feet hit the ground, getting out of bed, maybe we repeat that prayer again. After taking a few steps, repeat it again. Then all throughout the day, “God, help me with this.” Some sins are so common that God can use them to drive us to Himself constantly. It’s not like we get halfway through the day and say, “I’ve got this selfishness thing.”

As Paul leads us to consider unity with each other he also says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit.” “Conceit,” or your version may read, “empty conceit,” is another attitude that hinders loving unity among Christians. This word “conceit” comes from two words meaning “empty” and “glory,” or “empty glory.” The meaning refers to someone who has a very exaggerated view of self.

This is a little different than selfishness. Selfishness is about a goal of getting for oneself even at the expense of someone else. While conceit is simply having a very high view of self. They are not exactly the same, but they work very well together. It’s like, “I am number one, and since I am, I will get what I want at your expense.” It’s a nice fit, really. This is being wise in our own eyes just as Romans 11:25 warns against. Or as Isaiah puts it in Isaiah 5:21: “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” Conceit, which we are all prone to, severely distorts our view of reality. The sad thing is that we may think everyone else has a distorted view when really it is the one who is conceited, one who has an exaggerated view of self. Galatians 6:3 says, “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”

So let’s take these two together: selfish ambition and conceit.

Now imagine your home – we will start with a smaller group. Paul’s speaking about unity and love among believers, so we think of the church, right? Unity and love among all of us. But our relationships here can tend to be a bit more formal. As a whole we can tend to be formal with some people. So I don’t want to start there, let’s start at the home. It’s a subset of the church if you have believers in your home. So take your home, and now imagine that each one there is steeped in both selfish ambition and conceit. You get up in the morning, everyone goes to the kitchen for breakfast, and each person is carrying with them two attitudes that overshadow everything else, each one is unashamedly selfish: “I will get what I want at the expense of all of you.” And each one thinks of himself as more important than the others. And all of you come together at breakfast. As the morning plays out I don’t think any of us would look upon this occasion and say, “Look at their unity and love.” This family would be headed for disaster! Who would want to be there? It’s not just families, what about where you live, or whoever you room with, or the workplace, school, or here at the church? Among Christians this is awful. It’s a distortion of the gospel of Christ, it is harmful to His name.

So what do we do? What can we do? Well, the first thing would be to get rid of all those people around you who aren’t acting rightly! No, don’t try that. They aren’t the problem, at least not all of the problem. We individually have plenty to work to do on ourselves. That doesn’t meant we don’t counsel and encourage biblical thinking in others, we are called to do that, but we can’t make anyone change. However, God has entrusted us with an ability to cooperate with His grace in our own lives for godly change. So we start there. But Paul gives us more.

3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

What do we do? As believers we put off selfishness, we put off conceit, and how do we do that? By putting on humility. How do we put on humility, I mean practically put on humility? We count others more significant than ourselves.

The word humility means “lowliness of mind.” The adjective “lowly” was used always in a negative sense and often referred to a slave. It described that which is unfit or having little value, that is how the word was usually used. Being humble is the opposite of being proud. A person possessing humility would then be one who is not selfishly seeking his own way, nor would he be one who regards himself in an exalted way. 

To be humble is then to not think too highly of ourselves, and to not have a spirit of, “I must win with my way.” Or you could say, to be humble is to regard one another as more important than ourselves.

Let’s go back to our earlier example of a family coming together for the breakfast meal, a family of believers. Instead of each one carrying with them being unashamedly selfish, “I will get what I want at the expense of everyone else.” Each one thinking of himself as more important then the others. Instead of each family member coming to the table like that, instead each one comes to the table with an overwhelming spirit of humility. Each one thinking, “I will consider every other person here as more important than myself. I will consider everyone else’s needs and desires ahead of my own. I will regard my desires to be less important than their desires. I will take a back seat in this. How can I serve these people best? What can I do to make their breakfast experience more pleasant and enjoyable?” What if each member came to the table, came together in humility?

What if it were that way in all of our Christian circles? “What can I do for you, how can I help you, how can I serve you, let me put off my desires or lay them aside so I can care for you?” If this were our habit, then what would result? We would find ourselves united together, in love. That is at least in part Paul’s point.

For me to, “in humility count others more significant than [myself]” would be transforming, and it requires a supernatural act of God in my life. I think that is true for all of us. We don’t just do this easily or naturally. What is easy and natural is to be selfish and conceited. It points us to God. We need God here, we need His Spirit in us, working in us to accomplish this. In fact, we need to be filled with His Spirit if we are going to put each other’s interests ahead of our own. We must be walking with God in life. We must be worshiping God, totally convinced of His love and care for us to live this way. We must believe that Christ really is sitting at the right hand of the Father interceding for us.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)

It’s an amazing thing to watch and to experience that God is at work in us and in others in such a way that we can really live in humility with one another! God equips us to do just that. In Hebrews 13 we read:

20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21)

Loving unity, that is God’s calling for us: loving unity. And by His power and His might, we can live according to His calling for us. It doesn’t matter who you are living with or living around, this is God’s calling for you and for me. If you are living with a bunch of sinners, this is God’s calling for you. This is God’s desire for each of us.

We can begin to live this way. When can we begin to live this way? How about right now? How about today we determine by God’s grace to live differently, to His honor, to the praise of the glory of His grace, to put off selfish ambition, all that we have sinfully gone after for ourselves, to put off conceit, thinking that we are the most important person in the room, and to put on humility, counting others as more important than ourselves?

Do we trust God enough to live that way for His glory?

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)