“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
Nobody is shocked by the idea that Christians are called to display humbleness and serve others. Love and service to our neighbors are well-known tenets of Christianity. However, when Paul’s words in these verses are truly absorbed, they’re surprisingly radical. In the NIV translation, Paul says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.” That “nothing” is really heavy. Obviously, none of us will ever be perfect in this or any other sin, but to even approach doing nothing for selfish gain means totally rethinking the way we view ourselves and others.
Our human nature tells us that our interests and ambitions are vitally important. Ambition is seen as something to be respected and admired, often regardless of where it’s pointed or who it hurts. The people our culture sees as successful are usually the ones who have done well for themselves. When our brains and culture are telling us that ambition for the sake of one’s own gain is admirable, it’s hard to wrap our heads around how much we do out of “selfish ambition.” Even something as insignificant as walking by a homeless person on the street because you want to save that $5 bill in your pocket for a coffee is, literally speaking, “looking to your own interests” rather than to “the interests of others.” If our brains are so hardwired this way that we don’t even notice how often we put ourselves above others, what hope do we have of coming close to doing “nothing out of selfish ambition?”
As with so much of life, Christ is our example in this. Being equal to God, Jesus had more power than any of us to pursue His own ambition, as pointed out by one of the thieves He was crucified with. But on the cross and through His whole ministry, Jesus took on “the very nature of a servant.” Every ounce of power He had been given was used to serve others, never to pursue selfish ambitions of wealth, comfort, or success. We’ll never meet Jesus’s level of perfection. But if we remember that everything we have—possessions, opportunities, status—is not ours but God’s, and should be used as Jesus would, maybe we can start to see the ways in which we put ourselves above others and, eventually, truly see ourselves as servants.
Holy God, remind us that we’re meant to be servants to others. Help us see all the ways we fail in that calling by giving in to the temptation to pursue our own interests above all else. Let us really dig into our own deep self-centeredness and root it out so we can approach our neighbors with true servant hearts. Amen.
Written by Preston Thiemann
Preston Thiemann and his wife, Rachel, live here in Lincoln. He is the Web Content Coordinator for the ASEM Marketing team at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where he’s worked since April 2015. At Sheridan, he also plays guitar on the Praise Band and is active in Sheridan’s 20s & 30s ministry, Second Quarter. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, watching movies and spending time with friends.