In this series, we have been looking at Paul’s appeal to the Philippians to be like Christ because His entire presentation of what this looks like centers around the cross. If we want to build biblical perspectives we cannot start with doctrines and principles. We must start by building Christ-like attitudes within our hearts. If we don’t, then we’ll be taking the doctrines and principles of the Bible, and filtering them through an unChrist-like heart; and the end result will be far from anything biblical.
In Part 1 and Part 2, through our look at Philippians 2:5-8, we saw how we must learn to see the world from a humble heart that is willing to relinquish entitlements when they encroach on our humility. Now we back up to the verses that lead into this where Paul describes another aspect of a Christ-like heart: Selflessness.
“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
– Philippians 2:3-4
The concept of being a selfless person is not the idea of doing less for yourself, nor is it the idea of thinking less of yourself, nor is it the idea of always putting others before you. Being a selfless person starts with the realization that you are not the only person in the world. The world does not revolve around you. You wake up one day and realize that there are other people in the world who have needs and desires just like you; and that the world revolves around God’s will, not yours. Then you accept it. Here in Philippians 2:3-4 we see that true selflessness has three components to it: Aim, Attitude, and Actions.
Aim has to do with motive. Paul says, “Do nothing out of selfishness or empty conceit.” Our aim in our actions should not be motivated by selfishness or empty conceit. The word for selfishness here is the idea of putting your interests before everyone else’s no matter the cost to others. Before its use in the New Testament, the Greek word here is used only in Aristotle where it denotes the self seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means.¹ Aristotle used it to refer to politicians who would stop at nothing to gain political office and had absolutely no concern for who got hurt along the way.
Empty conceit literally means groundless self esteem. It is a self esteem that is not God-centered based on God’s estimation of you. Therefore, it is a self esteem not based on reality. It has no real ground on which to stand. It is the kind of self esteem we build up by using the world’s standards to measure ourselves and make us feel good about ourselves. As Christians, the only thing we should be using build our self esteem is what God says about who we are in Christ. Because apart from Christ we have no hope of “measuring up” in even the slightest way.
So true selflessness starts by checking our motives. We want to make sure the aim of our actions is not motivated by:
- Selfish pursuit of our own interests with complete disregard for the welfare of others; and,
- By an estimation of ourselves that is not God-centered based on His estimation of who we are in Christ
We do not want to be like the politicians Aristotle wrote about who would step on anyone and stop at nothing to get what they wanted. Neither do we want to be like the people of the world who live from an ego built on their own standards and not centered in Christ. Before taking action we should do an honest evaluation of our motives by asking questions like:
- Would I be jeopardizing someone else’s spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being by doing this?
- Am I doing this to feed my ego or would this act be a sincere product of who I am in Christ?
Attitude has to with our mindset. With humility of mind we are to regard one another as more important than our own selves. This is a hard one because when Paul threw in of mind he completely ruled out us simply behaving as if others are more important than us. That’s the key thing to look at here. We cannot simply act like others are more important than us. We have to actually believe they are more important than us. The Scripture presents us with a great challenge here. It is the challenge of moving beyond the realm of behavioral modification. We see here that it is not enough to simply act like other people are more important than us. Behaving as if other people are more important than you is not true humility if in your heart you honestly believe that you are still more important than them. The question to ask ourselves here is:
- Can I honestly look at another person and, no matter who they are, feel with all my heart that their well-being is more important than mine?
In Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, he proposed that self-actualization is a person’s greatest need. Throughout human history we have also seen that self-preservation is often one of the greatest driving factors of people’s mentalities. Entire civilizations and empires have been built off of people’s felt need for self-actualization and self-preservation. It is only natural for our mentality to be centered around our own actualization and our own preservation. This is the norm for our flesh – the natural product of our sinful nature. But God asks us to do something different. He asks us to shift our perspectives to those that are influenced by a mentality which honestly regards other people’s well-being as more important than our own.
Actions have to do with how we live this out. What does this look like in application? Simply put, it will look like a person who is not only looking out for their own interests but also takes into consideration the interests of others. This is the best definition of true selflessness: becoming a person who not only looks out for your own interests but also the interests of others; both in aim (motive), attitude (thinking), and action (application). If we want to build biblical perspectives than we must learn to truly be selfless people in aim, attitude, and action.
These three principles of selflessness are so closely related that some may wonder if it’s necessary to actually break them down like this. Someone will undoubtedly ask, “Aren’t they all the same thing? Don’t you think you’re going a little overboard by separating them, Joseph?” Not at all. They’re so closely related that you can’t have one without the other. When you understand all three components it will help you to better safeguard yourself against carrying out selfish actions.
Start by checking your motives at the door. Make sure that you are not being motivated by your ego or trying to accomplish something just because its going to benefit you in some way. Then check your mindset by asking yourself: How do I honestly feel about this person? Do I think I am more important than them? Or do I honestly regard their well-being as more important than mine? Checking your motive is an important precursor to this step because you cannot honestly say that you believe someone else’s well-being is more important than yours if you are being moved by the motive of benefiting yourself at their expense. If you’re motive and mindset are pure then you can put your conscience at ease that the actions you decide to take are honorable in God’s eyes. Pure motives and right thinking produce right actions.
¹Studylight.org, Thayer’s Lexicon: Old & New Testament Greek, under “Entry for Strong’s #2052,” http://www.studylight.org/lex/grk/gwview.cgi?n=2052 (accessed Februaury 18, 2013).
Copyright © Lawrence Joseph Sterling 2017. All rights reserved.