Philippians 2:3&4. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
What happens when a Christian is wonderfully encouraged from being united to Christ? What occurs when he is genuinely comforted by God’s love? What happens when a believer experiences fellowship with the Holy Spirit? What’s the consequence of a congregation becoming like-minded, having the same love and being one in spirit and purpose? In other words, what are the marks of a revived Christian and an awakened church? Would we recognise it when we saw it? Could we tell accurately, “Now those are Christians experiencing the love of God and the fellowship of the Spirit”? This is what Paul has been talking about in the verses preceding our text. The apostle then proceeds to tell us what we should be looking for, and he presents us with an absolutely devastating picture. It is not at all what the charismatic movement has been prodding the professing church to try to work up. You will encounter, Paul tells us, a church where nothing is done out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, where Christians are not looking to their own interests, but they are looking out for the interests of other people. In humility they consider other people better than themselves. That is the life of a church which is being encouraged by its union with Christ, knowing fellowship with the Spirit, and comforted by God’s love.
You see how Paul begins on a negative note: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition . . .” and so on. People are always bringing pressure to bear on the pulpit to be positive, but as A.W.Tozer once said, “You have to breathe out the poison as well as breathe in the oxygen.” From the very beginning before sin entered the world there were certain things the first man and woman were not to do, as well as a million things they were encouraged to do. At the beginning of his ministry the Lord Jesus told his disciples, “Don’t pray like the Pharisees . . . Don’t fast like them . . . Don’t give your offerings to God as they give . . .” Then, when the resurrected Christ spoke to mankind for the first time it was at the empty tomb with Mary, and he said to her, “Don’t!” His words were, “Do not hold on to me!” (John 20:17). How will we learn in any other way? Think of a craftsman passing on his skills to a young apprentice. He says kindly to him, “No, don’t hold it like that . . . Don’t move the chisel or the brush in that way . . . Do it like this . . .” and so on. Because he is wise, experienced and kindly the teenager does not writhe and cry, “Why have you got to be so negative all the time?” He loves his teacher too much and profits from his negatives and positives.
So it was with the church at Philippi. This was pagan Europe. The whole continent north and west for thousands of square miles had no knowledge of Jesus Christ and the Christian life at all. It was gripped by idolatry and cruel traditions. It was a macho culture with the most grievous existence for women, children, the elderly, the slaves, the handicapped and the sick. Theirs was a life of bleak despair. These members of the Philippian church were amongst the first Europeans to confess Jesus Christ as their God. They had no piece of New Testament in writing at all until this letter arrived. How were they expected to live? What sort of life does God require of us who live and move and have our being in him? There is no more relevant question facing us today as we confront this same unhappy, lost and pagan Europe. 2,000 years have almost gone and we live in a new age of darkness, of drugs and alcoholism, and superstition, and paedophilia, and gambling, and violence. We are back with Paul and the Philippian church.
When Christian experience is real then the life described in our text is evident. In this elementary way Christians become the light of the world, by living exactly as Paul spells it out in our text. A Philippian jailer turned his back on selfish ambition and vain conceit, and in humility considered others better than himself. At first people laughed at him and called him a religious nut and a fanatic. They said, “He’ll grow out of it, just you wait.” But the years went by and he kept living like that. He gained a grudging respect. His family also lived like that, and people who entered his home noticed the difference. Each of the sons and daughters were looking not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others. His children, when they married, set up homes like his. Then they all met together every first day of the week within an assembly of people who were also seeking by God’s strength to live in this way. There was a growing network of Christians living like this right across the city of Philippi, year after year after year, and they were the salt of the city. Steadily and imperceptibly they had an influence on the community, and it became a more humane and kindlier place. And what was done in Philippi was being repeated all across Greece and steadily all over Europe.
This kind of living began to affect the world, as it still does today. Paul makes new life in Christ practical and clear, and, in order that there should be no uncertainty, the apostle spells it out negatively as well as positively. Paul doesn’t teach that everyone has to work out for themselves a lifestyle with which they are comfortable. No. That is not the Christian way. It is not a moral and mystical free-for-all. There are old fleshly attitudes that must be overcome, and there must be new God-honouring patterns to be clung to. We have no options in this matter. It is rebellion against the living God not to behave in this way. People are in hell now because they heard these very words, and at best they said, “Very interesting,” and did nothing, and at the worst disdained these commandments. Paul gives us three negative destructive attitudes to be mortified, and two positive attitudes to be strengthened.
1. GIVE UP WRONG AIMS IN LIFE.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition” (v.3). Selfish ambition is one of the works of the flesh in Galatians 5. There are fifteen works of the flesh listed there. Three of them have to do with sexual immorality. They head the list, and that is significant. Witchcraft is also there because the occult is a menace. Drunkenness and orgies close the list and we hear plenty about that sort of despicable behaviour amongst TV personalities and sportsmen. All of us would include such behaviour as real sins: they would head our list. But eight of the fifteen – more than half – are basic attitudes of heart which God finds despicable like pride, hating someone, jealousy, envy, factions and selfish ambition. They may never register in our conduct at all, but if they’re in our hearts they’re the works of the flesh. Does that trouble you? You think our nation needs to come back to God, and you want to see witches, and gangsters, and prostitutes, and drug traffickers converted, and I do too. But we also need to see those who are dominated by selfish ambition, and pride, and jealousy, and hatred changed. And maybe the person needing to be changed is me . . . maybe it is you. Do absolutely nothing at all out of selfish ambition. Nothing means nothing.
Now there is nothing wrong with ambition. John Cowper Powys said that ambition was the grand enemy of all peace. No! God wants every one of us to be ambitious. Malcolm Muggeridge at 78 said that the end of all ambition had come to him as a great relief. Then we must conclude that he’d had the most tawdry or poisonous of ambitions. When he’d got to the top of the ladder he found that it wasn’t leaning against the wall. He became a Roman Catholic. On my death bed I want my ambitions to be as alive and strong as they’ve ever been. But Almighty God has to define for us the nature of true ambition: “Love me with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.” That’s my ambition. “Your chief end is to glorify me and enjoy me for ever. Present your body a living sacrifice to me. Be absolutely filled with my Spirit. Love your neighbour as yourself. Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Do to other people what you would have them do to you.” These are to be our ambitions, “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee.” There mustn’t be one square inch of my life, not a single cell in my body, not a penny in the money-box, not one member of my family whom I love which I have not yielded to Jesus my King. I commit everything to him. The Christian is to have the most magnificent ambitions. While one person in the world remains who doesn’t know who Jesus Christ is we live to take him the gospel. We want all the world to sing the praises of the Saviour. Our ambitions are really our creed, much more than praying is our creed. Our ambitions are saying, “This is what I am going to do with my life.” Every day I want to walk closer to God than ever before. Every night I want to love the Lord more. Every Sunday I want to preach more holily and faithfully and powerfully than I’ve ever preached. I want to be a man of God. I want to gallop on a great white stallion amidst the armies of the Lamb. I was to ascend on eagle’s wings to heaven surrounded by angels. I want to see a new universe where every galaxy and every blade of grass is redolent with the righteousness of Christ. I want to see the Lord in all his glory in Emmanuel’s land.
What are your ambitions? Someone asked the Duchess of Windsor if she had any, and she said, “I’d like to be the head of an advertising agency.” I say, Give up your small ambitions! We say, Duchess, what’s the big idea? And we’ve all got to have one. We are not just individuals; we are individuals plus the ambitions that motivate us. A thin wire can carry a heavy current; a small window can let in a lot of light. So very ordinary people in Christ can grasp extraordinary ambitions. That is how Christianity conquered Europe – immense ambitions gripping men and women and crying, “Live for this, stand by this, believe in this, and if necessary die in this.”
Paul warns us of being deflected from these divine standards. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition” (v.3). There was once a student I knew who had great gifts in leadership and theological understanding. I had some hope that he would become a preacher of the gospel overseas, but he married an ambitious woman who knew what she wanted in life from a husband. She had mapped out their future, and this year again he is sitting in an office spending most of his time gazing at his PC. That girl had never asked herself on her knees, and before an open Bible, questions like these: One: What does God want me to be and to do? Two: How does God want me to use my time and my money? Three: How can I best discharge my stewardship of those gifts that God has entrusted to me for which I must give account to him in that tremendous day? Four: What tasks are the priority for Christians like myself in this particular generation? Five: How can I best serve the Saviour who died in agony on a cross under the weight of my sins and God’s wrath toward them to save me from hell? That student’s promising beginning here in Aberystwyth has foundered on the rock of selfish ambition.
The Lord Jesus met selfish ambition amongst his disciples and he meets it yet. There was one occasion when Mrs. Zebedee came to Jesus with her boys James and John. She kneeled before him and she said, “I’ve come to ask you for a favour.” “What’s that?” the Lord said. “‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom'” (Matt.20:21). The other disciples were annoyed with her because they were ambitious men too and she had got in first. You see what that incident tells us? You can live in the presence of Jesus, and hear his teaching, and even see him raise the dead, and experience the power of his Spirit, and still be consumed with selfish ambition. TV satellite religion is full of such men. In Samaria a magician called Simon confessed faith in Christ under Philip’s preaching. He was baptized and joined the church, but when he saw that the apostles Peter and John had the power to lay hands on people so that they received the Holy Spirit he offered them money – he would make a costly sacrifice and give them ‘seed money’ – that he might purchase that power too. Peter said to him, “May your money perish with you!” (Acts 8:20). “Do nothing out of selfish ambition!”
A man called Lot was captivated by the city of Sodom in all its wickedness, and soon he gave up living in the countryside, and his ambition was to live closer and closer to the city. He pitched his tent right outside Sodom, and his life was almost destroyed, and his wife was turned to a pillar of salt, because of that selfish ambition. King David saw a woman and though he was already married, and she was also, he had to have her, and many good people died because of that cruel, lustful, selfish ambition. Gehazi was Elisha’s servant and his secret ambition was for more money. He was angry with the prophet for not taking a penny from Naaman whom he’d healed of his leprosy. So Gehazi went secretly running after Naaman as he returned to Syria, and he asked him for a talent of silver and two sets of clothing. “By all means, take two talents,” said Naaman, and because of that selfish ambition Gehazi was struck down with leprosy. King Nebuchadnezzar coveted more power and glory and majesty, and he was struck down so that he ate grass like a cow, his nails grew like the claws of a bird, and he lay in the fields drenched with the dew. Give up your selfish ambitions! A farmer’s younger son had one ambition, to leave home with all his money, and go and live it up in a distant city. There he lost all his money, and all his fair-weather friends, and was almost reduced to eating pig-food to stay alive. Give up your selfish ambitions! John warns people about a man called Diotrephes consumed with selfish ambition: he “loves to be first” (3 Jn.9) said John. Give up your selfish ambition!
2. DO NOTHING OUT OF VAIN CONCEIT.
“Do nothing out of vain conceit” (v.3). You understand how the two are linked? Selfish ambition is the drive; vain conceit is the destination. Selfish ambition is what motivates you; vain conceit is what you get when you succeed, a glory that is vain, that is, empty, hollow glory. Hasn’t that hideous 20th Century been characterised by men in leadership all over the world who did everything out of selfish ambition and vain conceit – the famous leaders of Europe and Africa and Asia and South America who took over their countries and plunged them into war and poverty? And that vain spirit permeated all of society. I was recently reading something Beatrice Webb said. She and her husband were the most influential Fabians from the Bloomsbury set who had such influence on the Labour party and British public opinion. They went out to Russia in the 1930s and assured the rest of the world what a paradise Joseph Stalin was building there – but he was killing millions of poor Russians. But Mr and Mrs Webb had been there and seen Utopia! It was this muddled woman who said that when she felt nervous appearing before the press or world leaders she would simply say to herself, “You’re the cleverest member of one of the cleverest families in the cleverest class of the cleverest nation in the world, so what have you got to be frightened of?” What vain conceit!
The most terrible consequences for the human race came from vain conceit. I am thinking about the rebellion of the devil. In Isaiah 14 there is the description of the fall of the morning star, the son of the dawn. Incidentally the house opposite us has been renamed the ‘Dawn Star’ (in the Welsh language) and the bright daughter of the household said to her father (whom I get on with so well) that that was a name for the devil in the Bible, and that it wasn’t a very appropriate name for a house, especially opposite the Christian Manse! He asked me if I minded his house being named that. Being in Welsh it had had no resonances on me at all. What do those verses say that describe Satan’s fall?
“How you have fallen from heaven,
O morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God
. . . I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14 :12-14).
That was Lucifer’s vain conceit, to make himself like ‘the Most High’. That title for the Almighty first occurs in the life Abram when he is returning home from rescuing Lot from the armies of the kings. Then Abram meets Melchizedek, the king of Salem, who blesses Abram and says, “Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth,” (Gen. 14:19). God was revealed to Abram as ‘El Elyon’, the Most High, and this is what Lucifer, the morning star, coveted for himself. He wanted to push God off his throne and become the Most High and rule as the possessor of heaven and earth. The apex of vain conceit! We know that Lucifer failed, that he was cast out of heaven down to earth, but now as the god of this world he is tireless in seeking to undermine the glory of God in the world. When we are confronted with demonic darkness in Europe today let’s remember that lying behind it all is a creature who was consumed by the evil of vain conceit. When we find ourselves itching for praise and recognition, when we feel we are not being honoured as we think we deserve, let’s mortify that wickedness by the power of the Holy Spirit. Hollow conceit will destroy us and many others if it is not put to death. If you truly got what you deserved you would be in hell today. It is a marvel of grace that any of us is alive in a day of grace, and that many here are covered by the blood of Christ. That is all because of God’s mercy. All we have and all we have done has been because of the gifts of God to us. Pride is excluded! The greatest of all Christians said that he was the chief of sinners.
3. STOP MAJORING IN YOUR OWN INTERESTS.
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests” (v.4). This is the final negative, and we shouldn’t misunderstand it. Of course God charges all men to look to their own interests, that is, to provide for the best interests of their families. For example, let those wretched men who have fathered babies, but refuse to support the mother of their own children, take up their responsibilities. Let men who desert their wives and families look to what will always be their own interests. Let the man who is being paid by his boss look to his own labours and give a day’s work for a day’s wage. Let all of us look to our own interests. Illegitimacy and child-neglect are exploding all around us because of centuries of a philosophy which is devoted to extreme individualism – “If it feels OK go for it.” Paul’s concern is with the person who repudiates such egocentric destructiveness and says, “I agree with you; I’ve got my sphere, and my responsibility, but nothing more. All the rest has got nothing to do with me.” You see the emphasis in the text on the word ‘only’ – “each of you should look not only to your own interests.” Lift up your eyes to your fellow men! But men don’t.
I was reading some words of the actress and New Age devotee Shirley MacLaine: “The most pleasurable journey you take is through yourself . . . the only sustaining love involvement is with yourself . . . When you look back on your life and try to figure out where you’ve been and where you’re going, when you look at your work, your love affairs, your marriages, your children, your pain, your happiness – when you examine all that closely, what you really find out is that the only person you really go to bed with is yourself . . . The only thing you have is working to the consummation of your own identity. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do all my life . . .” Shirley MacLaine tells the world that she has been looking to her own interests all her life and is proud of it. The attitude is everywhere. George Gordon Liddy was one of the Watergate conspirators. Chuck Colson was another, and he discovered himself during that time, when he came to a knowledge of the living God. Am I a blob of overgrown protoplasm, a walking stomach as the cruder Marxist maintains, the finest flower of the evolutionary cycle or am I a creature in the image of God? Coming to a knowledge of God Colson came to understand the image he bore, and he found it could be renewed through faith in Christ. But this is what his colleague Liddy said (and I wonder was it a contemptuous rebuttal of Colson’s new faith: “I have found within myself all I need and all I shall ever need. I am a man of great faith, but my faith is in George Gordon Liddy. I have never failed me.” He is looking only to his own interests.
Paul is talking about that attitude that says, “Think about yourself. Talk about yourself. Use ‘I’ as often as possible. Mirror yourself continually in the opinion of others. Listen greedily to what people say about you. Expect to be appreciated. Be suspicious. Be jealous and envious. Be sensitive to slights. Never forgive a criticism. Trust nobody but yourself. Insist on consideration and respect. Demand agreement with your own views on everything. Sulk if people are not grateful to you for favours shown them. Never forget a service you’ve given someone. Do as little as possible for others.” That spirit is all too common in our day. I was talking to a pastor last month and he had kindly given hospitality for three months to a young woman, daughter of a preacher, who had a temporary job in his area. He told me that this young woman throughout the three months she had lived that had never once asked him what sort of day he’d had. She came back from school and flopped down on the sofa and she told everyone and anyone what a hectic day she’d had, but was utterly disinterested in anyone else’s. She stayed at the table for the first couple of Bible readings and prayer at the end of the evening meal, but after that always excused herself and went to her room before they read the Scriptures. That grieved them even more, but it was typical of her, that she was looking only to her own interests.
Moody once said that God sent no one empty away except those who are full of themselves. But that is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Who is it that comes to Christ for grace? Those who realise they are nothing in the sight of God, and worse than nothing. They are looking to God in utter submission to him and utter dependence upon him and his grace and mercy. They look at their own lives and they think, what a poor thing this is, this boasting of things that are accidental and for which we are not responsible, this boasting of things that are inconsequential and that will count as nothing at the great day when we stand in the presence of God. This poor self! The Christian has brought his emptiness and his poverty to Christ to be made full.
We start with children having to teach them from the time they sit in their high chairs not only to look to their own interests. Because of original sin a child is utterly self-centred. Where have you ever met a child to whom a parent has to say, “You are so concerned about your brother and your sister and your parents. Remember to look after yourself.”? Nowhere. No such child exists. All children naturally seek their own interests. That is what the fall has done. A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Ioan, 5 and Idwal, 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. The mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson. “If Jesus were sitting here, he would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake; I can wait.'” Ioan turned to his younger brother and said, ‘Idwal, you be Jesus!’
That spirit accompanies us throughout life, but in more subtle ways. Two men were out for a meal and they ordered fish, and the waiter brought them two fillets of sole, one large and the other small. So one man picked up the smaller piece, put it on a plate and gave it to his friend. “You’ve got a nerve,” his friend said, smiling at him, ‘giving me this little piece, and keeping the bigger one for yourself.” “Why? What would you have done?” his friend asked him. “I’d have taken the smaller piece for myself.” “Well, that’s what you’ve got,” his friend replied, and they both laughed.
We are all subtle in defending our own self-interest, the ways we look after Number One, and justify neglecting others. So there are these three attitudes which Christianity let loose on the continent of Europe 1900 years ago, despising selfish ambition and vain conceit and an attitude that looks only at one’s own interests. But what positive virtues did it encourage?
4. IN HUMILITY CONSIDER OTHERS BETTER THAN YOURSELVES.
This is a great theme throughout the Bible: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2); “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible . . . I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (I Cor. 9:19, 22); “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves” (Rom. 12:10); “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up” (Rom. 15:1-2). That is normal and normative Christian living.
So Paul puts it in our text in these words: “But in humility consider others better than yourselves” (v.3). We all know and despise false humility. Being quiet isn’t being humble. Your silence may just be saying that you are a distant or a shy personality. You are born like that and may even be naturally weak, retiring, lacking in courage. Or your silence can be a cloak of superiority. Nor does humility mean that you are an imitator of Uriah Heep. Dr Lloyd-Jones supplies us with this anecdote: “I remember once having to go to preach at a certain town When I arrived on the Saturday evening, a man met me at the station and immediately asked for my bag, indeed he almost took it from my hand by force. Then he talked to me like this. ‘I am a deacon in the church where you are preaching tomorrow’, he said, and then he added, ‘You know, I am a mere nobody, a very unimportant man really. I don’t count; I am not a great man in the church; I am just one of those men who carry the bag for the minister.’ The Doctor went on to say this: “He was anxious that I should know what a humble man he was . . . yet by his anxiety to make it known he was denying the very thing he was trying to establish. Uriah Heep – the man who thus, as it were, glories in his poverty of spirit and thereby proves he is not humble. It is an affectation of something which he does not feel. This is a danger which confronts many people . . . ” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount,” IVF, London, 1959, p.47).
What does Paul say here? “In humility consider others better than yourselves.” The key is humility Paul says, and the essence of humility is consciousness of Christ’s glory and his wonderful pity to us. Think of a little girl entering a room. She thinks of nothing in particular. She has her mother in the corner of her eye and she looks around at the people there and any pets or toys that catch her eye. She is not thinking about herself. She is innocent and lovely. But when she is 20 and entering a room how different she is. She is conscious of what she has put on, and how people are looking at her, the impression she is making, and what she thinks of herself. All that childhood innocence is gone. Self-consciousness has taken over. So it is with humility. Once you are confident that you’ve got it you’ve lost it.
So it is with us. “Am I really humble . . . am I?” Of course I’m not humble while I’m probing my humility. I am an examiner. A man talking unceasingly about his love has no love. He has words. A man who talks about his faith all the time is not believing, he is thinking about faith. No human being believes except as his mind is set on Jesus Christ. I think of some persons who are wonderfully full of the grace of God. I never hear them speaking about their faith, or their humility, or about any graces that are theirs. When they pray they are absorbed with God. When I talk to them after the sermon they say to me, “Isn’t He holy? Isn’t He glorious? Isn’t He beautiful?” They don’t talk about themselves and their feelings. They talk about the grandeur of Christ, the glories of the Redeemer, the surpassing excellence and majesty of the Son of God, the wonder of the God-man, the marvellous grace of the Lord Jesus. They are laying themselves at Christ’s feet and he is taking them into his arms. The more they love the more they want to love. The more sanctified they are the more sanctification they want. The more humility they have the more aware they are of their lack of humility. Nothing in the world so defiles humility as self-conscious humbleness. It was selfish ambition that changed an angel into a devil. It is humility that makes sinners like the Son of God.
Nor does this exhortation – to consider others better than ourselves – mean that we consider a drunkard lying in a gutter as a better person than we are. I cannot say of a man who is three feet high, “He is taller than I am,” and still be a truthful man. Of course when we see a drunk lying on the pavement we believe that there, but for the grace of God, we ourselves would lie! Also we wonder if there is anything we can do to help the man. That’s what this verse is getting at. Can we delay on our very important journeys just for a moment to slow down and think should or could we do something for this drunk? It certainly embraces that attitude. I mean, he is drunk . . . isn’t he? He has not had a heart attack, has he? We are not too exalted to have nothing to do with a man in a gutter, or a convicted paedophile, or a murderer, or a Muslim terrorist, or a pimp, are we? They are simply below out contempt. That is the issue.
I remember one occasion when I lived somewhere else and took my faith seriously (sometimes I think more seriously than I do today), that I was leaving the town railway station one Friday night and was walking home. I caught up with a drunk who was staggering and almost falling. He was leaning against a wall so I asked him where he lived and he slurred out his reply, so I locked my hand under his arm and walked him slowly and steadily to his house, ringing the bell and handing him over to his landlord, who shook his head and laughed at him. When I got home and told my parents what I had done they admired me but they also told me that their fathers had told them to leave drunks alone, that they were fools, sowing what they reaped. It was the old wrong attitude, passing by on the other side. There was a shame in speaking to drunks. But for the saving grace of God I might have been that drunk, yet I do not think he was a better man than me – before God, or before man – but he was a fellow man with a never dying soul, and some special need of God’s grace in Christ, and I was his debtor. Maybe my sins had been worse than his. I don’t know.
What Paul is saying here is that we are to use our whole selves for other people as providence leads us. We are to think of them rather than of ourselves. We are to help them by putting ourselves at their service. Think of a mother and her child who has earache. She considers the little one better than herself in the sense that she stays awake and holds herself stiffly in one position not to disturb her child who is going off to sleep. She will donate to her child her blood or even a kidney. She gives herself away for it; she bestows feeling and care and time and herself on the bairn. During the war my parents ate the margarine and gave me the butter, put saccharines in their tea and gave me the sugar, because they wanted me to be a healthy child. So we render some service to our neighbours at some inconvenience to ourselves. Helping them is better than our sleep or our ease.
5. LOOK TO THE INTERESTS OF OTHERS.
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (v.4). But what those interests are God himself is the judge. They are the interests of God’s determinate purpose, and that is to conform us to the image of his Son. How can I further that interest in another person? What is for the eternal well-being of that person? I cannot further the interests of the criminal in his crime, or the addict in his addictions, or the sinner in his sins. But what will fit that person for the service of God, and enable him to glorify and enjoy God? How can I advance the interests of his life before God? I cannot help him with his medical condition, and I can do very little for him financially, but there are other revealed interests, Biblical interests, and I look to those.
Many years ago a woman from a South Wales valley wrote to me. Her daughter had come here to university but she had given up the faith since arriving at Aberystwyth. She explained to me that she and her daughter had professed conversion at the same time and been baptised at the same service, and all had seemed well until she left home. She had not been near this church and had no profession. Would I visit her and encourage her to come back to Christ? So I left the Manse one winter’s evening and climbed the hill and went into the corridors of Rendle Hall, an exclusively women’s residence in those days. I knocked on the door of a certain room and was admitted by an embarrassed and quickly resentful young woman. After a while she said to me, “I admire my mother. My father is a coal miner and has little wages and my mother has to keep all of us on his salary. Dad is not interested in religion, and it’s been a crutch for my mother.” I was inwardly cross with her. What did she know about raising a family on a collier’s wage, and living with the tension of loving and serving God and honouring a husband who had no faith at all? She had swallowed some humanism that explained away loving the living God as a crutch. I was put out by her superiority and too easy dismissal of the faith. She conceded nothing, and I left sad and angry with her. Another evening away from my home. She could at least have promised to come to church. She owed me something for going out looking for her. No! She was not a debtor to me. I was a debtor to her, and to all men and women. I owed her the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ which had changed my life and her mother’s, and could change hers too. That is what Paul is saying here: “Don’t look at your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” There are the shut-ins, and the people with learning difficulties, and the sick, and the abandoned, and those who are carers. What are we doing for their interests? Look to the interests of others! Love your neighbour as yourself.
We develop quite unconsciously a certain Christ-like mentality. We look at other people in the light of what their best interests are and how we can help them. Think of how Jesus dealt with the woman at the well, or with the rich young ruler, or with Mary and Martha in their grief, and so on. He was always seeking to advance their eternal interests. “There was once a poor rice farmer in China who was a Christian, and his fields lay high on a mountain. Every day he pumped water into the paddies of new rice field, and every morning he returned to find that a neighbour who lived down the hill had opened the dikes surrounding the Christian’s field to let the water fill his own! For a while the Christian ignored the injustice, but at last he became desperate. He met and prayed with other Christians and they came up with this solution. The next day the Christian farmer rose early in the morning and first filled his neighbour’s fields; then he attended to his own” (James Montgomery Boice, “Philippians,” Baker, Grand Rapids, 2000′ p.107). It was a very powerful witness, the way he attended to that man’s interests, and it led to his conversion. Can there be meaningful worship, or powerful evangelism that will change our nation unless we more consider others better than ourselves, and look to their own interests?
22nd September 2002 Geoff Thomas