How Humility Works
As we continue our study of Philipians 2:1-4 and the biblical strategy for cultivating a Christ-exalting relational culture in our churches, we turn our attention to the “how” question as it is answered in vv. 3-4. There Paul writes: “Do nothing from rivalry 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.”
There are three specific ways in which this unity of mind and soul and affection should be expressed. That is to say, the unity and harmony Paul desires for them and for us can only be achieved if we reject all forms of rivalry, self-seeking, and conceit.
First, we must be diligent to “do nothing from rivalry or conceit” (v. 3a).
This word translated “rivalry” earlier appeared in Philippians 1:17 where Paul used it to describe the motivation of those who preached Christ with a view to aggravating Paul’s distress. He has in mind that sort of one-upmanship where people are always trying to outdo others so that the attention and praise will come their way. Simply put, the spirit of competition may be great on the football field or in business but it has no place in the local church. Trying to trump one another to gain recognition and power is simply unacceptable.
As for “conceit,” he is thinking of the tendency we all feel to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. In particular, Paul is probably thinking of the person who is puffed up because he/she is convinced they are always right on every issue. It’s as if this person says: “What I think is more accurate, simply because I’m the one thinking it. How can everyone else be so dense?” Or, “What I propose will work better; my reasons for my view are more logical and grounded in reality; the others are a bunch of dreamers who can’t think straight; my schemes cannot be thwarted; my judgments are always right; my leadership can’t be faulted.” In essence, arrogant conceit and the absence of a teachable spirit are in view, and they are absolutely contradictory to and destructive of genuine spiritual unity.
Second, instead we should be diligent “in humility” to “count others more significant than” ourselves (v. 3b).
But what does it mean to “count others more significant” than ourselves? It doesn’t mean that they are more important or more significant, as if they have more value in the eyes of God than you do. Rather, he means you must “regard” them as such or “count” or “esteem” them as such so that you treat or care for them more so than you do for your own self. It means to put their needs ahead of your own. Will you serve them and encourage them and seek their welfare above your own, even if it comes at great cost to you?
The only way you can do this is through humility. In the ancient world, humility was considered a vice, a reflection of weakness and something to be despised. But Jesus transformed it into a virtue. Much could be said of the meaning of “humility” but let me highlight only two things.
First, perhaps the single greatest reflection of humility is the willingness to allow others to say of us in public what we freely admit in private. Are you self-defensive when people confront you with what you know to be true about yourself? Or do you acknowledge your shortcomings and sins and then repent and seek to learn and grow from the correction that others have brought?
Second, “humility” at its core is simply the antithesis of entitlement. Entitlement says, “I deserve this” and “you owe me.” Humility says, “The only thing I deserve is eternal death. God owes me nothing other than judgment, and he has chosen in grace not to give it to me but to Christ in my place.” That is the soil where humility grows. If you don’t relate to other people from that vantage point, from that perspective, you will never grow in humility.
Many people say something today, almost as a joke, and often in false humility, but the first person I heard say it meant it. My spiritual mentor was Russ McKnight, and when he was asked, “Russ, how are you doing?” he would always respond, “Better than I deserve.” That wasn’t a cute, catchy cliché. He meant it. He believed it. People would often laugh, and Russ would interrupt them and say: “No, you don’t understand. I really mean that. I really do deserve eternal death, and as bad as today may be, it’s infinitely better than what justice would require of me.”
Third, you should rather look attentively and with deep and sincere concern to the other person’s “interests.” However, the word “interests” is not actually in the original text. It might be more literally rendered, “one another’s things.” There is no limitation put on what Paul had in mind. It likely means things related to their job, their family, their physical health, their emotional and spiritual state, their children, their knowledge of God, their personal property, their reputation, their overall success in life, their happiness, their salvation, etc.
The idea here is somewhat parallel to the famous words of Jesus when he commanded his followers to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Seek your joy in the joy of your Christian brother or sister.
So let’s bring this to a very practical and somewhat painful conclusion by asking several questions.
(1) Are there specific things I’ve done or doctrines I believe that make it difficult to be of the same mind and share the same love and embrace a common purpose with other believers in my church? Identify what those might be and humbly reevaluate whether you were justified. And if you should discover that you were in the wrong, lay it down. Repent. Go and make it right with that individual. If you find that difficult to do, reflect long and hard on what God in Christ has done for you.
(2) Have I formed judgments against another Christian in this church body because they failed to embrace my agenda or disagreed with my opinion about what is of ultimate importance or didn’t get on board with something that I believe is crucial to living the Christian life? If you find that difficult to admit, reflect long and hard on what God in Christ has done for you.
(3) Have I contributed to disunity and disharmony by arrogantly holding on to things that in the big picture are only of secondary importance? Have I based my sense of personal value on whether or not I could get others to agree with me on these matters? Have those who disagreed with me been made to feel inferior or judged or sub-spiritual? If so, what ought I to do to make it right with them? If you again find that difficult to embrace, reflect long and hard on what God in Christ has done for you.
(4) What are some very specific and concrete ways in which I can begin to take a greater interest in the needs and desires of others, even if it means setting aside my own preferences? If you again find it hard to come up with an answer, reflect long and hard on the lengths to which God in Christ has gone on your behalf in seeking your best interests.
(5) Have there been occasions when the opportunity existed to change your schedule and lay aside your goals in order to be of help to someone truly in need, but you chose not to because you regarded them as undeserving and less important or less significant than yourself? If so, meditate on how God in Christ loved you and gave himself for you that you might have eternal life.
That, Paul would have us know, is how you develop a healthy, Christ-exalting, sacrificial and loving culture in your local church.