Paul wrote, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.”
Paul would never have made a good American.
Let’s look at exactly what Paul is telling us to do. He does not say, “Let only a few things be done motivated by selfish ambition or conceit.” Rather, he says, “Nothing. Absolutely no action of yours should be motivated by selfish ambition or conceit.” Some might say, “That’s just an ideal. No one’s really expected to live up to the ideal.” Oh, how the flesh craftily spins its lies so that it might remain in control of our lives!
Most of us have no trouble recognizing selfish ambition or conceit. When a co-worker climbs the corporate ladder by digging their heals into our back, we can easily recognize selfish ambition. Or when a friend is so wrapped up in himself that he has no regard for you, it is easy to see his conceit.
Perhaps I should restate what I just said. Most of us have no trouble recognizing selfish ambition or conceit - except when it is our own. Selfish ambition is simply that - an ambition of my soul, my self, which wars against the high calling of Christ in my life. Conceit is simply an exalted opinion of my own worth. It can be manifested in many ways but most often it is manifested in simple disobedience to God as we simply decide that I don’t want to do what God wants me to do and, therefore, my ways, my ideas, my plans, my goals, my desires are better, more preferred than His. Though we would rarely dare to say it so bluntly, this is precisely the attitude that is portrayed by our willful disobedience. Actions still speak louder than words.
In this passage, Paul contrasts selfish ambition and conceit with “lowliness of mind.” This phrase in English is only one word in Greek which means “lowly, humble, objectively recognizing the smallness of our own existence.” Whereas selfish ambition says, “I must be first” or “I must have it my way,” and conceit says, “I’m better than others,” lowliness of mind says, “O God, transcendent, almighty and infinite God, what is man, what am I, that You would be so enamored with me?”
With this proper understanding of the relative importance of “me,” it is then possible to esteem others as better than ourselves. The word “esteem” here means “that which goes before or leads.” It could be pictured as letting someone else get in line before you. Most Americans, who take for granted an overly-stuffed grocery store, will consider that a mere courtesy. But if you put that into the context of a bread line somewhere in Russia during a mid-winter bread shortage, you will have a closer approximation of what Paul is alluding to.
American culture is centered around the individual. A genuine relationship with Christ is not. That relationship is centered around Christ whose example is that of self-sacrificing love. The individual who refuses to grow in the love of Christ, that is, one who insists on pursuing life according to his own desires or his own notions of what is best and who insists on looking down on others or putting his own desires in front of their needs, that one is only quenching the work of the Spirit of Christ in his or her life.
The only cure for selfishness is death. The old nature, which will break every rule, commit any crime, sacrifice any relationship to remain alive and in control, must be put to death and put off. And the new nature, the Spirit of Christ, must be put on. That is, we must be attuned to hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit and accustomed to obeying His commands, letting Him freely live out through us.
The rub is that our old nature, along with any demonic influences in our soul, goes into hiding whenever we attempt a frontal assault on our vices, our sins. The more vulgar vices will be surrendered as the soul grasps onto the notion that it is now a better soul for having given up such ugly things. It is virtually impossible to maintain a head-to-head confrontation with any of the forces of darkness because the power of darkness lies in deception. The power of Christ is in the fact that He is the light - when He comes, darkness must flee. And flee it does, into the dark, unexposed far recesses of our soul where it lurks and hides until it sees an opportunity to gratify itself by taking temporary control.
After such a successful coup, though, the soul will be mournful of its sin against God, the old nature will go back into hiding and the cycle will repeat itself. This is especially true when the old nature is reinforced by demonic power.
But as the Word of Christ continues to dwell ever more deeply in the believer, and the Spirit of Christ is given more and more control over the soul, more and more light will flood those dark recesses. Love, the self-sacrificing love of Christ, will become the norm rather than the selfishness of “me.”
Thus, selfishness is not a broken law and selflessness an obeyed law. Rather, whether one’s life is characterized by selfishness or selflessness is only the indication of which spirit has control over your life. If you are self-centered and conceited, you are controlled by your soul - a condition which opens doors for demonic activity and control in your life. But if you are Christ-centered and consider others’ needs more important than your own desires, you are controlled by the Spirit of God - and you will live. Let us forever forsake the notion that our lives can be centered around the wants and wishes of “me” while we parade ourselves to others as belonging to Christ - for that is just another manifestation of death.
If we belong to Christ, let us belong to Christ. If we belong to our own souls, let us honestly accept that verdict and, with equal honesty, recognize that we will reap our own rewards - an eternity in hell because we refused to give up our enmity against God. If we consider the fact that we belong to our souls and that we are thus destined for an eternity in hell to be unacceptable, then let us turn to Christ in spirit and in truth, confessing our sin and relinquishing control of our lives and souls to His Spirit.
But let us always recognize that our ability to deceive ourselves is probably our best skill in this life. Only when the light of Christ shines in our hearts will we know the truth and be set free. May God grant that His light expose all our self-deceptions and cause them to forever flee from us.
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