Blog post written by Aaron Robertson
Do you ever find yourself in situations where you think: “I’m not going to come out of this one looking good?” Maybe I’m the only one but I regularly find myself in situations where managing my ‘image’ isn’t easy. For me it is usually in situations where my less-than-perfect character is brought to the surface or where my usually well-managed flaws become exposed. Most often it is stress or struggling through relational issues with others that bring out my worst. Life keeps reminding me that I am not as good, righteous, or virtuous as I would like to think.
As much as other people and circumstances can expose these things in my heart, scripture has often been more precise in exposing these things. Philippians 2 is one of those passages that always helps me see my true self. The first five words of Philippians 2:3 are some of the hardest for me to read: “do nothing from selfish ambition.”
Perhaps like me you can read through stretches of scripture and think “I’m doing alright with that.” It is really easy to do with the “do not murder” and “do not steal” passages. As an introvert, when I am feeling like a curmudgeon it is easy to say “I don’t really like talking or people so I don’t need to worry about gossip!” But when I read “do nothing from selfish ambition” all I can think is “oh crap…I screwed that one up.”
If marriage and parenting have taught me anything it is that I am extremely selfish. I thought that many of my vain, narcissistic patterns had already been dealt with when I was younger. However, when my wife and children started messing with my habits and hobbies I found I still have a long way to go.
The truth is that I’d really only learned to minimize the frequency of my selfish moments and I never addressed the selfishness in my heart. The irony is that my minimization of “selfish moments” was only accomplished by living a self-absorbed life ordered around my needs and desires!
Paul could have been so much softer in this Philippians passage. My sinful heart wishes he had been.
He could have said “try not to be selfish” or “as much as possible think about others first.” Paul didn’t take that soft, left-up-to-interpretation approach. He couldn’t leave wiggle room on this because he knows the human heart too well. Paul knows that any grounds left for self-involved thinking will be clung to with fierce desperation. So Paul tells us “do NOTHING from selfish ambition.”
If you are asking “when can I think of myself first?” let me clarify:
- When pigs fly
- When hell freezes over
- Under no circumstances
- Never ever ever
Those five words, “do nothing from selfish ambition,” are enough to condemn every human heart. I think if we are honest we realize that we all screw this one up every day. The truth isn’t just that we screw up occasionally but that we are screw ups through and through. Selfish ambition is often our M.O.
Paul knows that about us and so this passage is for us. While this is tough to read and impossible to live out, it is precisely because it leaves no wiggle room for interpretation that we should love this verse. There is nothing like seeing our failures to help us see our need for some help.
If Paul had phrased things in a way that left us feeling like we could figure it out on our own, we would be fighting endlessly to do just that. Instead, because there is no escaping Paul on this one, we are left in a position of desperation and helplessness. This is precisely where God wants us because it points us to Christ.
We are screw ups. Every last one of us. There is no figuring it out, no try-a-little-harder, and no chance of leaving behind our selfishness under our own power. We simply don’t measure up.
For you it might not be selfishness. It might be anger. Or lust. Or envy. Whatever it may be for you, when you dig into those issues you end up realizing they all come from a heart of selfishness, just with different symptoms showing up in our lives. Anyway you cut it, we are all living for ourselves and we all fall short of what God asks of us.
God knows this about us and knew that it would take someone besides us to live that out. Selfish ambition can be a path to hell or a flashing neon arrow pointing to Jesus. The Father sent the Son so that we don’t have to live eternity in judgment for our selfish ambition. Instead we can live eternally in Him who forgives and fixes us up.
We rejoice in serving a God who truly does nothing out of selfish ambition. For us, seeing God in all of His glory, power, and magnificence goes a long way towards pulling us out of our own selfishness. The next time you really “screw that one up,” look to the cross. God’s grace is sufficient.
The great news isn’t just that Jesus lived selflessly on our behalf but also that he is actually able to help us live that way ourselves. In Christ and with the power of the Holy Spirit we can die to ourselves and live for others. Just a few words after the challenge to “do nothing from selfish ambition” we learn are encouraged to take on a humble mindset “which is yours in Christ Jesus.”
Humility and selflessness are already ours in Christ Jesus. With His example and the power of the Holy Spirit we too can live that out more and more fully as we become like Him. What great “good news” that we are forgiven for our failings and empowered to be like God.
Repentance and forgiveness are so incredibly powerful for us when we see our sin and learn to go directly to our Savior. We can crucify our selfishness in the flesh and live in Christ. The next time you screw up, don’t beat yourself up. Go seek forgiveness from the one who was beaten up on your behalf.