Reflections on Philippians
For most of my childhood, I didn’t know I was weird. I grew up homeschooled, and most of my friends came from conservative Christian households similar to my own. When I finally figured it out, I embarked on a series of attempts to fit in. Often that meant repeating jokes I didn’t understand, quoting movies other people liked, or pretending to be familiar with music I didn’t listen to.
I became an expert on a topic overnight in an effort to create a niche for myself. My contributions to conversation always began with things like, “That’s nothing. One time, I …” And while there was nothing inherently wrong with my desire to have friends and fit in, my attempts at belonging became unhealthy when my goal changed from finding human connection to establishing my own importance.
My mother was the first to suggest that seeking to be the center of attention was not the best way to make new friends. Instead, she suggested, “Find someone at the party who doesn’t have anyone to talk to. If you can make their night better, you’ll end up having fun too.”
Mom’s advice to look outside my own self-interest was a practical application of Paul’s instructions for the Philippian church:
Do nothing from selfish ambition 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 (Phil 2:3–4).
Earlier in his letter, Paul warns the Philippians that some men were preaching the gospel to inflate their own self-worth (1:15–17). When discussing those who were not preaching the true gospel, Paul appeals to Christ’s example of humility.
In my search for approval, I was trying to fulfill my own needs, but I had little motivation to look out for others’ interests. Feeling well-liked inflated my conceit—it didn’t teach me to elevate others above myself or to sacrifice for them.
Little by little, I changed my approach. I began to look for the new person in the room. Instead of dominating the conversation, I learned to ask questions. On the surface, I was practicing useful friend-making strategies, but underneath I was undergoing a change of heart. In his letter, Paul goes on to admonish the Philippians to take their example from Jesus Christ:
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (2:6–8).
This call to imitate Christ’s humility can be hard for us to hear. It turns our working model of social class on its head. We like knowing our place—especially if it’s a good one. But the gospel levels the playing field. We are all sinners. And if we are all equally in need of God’s grace, how can we evaluate our worth by comparing ourselves with others?
Originally published in Bible Study Magazine Sept–Oct ‘14
Biblical references from ESV
Reverend Patrick Vossen,