Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
I’ll be honest – I struggle with this passage as much as anything in Paul’s letter. Not the first part; I agree that we should do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit. By privileging our own hopes, needs, and desires over those of others we belittle those entrusted to us to love and erode the very community that has the capacity to grant us hope and love. Indeed, I suspect that when we do cave into feelings of selfishness and conceit, it is precisely because we don’t feel the kind of love and worthiness that enables us to resist the temptation to put ourselves first and tend to the needs of others.
So it’s not the first part that bothers me, it’s the second: in humility regard others as better than yourselves. And what I find hard about this second part is precisely what I found valuable about the first: I don’t know if you can love others well if you don’t love yourself. I don’t know, that is, whether you can treat others as worthy and valuable if you don’t first see yourself as worthy and valuable. I know this isn’t typical church talk; Paul’s language of humility and treating others as better than yourself is more the norm.
And maybe that’s my problem. In my experience, we’re very good at talking about this, but not always at doing it. Do you know what I mean? We – and I definitely include myself in this! – sometimes talk, or even try, to put others first, but then resent them for it. Or we’re polite, acting and speaking humbly when face to face with folks, but then say what we really think behind their backs. My experience of some “Christian fellowship” has been that we strive so hard to live by this norm, at least in public, that it ends up actually being somewhat corrosive, and I think the corrosive part is exactly that we can’t truly love others if we don’t feel loved ourselves. So fall short of the ideal, judge ourselves for it, and feel even worse about ourselves and end up all the more likely to fall short again.
In reading this passage again this time, however – actually, in reading it a number of times – I began to wonder if part of my problem with this passage is that I haven’t read quite far enough. Because in the next sentence Paul goes on to say that we should “Look not to our own interests, but to the interest of others.” Sounds about the same, doesn’t it. Well, more or less. Except that it reminds me that this isn’t just a single action – regard others as better than yourself – but a whole set of actions and practices that involve looking out for the interests of others. And once I make that move I’m reminded that a community is formed not just by a single attitude but by a host of actions. That is, I’m reminded that Paul isn’t just speaking to me, but to the community of which I am apart. And what makes it possible for me to look out for the interests of others is that I know they are likewise looking out for my interests. Similarly, if I am trying to regard others as important, valuable, and worthy of love, it makes all the difference in the world if they are doing the same for me.
Paul isn’t advocating, I think, a culture of “despising yourself for the sake of others” – which is often how I hear this passage interpreted – but rather of mutual concern and care, where each and all members of the community are looking out for each other. I still struggle with “regard others as better than yourself” – I think I like Jesus’ “treat each other as you’d like to be treated” better! – but placing it in a communal setting helps me recognize that Paul is trying to cultivate a spirit of mutual self-sacrifice. A spirit, that is, of honoring the other as a beloved member of the family of God so that together we can live into God’s hope and desire that all of us experience a sense of worth and value so that we can love each other as we have been loved.
Prayer: Dear God, let us fashion families, households, schools, and communities of faith where there is no “better” or “worse,” but together we remind each other that we are your beloved children and family. In Jesus’ name, Amen.