Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
If we get the apostle Paul wrong here, we’ll miss a very important point and, unfortunately, end up in some off-the-wall teaching or heresy. The apostle wants us to avoid the very human (fallen human) tendency to put ourselves first and others second. By nature we approach things with a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude. Sometimes the desire automatically pops up in our minds, but it’s not necessary to follow it through or be controlled by it.
So Paul is encouraging us to follow the lead of Jesus himself, who stepped down from his exalted position in the universe to come to our world in human form and place himself in the role of servant. Paul is encouraging us to become the servants of others and in doing so to exhibit the life of Christ to the world.
Two cautions. We shouldn’t take his first phrase too literally and think that we should consider others qualitatively better, more lovable, more deserving, more worthy, or more valuable than we are. If we think that, we may come to the heresy of devaluing ourselves—of believing that we are worthless worms, of no value, without meaning and of no account.
This isn’t Christian theology, and even degrades the doctrine of Creation. The Bible tells us that whatever God made (including us) he pronounced “good” and it has great value.
Another danger is to put on a false servanthood and secretly consider ourselves actually more worthy than those around us. This only leads to the self-righteousness that the Bible condemns.
Fortunately, Paul tells us what he really means by considering others “better.” He wants us to prefer others, their needs, wants, and interests to our own. He’s talking about standard Christian ethics—the basic ethical requirements and courtesies that have been buried by the me-culture. And the truth is that all the needs we so chronically worry about are already taken into account by a heavenly Father who loves us and knows every detail about us.
So we shouldn’t try to pretend that we aren’t interested in our own concerns, but rather we should pay attention to them in light of God’s concern for us. If, generally, we’re more focused on the needs of other people, we can lose our obsession with our own, knowing that God is well aware of them and will take care of us. There is great freedom and great relief in this as we learn to let go of our perpetual and wearisome concentration on self and, like Jesus (who alone can empower us), become the happy servants of all. This will revolutionize our lives as we spend more and more time on what our neighbor needs. This might not even mean material help, but maybe a loving hug, an encouraging word, or just being kind and courteous to them.