“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
How important are the people around you? The answer to that question depends on how you’re looking at it. In an absolute sense, every person is of equal value. No one can claim to be objectively more important or valuable than anyone else. At the same time, in a relative sense, we do value some people more than others. I say this only by means of reflection, not evaluation. The question we need to answer, though, is how we should value the people around us. Paul gives us some wisdom here worth heeding. Let’s take a look at this together.
One of the criteria we use for determining someone’s relative value is the occupation they have. This is reflected in how much certain jobs are compensated versus other jobs. A significant determining factor here is how specialized are their skills. A brain surgeon, for instance, has a highly specific skill set that took many years and possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop. A janitor pushing a broom, however, is doing something that just nearly anyone can do and most of the training necessary they received from their mom growing up. This in no way means a janitor is somehow a less noble or necessary profession than a brain surgeon. It simply means the skill set is different and that our culture recognizes that materially.
There is one more category here for determining how important someone is worth mentioning. This is personal. How important is someone to you? For instance, if I’m being honest, my wife and kids are more important to me than a stranger off the street. I suspect you feel roughly the same way about your own family. You should. That’s good and healthy.
There is actually one more person we all tend to value pretty highly. In fact, in most cases, we value this particular person more highly than pretty much anyone else in the world. Who is it? It’s the person looking back at you when you look in the mirror (and, no, I’m not talking about the mirror world evil version of you). When it comes to the people we consider most important in the world, we generally put ourselves at the top of the list. Everyone else comes second. Now, we may not admit to something like that out loud because it’s not polite, but our reticence to avoid a social faux pas doesn’t make it any less true.
This is a totally natural and normal thing to do. After all, if we don’t give ourselves at least some amount of priority, we run the risk of not being around to be given any priority at all. Besides, most of the people around us consider themselves the most important people in the world too. Numbers here don’t make it any more right to do in an absolute sense, but if they’re all primarily looking out for themselves and not us, we need to have at least one person in our corner or we could miss out on seeing a need met.
The trouble here is that when we put ourselves first and others second, we sometimes start to treat those others as if they were second to our priority. It makes us more likely to ignore their needs in favor of our own. We tend to disregard their desires as insignificant. We see them as means to an end rather than ends in themselves. They can even become obstacles on our path to advancing our interests that need to be removed. And when one person behaves this way, it’s irritating, but we can give them a wide berth and avoid the trouble they would otherwise cause us. But when everybody’s doing it–including ourselves–well, now we have a mess on our hands.
So, what do we do about this? Well, what Paul says here is a pretty good place to start. We are to set our wants and desires to the side and treat the people around us as if they were the most important people in the world. We should actively look for how we can advance their interests even if this will come at the cost of advancing our own.
That sounds noble and all, but really? It’s hard to think of a situation more likely to lead to our being taken advantage of. I mean, if we’re spending our time looking out for others, who is going to have our backs to make sure our needs get met? How do we keep from becoming doormats who just get walked on all the time? What’s more, if we are boosting them up all the time, won’t that eventually do a number on our own self-esteem? Everything about this instruction from Paul seems wrong on its face. What are we supposed to do with this?
Well, we start by seeking to put it into practice. Put it into practice? I thought we just established this was a bad idea? Maybe it is, but as Paul says next, this attitude worked for Jesus, so there’s that. If there was ever anyone who could have pulled rank in every single situation He was in to get His way, it was Jesus. He was the creator of the world wrapped in human flesh. Wherever He went He was literally the most important person in the room. He was the smartest person in the room. He was the most powerful. He was simply the best. He had every right to be served by all the people around Him. He could have commanded them and they would have had to obey. The world was at His fingertips.
Yet instead of leveraging all of this for His own benefit, He consistently leveraged it for ours. Instead of being served, He served. Instead of issuing commands, He obeyed the Father’s commands even to the point of death on a cross. He never considered any of His natural advantages as something to be exploited for accomplishing His will. On the contrary, He voluntarily gave them up so that we could have more. And in the end, all of this seemed to go terribly wrong for Him. He was put to death for it. He lost everything. He was obviously devastatingly wrong. We should look out for ourselves and make sure we’ve got what we want before giving anyone else the time of day.
There was an epilogue to His story, though. In giving up everything He had to empower us to be more than we ever imagined we could be, He got it all back and then some. In laying Himself low, God the Father raised Him up to the highest position in all of creation. He now has a name that is above every name. At the mention of His name all of creation will now bow in reverence and worship. He has all the glory and honor and power forever amen. If we follow His example of valuing the people around us more than we value ourselves, we will ultimately experience the same outcome He did. No, that doesn’t mean we’ll occupy a similar position. He gave up more than we ever could to make us more than we could have been. But we will share in His glory when we put others first.
So, the right response to Paul’s instructions here is to follow them. We consider others as more important than ourselves. Now, they aren’t more important than us in an absolute sense, but when we are securely rooted in Christ, we can treat them as such knowing that He has our back. He will make sure our needs are met. He will honor our sacrifices and remind us of how much we matter to Him. Indeed, if the Lord of all creation says you matter, there isn’t anyone or anything who can change that fact. If the Lord of all creation has promised to meet your needs, then you can give of yourself until you have nothing left to meet the needs of the people around you and not worry for a second about falling short yourself. He has all the resources and there are no limitations on how He uses them to your benefit. When you are in His hands, you are in better hands even than Allstate can provide.
Again, then, how important are the people around you? If you will follow Jesus’ example of treating them as if they were the most important, you’ll be following in His faithful footsteps. That’s a very good path to walk. There will be a cost to it now, but the rewards at the end of the path will more than make up for it.