Log online, watch the news, or just check out the latest Netflix blockbuster. “Self” is, quite literally,…everywhere. Self-discovery, self-identity, self-fulfillment–these are the things that make life worth living, or so we are told. Those who have ears to hear must simply follow the advice of the latest Disney princess and look within your heart to see who you really are. Discover what feels best to you. For you, Make that quest your life-ambition. Stalk that dream until you capture it. Do this and, no matter what happens, you’ll win personal happiness and the world’s applause. Because you will be true to yourself.
The concept of moving self to the center pre-dates Disney’s expressive individualism, the 60’s sexual revolution, Oscar Wilde or Jean-Jacque Rousseau. It’s actually hardwired into the way we think. Since the first unauthorized molars bit hard into the forbidden fruit, we have been on a quest to self-deify; to convert Self into a Savior. It’s one of our greatest ambitions. It frees up the moral space to live life on our own terms.
The Upward Search for Self
Eden hosted the first coup where Self attempted an overthrow of God in this irrational quest for autonomy and self-supremacy. “You will be like God!”, said the serpent. But, as it turned out, pursuing fulfillment this way alienated us all from God and each other. We get the short-term gain (“Man, this fruit tastes awesome!”) but the long-term result is shame, exile, and sojourning in a world that is not our home. We think going hard after what we want–what Self wants–is the key to greatness. But in the Bible, it’s the pathway to destruction.
The path to human flourishing which the Bible lays out is, unsurprisingly, different from the world’s. To be truly spiritual, we must cultivate an ambition for true and radical greatness. But it’s not the version of greatness the world sees and celebrates.
The Downward Slope from Self
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul documented the path to greatness. Rather than reaching out to greedily achieve personal goals, the path leads downward in acts of self-emptying. As the only one to have fully and righteously walked this unusual path to greatness, Christ is the Master Teacher and Exemplar:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. . . . Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 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. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5, 7–11)
Paul is saying that the pre-incarnate Jesus existed as God. Make no mistake, Christ is absolutely equal to God. Coequal, coeternal, same essence, the whole works. The Nicene Creed says that Jesus is “very God of very God.” That’s just a cool, creedal way to say he was GOD—accept no substitutes.
But what Paul says next really blows our theological gaskets. Although Jesus was wholly God, he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Though he shared the rights, honors, and privileges of God, Jesus didn’t selfishly protect his position or prestige, but willingly gave it all up. Ultimately, to die on the cross for our sins.
If you’re like me, the impulse is to stop right here and just fall on our knees in worship for the saving grace of God in Christ. But as we worship, let’s consider that the application is not just for Jesus, Paul, or the Phillippians. It’s for all of us. God is calling us to a kind of radical humility that is embodied and expressed most clearly, in the voluntary self-emptying of the Son of God himself.
The Emptied Self Today
There’s a sense where this passage does not easily flow to us and our choices. There is nothing on earth we can give up that compares to Christ emptying himself. Here analogies just break down. The time we stepped aside to let another step forward or that day we allowed another to take credit for our idea does not begin to compare with God becoming a servant who died upon a cross. Yet there is a way of thinking here to which we are called (Phil. 2:5). Or to say it differently, a way to which we must aspire; a God-ordained descent for which we must become hungrily ambitious.
But this won’t begin with a to-do list. Because humility is first God’s initiative, not ours. Asking people to be honest about your weaknesses or critique your performance can be a way to mortify self-love. But it can also be a way to ping them for approval or to identify your sense of location in their life. Do you, dear friend, think I am valuable in what I do?
But there is another humility that reveals a deeper work of maturity. One that responds to God’s will with meekness, patience, and forbearance. One that can accept a sickness or financial blow with peace and trust. You see, humility is not first about manufacturing a catalog of behaviors that appear modest or meek. True humility does not move us or our behavior into the middle. Humility starts with God, not self.
Aspire to the humility that responds to God’s humblings.
Like the Pharisees who disfigured their faces when fasting to be seen by others (Matt. 6: 16-18), Christians have a thousand ways to smuggle pride and vanity into our attempts to appear humble. As a recovering hypocrite and pharisee, I speak from experience! But if we are clear-eyed, we will see things happen today by God’s initiative that will invite us to think less of ourselves. Maybe it’s a sharp comment, maybe an unwanted errand we are asked to do. Something that supplies an opportunity to think more of God, more of others, less of self.
Whether it’s losing your car keys, hearing the impatient words of an irritated clerk or seizing an unscheduled opportunity to stop and call a suffering friend, decide right now to trust God and lower your self-importance for today. In doing this, we will follow the Savior downward towards the glory of God.
Tenacious Tuesday Question
Where are you tempted to follow the folly of our first parents? Are you aware of any areas where you are trying to make a name for yourself by reaching out and taking what is “rightfully” yours? Or will you aim today for greatness by seizing the opportunities God presents to stoop down today to serve in some unexpected way?
Heavenly Father, please rescue my ambition from the folly of self-glorification and lead me in the way of Christ, my Master, who revealed to us that the path to glory is through humble service in all things.