April 17, 2016

People Problems

“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.”  Philippians 2:3

This was the first scripture I ever attempted to commit to memory, verse and reference.  My strategy included writing it on a partial piece of poster board, illustrating each word of the verse with an image for emphasis.  “Strife” was an angry face, “vainglory” a mirror, “lowliness” a stick figure doing the limbo.  Think of it as an emoticon for each word, in a world where emoticons didn’t exist.   In college, I had this poster mounted on the wall opposite the light switch in the narrow passage of my dorm room’s entrance.  I can see it now. 

Despite the fact that this verse rolls off my tongue better than any other scripture besides John 3:16, it has perpetually been the message of conviction whispered to me most often by the Holy Spirit for the past 23 years. Twenty-three years and counting, I have been trying to assimilate it into my character with substantial success and frequent failure.

The complexity of this verse is that it has segments.  You can cut it into three parts and until all three parts come naturally to you, it hasn’t succeeded in changing you to the fullest extent it applies.  I guess that’s why it is taking me so long to absorb.  Take one step forward, you still have two steps to go.  Or in my case, take two steps forward and still have one giant leap miles long to go.  Will I ever get there?

First it declares, let NOTHING be done through STRIFE.

You can put a period on that and make it a complete statement.  God tells us when you are angry or resentful to put the brakes on your actions.  You DO NOT have permission to act on it.  “So how am I supposed to respond?” you ask.   Well, you don’t respond.  You sit on it.  You sleep on it.  You vent to God about your hurt.  You cry out for help.  You tolerate it and you envision Jesus, His tolerance, His reaction to strife.  It puts your offense into perspective.  You let God work on your heart. You aren’t going to get permission from Him to do anything motivated by strife so don’t give yourself permission either.  Let Him tell you what to do with that strife. 

Second, let NOTHING be done through VAINGLORY.

Well, there goes the selfie culture.  What good has vanity ever accomplished?   It is an embarrassment to the vain and distasteful to witnesses.  If God forbids actions motivated by vanity, or attention-seeking, then check yourself.  You DO NOT have permission to do it.  The verse explicitly states, “Nothing”.

Then finally, we reach the crux of the message. 

The verse continues, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other BETTER than themselves. The scripture effectively gives us “Don’t do”, “Don’t do”, and “Do do” directives.

The purpose of not acting out of strife and not acting out in vain glory is to perfect a lowly state of mind.  To be rid of pride.  But how?  By constantly esteeming others better than yourself.  The technique works in reverse as well.  If you are struggling with how to change your esteem for another person, start by exercising the don’t do’s.  God will aid your change of perspective as you work on restraining your actions. 

Sometimes the “Do” step is so challenging that you must first figure out why other people seem to be at the center of all your difficulties.  In his book, “The Sense of the Presence of God”, John Baille expresses, “I may do my best to ignore the claim my neighbor makes on me, as I fear I often do. I may act toward him as if he were merely a part of the world in which I dispose and not another disposer of it; merely within the circle of my own dominion and not another centre of it.  I may treat him not as a person but as a thing, or, as Kant would way, not an end in himself but as a means to my own ends.”

This quote caught my attention from both the perspective of the speaker and the perspective of the neighbor.  From the perspective of the speaker:  When am I treating others as the means to my own ends?  Since my neighbor is equal in the eyes of God, equally bought with the blood of Jesus, is he of equal merit as myself in my own eyes?  If he is not, then I must confess this sin and rethink my perspective of him.  I must allow God to change my heart and mind. I must welcome opportunities to exercise actions contrary to my previously erred behavior.

From the perspective of the neighbor:  Is my neighbor (or co-worker, or classmate) treating me as the means to her own ends?  Does he trample me as if I am disposable in his universe?  If he isn’t a believer in Christ, then he doesn’t have the Holy Spirit working in him to show him any other way.  He is merely serving his defensive instincts.  At least I can understand why strife keeps flaring up between us.  I also acknowledge my obligation to treat him as better than myself, according to the guidance of Philippians 2:3, which proceeds toward the greater responsibility of advocacy in verse four.

Philippians 2:4 says, Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. 

I am not only obliged to be a good steward of the resources God has entrusted to me, but I am also obliged to be invested in my neighbor’s best interests as well, regardless of his or her treatment of me. 

John Baille’s insight helps make this responsibility a little more palatable.  He states, “My concern must not be merely for his [my neighbor’s] desires, but for what is right in his desires; not merely for his desires but for his good; not merely for what is desired by him but for what, because it is good in itself, is good for him . . . they [others] embody for me, in my encounter with them, something greater than themselves, an intrinsic right and a universal good.”

This quote casts interpersonal relations into a larger field of view.  It presents why treating others better than yourself is worth your personal investment.  We should feel empowered to celebrate anyone’s happiness, achievements, prosperity, stability, merits, strengths, and talents because all these are good and right in themselves!  I don’t have to be a person’s biggest fan to support the things they are doing right in their lives.
My neighbor has an intrinsic right to be here.  God has a purpose for his life and desires an ultimate good for him; therefore, so should I.   Because God loves and values him, I am presented the opportunity to manifest God’s love and prove this value to him.  The result of Philippians 2:3-4 is really all about my neighbor’s experience with me.  My aspiration is to become lowly of mind.  If my day can be spent valuing the interests of others while performing all my responsibilities to the glory of God, then I have succeeded. 
Many years ago I struggled with hard feelings toward a co-worker.  I privately relished the opportunity for her reliance on my work to become known to management.  I spoke to God about this nasty attitude brewing within me.  He whispered, “She doesn’t have to fall for you to rise.”  The climate felt as if it was either her or me, but it wasn’t.  So, I began to pray for her best and the good she could acquire from the situation we shared. God answered my prayer; she was spared a public reveal and I was compensated for my contributions.

Malcom S. Forbes said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”

While I agree with Mr. Forbes, personally I find taking second place among my family and close friends harder because of our history, my expectations, wants, and needs.  I don’t expect, want, or need anything from a stranger, so it is easy for me to be generous with my gestures and kindnesses. But those I interact with on a daily basis have access to stock or deplete my emotional reservoirs; therefore, the stakes are higher.  Voluntarily relinquishing the refill on my emotional reservoir is a tall order for me.  I have a lot of room to grow here.

Once while playing the mediator in someone else’s conflict, the following words burst out of my mouth, “Humble people don’t get offended.  YOU are the problem!”  This statement applied to every person involved.  The message rang true in the ears of all hearers and brought the argument to an end. 

“Humble people don’t get offended” has returned to my mind on several occasions since then when I have been offended.  I have to admit, I wasn’t being humble in those instances.  When we truly embody a humble spirit, offenses cease to be offenses, but are instead opportunities to treat others better than ourselves.   

Universal good is being accomplished every day and all of our classmates, co-workers, customers, even the strangers we come in contact with are involved in it.  We have the opportunity to aid this world in looking and acting more like God intended it to be.  This begins with me doing nothing motivated by strife, doing nothing motivated by vainglory, esteeming others better than myself, and advocating for the best interests of others.  Philippians 2:3-4 covers all circumstances and all relationships.  I guess that’s why it takes a lifetime to be made permanent.

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