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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

The desire to make a name – Part 3: Servanthood

In yesterday’s post I drew out a first principle for dealing with our ambition: seek God’s glory, not your own. Abraham was our example as we contrasted him with the builders of the tower of Babel. The New Testament also warns about the relationship of selfish ambition to jealousy and its perils within the Church. Paul challenges us with the following words: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). These words come just before a passage I referred to in the first post in this series, where the apostle proceeds to describe, in the most beautiful language, Christ’s sacrificial humbling of Himself and taking on the form of a servant. Christ is our example in his abandonment of self for the sake of others. Although Paul doesn’t give us any juicy details, it seems clear from how he writes to the Philippians that they had a problem with relationships within the church. Actually, it’s not quite true that he gives no details – in chapter 4 (verses 2-3) he does mention by name two women who have fallen out with one another and pleads with his readers (or perhaps a specific individual in the church) to help them to be reconciled. The reason he cares enough to name them is that they used to work together for the gospel and their disagreement is harming the cause of the gospel, both because their energies are now misdirected and because their failure to get on is a denial of the gospel.

For Paul the answer to problems in the Church is always the gospel. That’s why in Philippians 2 he presents the cross as the ultimate antidote to selfish ambition. In fact, the answer didn’t even start with Jesus’ journey of humiliation – in the opening verses of Chapter 2 Paul sets our relationships in Christian fellowship in an eternal context by referring to the blessings we have received from the triune God: the encouragement we have from our union with Christ; the fellowship we have with the Spirit; the love we have experienced from God (I am suggesting that “his love” in verse 1 means the Father’s love – although Paul does not explicitly say so – the Greek says simply “love” – it first with his famous trinitarian formula in 2 Corinthians 13:14). The way the three-in-one love one another, the eternal self-giving fellowship from which the Son stepped forward in His incarnation, is the pattern for our relationships. Equals bound together in mutual love and inter-dependence.

The main insight from Philippians 2 is our second principle for dealing with ambition: serve others, not yourself . We must consciously decide to put the interests of others above our own. Christ is our pattern as we learn to do so. When we feel jealousy or envy, we must pray for grace to serve the other person in some meaningful way. Even if we are unsure of their sincerity, we can give them encouragement, praise them when speaking to others and pray for them to serve in humility. After all, as people of mixed motives ourselves, we should understand the struggles others face in their service for God. Whether we feel superior or inferior, we can choose to take a step down and serve. Do we really believe what Jesus said about the first being last and the last first? Are we really interested in being Christ-followers? If so, then we will take up our cross and die to self. Although the sinful nature will try to fight back, telling us that it isn’t fair and that we should instead seek to bring the other person down, we should be confident that God will sort our what is fair and right in the end. He will ultimately be our judge and theirs, for one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God (Philippians 2:10-11). I strongly suspect that we won’t care much on that day what glory we deserve or how we compare to others – we’ll simply be swept up in the praise of the ages, giving glory to the only truly worthy one. He is twice worthy – as creator (Revelation 4:11) and as redeemer (Revelation 5:12). In other words, He gave you everything you have (all the gifts, energy and opportunities) and He alone can save what you have from going to hell. So perhaps we had best start practicing that song now – as we flex the knee and let our tongues give praise, we’ll find our ambitions lost in a desire to honour Him and to serve our brothers and sisters.

In the final post in this series, tomorrow, I will suggest a third principle for dealing with selfish ambition.

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