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“The Depth of Other-Centeredness”

Philippians 2:3-11
Bob DeGray
July 15, 2018

Key Sentence

Humility is a lived out by deep other-centeredness.


Principle: Others More Significant (Philippians 2:3-4)
Example: The Sacrificial Servant (Philippians 2:5-8)
Epilogue: Exalted (Philippians 2:9-11)


God sometimes builds a parable into nature. The ‘Selfless Salmon,’ as I showed at children’s corner, is a great example. The salmon, of course, is not making a moral choice when he or she heads back up the stream and give his or her all to ensure the birth of the next generation of salmon. But it is still a remarkable parable of selflessness as these salmon pour out their strength and give their lives for others. They make the long journey only to die at the end.

We could think of many other examples of selflessness, but the one we prayed about last week that came to a successful conclusion this week is a perfect example of choices that were made in the interest of others with no thought of self. Praise God that these selfless choices were granted success and the twelve Thai boys and their coach were freed from the cave and from their watery trap.

There were over a thousand people involved in the rescue, but the forward edge was an elite team of experienced cave divers, supported by the Thai equivalent of our Navy seals. Two British divers, in fact, were those who found the trapped children and were the lead divers on the ultimate rescue. The Washington Post had an article on the two divers: “We all have hobbies we enjoy. Rick Stanton’s just happens to be scuba diving into cold, lightless, claustrophobic, dangerous caves. Stanton, 56, and his diving partner, John Volanthen, 47, have been identified as the divers who first discovered the 12 children and their soccer coach trapped in a cavern in northern Thailand. In the dramatic video footage of the moment when the divers reach the group, nine days after they disappeared, a diver with a British accent is heard talking to the group. “How many of you? Thirteen? Brilliant,” “What day is it, he is asked.” “Monday, Monday. You have been here 10 days. You are very strong.”

Those who know Stanton and Volanthen were not surprised. “I said from the outset, if anybody is going to find these kids, it will be these two divers, who are arguably the best in the world,” said Andy Eavis, a spokesman for the British Caving Association. In 2010 the same two divers led a rescue attempt in southern France to find French diver Eric Establie. Unfortunately, they found his drowned body at the end of an eight-day rescue mission. They received the Royal Humane Society award at Buckingham Palace for their efforts. Bill Whitehouse, vice chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council, who has been in contact with them since they discovered the Thai soccer team said they described the three-hour round-trip dive to the chamber “a bit gnarly.” “They are really the sort of A-Team, if you like,” he told the BBC. “They have the skills and expertise to do it.”

Stanton, a firefighter, also led a rescue mission in 2004 in Mexico, where he helped save six British soldiers trapped for six days. He told Divernet magazine that his cave diving rescue work, for which he received a British knighthood, was a “hobby” and entirely a “voluntary service.” When he and Volanthen arrived at the Thailand cave site they refused to talk to the media, saying they were there “to help folks who are trying to do a job.” That’s selflessness, folks.

And it stands in stark contrast to the self-interet of our culture. It’s no accident that a recent era was called ‘the me generation’ and that one of the most popular T-shirts on Zazzle has long been the ‘It’s all about me,” design. In my opinion the centrality of the selfie on social media is an icon of self-centeredness.

For decades the ideas of self-esteem, self-worth have been at the heart of counseling and childhood education. Gail and I saw the Mr. Rogers movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” and it was good. But the one accusation made against Mr. Rogers was that seemed to have a little merit was that by his insistence that “you are special . . . I like you just the way you are . . . There’s only one like you in this wonderful world / You... are... special.” People says that Fred Rogers pushed a generation of kids toward even more self-focus. But he offset that with an almost hypnotic focus on the needs of others, especially children. He said “mutually caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other's achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain.”

On balance I think Rogers was pushing back against the tide of a culture that looks out for #1, that marries “as long as we both shall love,” that idolizes the rich, the famous, the radically self-centered. It’s a culture in which meekness is seen as weakness and in which self-sacrifice is often regarded as foolishness.

Just this week I read of a church group that had gone to Haiti to help there, and when the city of Port-au-Prince erupted into violence over fuel prices they were stranded. The airlines wouldn’t fly into Haiti without an assured fuel supply. So this group, mostly from one church in Michigan, could not get out, though they said they were kept safe and cared for. The article ended with a reference to the prayers that were being said for the group and the situation. What struck me was the very first comment on the article, which shows the depth of the self-centeredness of our culture. It said “Yeah i am sure praying is going to fix this situation. Never understood why churches think sending youths to these hostile environments is a good idea. Let Jesus speak to them himself if he wishes. To me, your [sic] asking to be injured raped or tortured. Don’t think praying will ever bring peace .....ever.” To that writer it’s unthinkable that anyone would put themselves in any risk for the sake of others.

But that church group, which sounded, by the way, like they’d done great preparation for just such an emergency, is one of the the lights our culture needs to see in the gloom of extreme selfishness. What do we call this light? Today’s text calls it “looking out for the interests of others,” which we could shorthand as other-centeredness or humility. The text is Philippians 2:3-11, a very familiar Scripture that makes the link between other-centeredness and humility clear. It shows that humility is lived out by deep other-centeredness.

Let’s read the text. I’m using the 1984 New International Version, because that’s what I memorized this text in, and I think it says things well. Philippians 2:3-11 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross! 9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Verses 3 and 4 are agonizingly clear. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.” Selfish ambition isn’t just wanting to be the next Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. It’s any desire that puts personal gain and satisfaction at the forefront of my thinking and behavior. It’s the desire for the last piece of pizza. It’s the desire for the most likes on Instagram. It’s the attitude that make my weariness or my illness or my financial stress or my difficult family more important, more central, more to be sympathized with and helped than anyone else’s.

Vain conceit is not just the longing for my selfie to be called beautiful. It’s a focus on my background, my experience, my inherent intellect or accomplishments or ability or appearance. It’s the conviction that because of these things I am to be held in higher esteem, more respected, deferred to, or even served above others. The classic statement of vain conceit is the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable: “God, I thank you I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”

But the real killer in this verse is the second word. Do nothing out of these motivations. Don’t do even a single thing that is self promoting or self serving. Not a single thing. Not even a little thing. Nothing. I looked up the Greek, to see if it was really that radical. It is. It means do nothing of this kind.

It’s these kind of commands, both in the Old Testament and the New, that make us know we need a savior. Who can do nothing selfish, nothing self-centered? Nobody. All have sinned and fall short of even this one simple command. This is why Paul devotes the whole beginning of chapter 3 to saying “I can’t achieve a righteousness of my own based on obeying the law. I can only have righteousness that comes from God and is by faith in Christ.”

So no. Before salvation you could not do anything without at least a little selfishness and conceit. Even this side of salvation you need a command and an example to remind you what life is supposed to look like. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” So there’s that word, ‘humility.’ It literally means “lowliness of mind,” or more broadly, placing yourself below something. In Greek culture, which valued absolute freedom, it was a despised quality. It often is today. But in Hebrew culture which valued dependence on God and in Christian culture which sees that dependence as absolute, this placing yourself below is a virtue.

So place yourself below and consider others better than yourselves. Wait a second. What happened to self-esteem? I’m supposed to think everyone else is better than me? That doesn’t sound very healthy. Okay, this is a place where the underlying Greek doesn’t come across anything like the English translation. The literal translation of the Greek words is “esteem one another above yourselves.” So a paraphrase might be “make yourself low so that you can hold up others higher than yourself.” This is humility, being more concerned with the welfare of others than you are with your own welfare.

Paul goes on to explain it with crystal clarity in verse 4: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Notice that Paul does not entirely dismiss looking out for your own interests. We’ve all known people or known of people who’ve invested so much in helping others or caring for even one other person that they have neglected their own care. They ignore health issues, or eat badly, or don’t get any sleep. I would confess that for myself, but I’m not sure my motivation for those neglects is truly selfless. But we do need to be aware of that. Paul is not saying “totally neglect your own interests.” He’s saying, don’t put them above the interests of others. Focus on others. Humility is lived out by deep other-centeredness.

Humility is not extreme self-neglect. It is also not self abasement, cutting yourself down, thinking less than realistically about yourself, loudly and publicly or quietly and internally proclaiming your worthlessness. Charles Dickens knew this when he invented the character of Uriah Heep, a greasy, hand-wringing ‘umble sort of person who was in fact a villain under that ‘umble guise.

Many others have been wise enough to know this false humility for the shame it is. C. S. Lewis, as usual, said it better than most. Two quotes. The first is from Screwtape Letters, so this is a demon writing to a junior tempter about the patient he’s supposed to be tempting. “You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self- forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion, namely, a low opinion, of his own talents and character.” Notice the powerful word self-forgetfulness in the quote. Humility is not having a low opinion of yourself, but self-forgetfulness. Screwtape goes on to say, “The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more, or less, or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another.”

But there is more to humility than that. Humility is other-centeredness. It is waking up in the morning and walking through the day and going to bed at night in pre-occupation with the needs of others, in overflow of prayer for others and in fullness of joy to love and care of others. Lewis knew this too. In Mere Christianity he says “To even get near [a humble person], even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert. Do not imagine if you meet such a man he will be what most people call “humble.” He will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

That’s good enough to be on a gravestone. I mean, I want my gravestone to say “redeemed,” but I’ve known some people who were truly humble, of whom it could be said “a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.” Other-centeredness may be way more than that, but it is not less than that: taking an interest in what others say, who they are, where they are in life and how they are coping. By that saying Lewis also reinforces the incredible power of listening. Other-centeredness listens more than it speaks.

But that’s not all other-centeredness does, and as we come to Paul’s great example, we find that other-centeredness sacrifices. The great example is Jesus, verses 5-8 again. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!”

Jesus is explicitly our example. He humbled himself. He made himself low in order to serve the interests, the deepest needs of others, including us, everyone in this room. But his lowering of himself was far more profound than anything we can attempt. Verse 6, he was “in very nature God.” In other words, he was God. His very nature was God. Now in the mystery of the Trinity he was God but he was not, at least in some sense, all of God. He was one person of the Godhead, the Son, but equal with the Father and the Spirit in glory, in holiness, in perfection, in honor, in love, in wisdom and in power and in every attribute.

But, verse 6, “he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,” or much better, “something to be held on to.” In particular, though he did not give up his perfection or holiness or love or wisdom or power, he gave up his glory, he gave up the honor due his name and the majesty of his position and the radiance that had surrounded him from eternally past. Thus “he made himself nothing. Some translations say he emptied himself. All that glory, all that majesty, all that honor and praise became a smelly stable, a rough manger, no place to lay his head. It became criticism, hatred and loathing from the people he came to save. How much more majesty could he give up than to go from the glory of heaven to spitting in his face and mocking.

But there’s more. This humility was radically other-centered. He took the very nature of a servant. A servant implies someone is being served. Jesus himself said “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He did not just serve by healing, teaching, feeding, but he was the suffering servant of Isaiah. Having added human nature to his divine nature, he further humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. That is the depth of other-centeredness. This is self-sacrifice. This is being willing to give your life for the rescue of many.

In Philippians 3 Paul asserts that he couldn’t keep the law or be righteous on his own, but he had obtained righteousness by faith in Christ. What did Christ do to provide righteousness? He died on the cross, taking the penalty for our sins. He substituted himself, sacrificed himself so that his death would become life for us, his becoming sin would allow us to become righteous. Peter says “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross so that we might die to sins and live to righteousness.” Listen for the other-centeredness of Christ in the familiar words of Isaiah 53: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 5But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

You’re not supposed to get over that, folks. That’s what Jesus did for us. That’s the measure of the depth of other-centeredness. Now are we called to sacrifice ourselves? Not usually. What we are called to do is to give ourselves away for the sake of others. If that means cleaning up the kitchen for someone, sending someone a text, listening to someone over breakfast, sharing the good news with someone, sitting by someone’s bedside, enduring someone’s brokenness, taking care of someone’s kids, cleaning up someone’s house after a flood, all of this is other-centeredness. I know Tim will be embarrassed by this. Sorry. But for many of us this picture of Tim Early, taken by Jonathan Kittle, epitomizes other-centeredness. Tim is at Frank Kittle’s house, going though magazines and books that had been rescued from the flood, spending hours trying to save what could be saved. Notice what the T-shirt says. This is love. This is humility. This is other-centeredness.

And sometimes it does involve putting your life on the line for others. Every one of the divers who went into the Tham Luang cave put his life on the line. Sanam Kunan paid that price. The former Thai Navy Seal died on Friday, July 6th, when he ran out of oxygen on his way back to the surface after placing air tanks along the two-mile route to the boys. He became unconscious while making the return journey from “chamber three”, about a mile inside the cave. A diving buddy tried to revive him but was unsuccessful.

“His job was to deliver oxygen. He did not have enough on his way back,” the Chiang Rai deputy governor said. Kunan, who had volunteered for the rescue and was reportedly 38, was a keen runner and triathlete. A video has emerged of him waiting to board a plane. “I am at Suvarnabhumi airport waiting to board the plane to join the mission in Chiang Rai. I’m accompanied by doctors from the navy and divers from SeaWorld that also donated lots of diving equipment. See you this evening. We will bring the kids home.”

The Thai armed forces website offered condolences to Kunan’s family and wrote: “Cave diving is one of the most difficult jobs in the world.” The Thai navy Seals paid tribute to Kunan, saying he “was a skilled and talented Seal and a triathlon athlete. He loved adventurous sport. Even after he departed the Seal unit, he still kept in touch and maintained a tie with the rest of his former colleagues. He always participated in the Seal activities until the last step of his life. Saman left us while working as a diver and in a time where all divers [are] joining forces to complete the mission. His effort and determination will always remain in the hearts of all divers. May you rest in peace and we will accomplish this mission as you had wished.” And they did. That’s other-centeredness.

But it is no more so, no more needed than the humility of asking good questions, no more noble than the giving up of your time or your money to help someone in poverty, or someone orphaned, no more important than silently serving in your own kitchen or in the flooded house of a Dickinson homeowner. Early in this series we heard Jesus say “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” There are many ways of laying down your life. All of them are humility. All of them are the depths of other centeredness.

And there is a reward. God does not just ask this of us, or even of his Son. God honors this selfless love. James tells his readers “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” Jesus says “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” By God.

And this teaching was also a prophecy, for Christ humbled himself to the depths of other-centeredness and was exalted. Verses 9 to 11: Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.