A More Excellent Way

Philippians (6)


As we consider the state of our Christian lives, some of the things we have to deal with are the knotted topics of desire, envy, competition, and ambition. Considering the next two verses in Philippians, we should pay some attention to competition, something dear to the heart of most Americans. But because of this affinity we must guard our step. You have heard many times that we must learn to repent of our virtues, and here is a good place to start.

The Text

“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).

Summary of the Text

This passage is taken from the chapter in which the perfect humility of Christ was exalted to the highest place. This is not presented to us as a striking anomaly, but rather as being central to what we as Christians are called to imitate. So how many things are we allowed to do because of our striving (v. 3)? Nothing. How about vainglory (v. 3)? Nothing again. What should our mindset be toward others? The apostle Paul replies we should consider them “better than,” that is, more important than we do ourselves. This is to be our central disposition. This is to be characteristic of the groove in which our mind runs. Paul then says that we are not to look on our own things (v. 4), but also on the things of others (v. 4). This word in the second half of the phrase helps us to understand what is meant in the first half. This is a comparative statement, not an absolute statement. It is similar to the place when Paul tells each of us to carry our own burden (Gal. 6:5), to carry his own weight. This is fully consistent with his exhortation for us to carry one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). Only the mind of Christ can sort this out.

Devil Take the Hindmost?

There is a laissez-faire approach to competition that is very important for the civil magistrate to remember when it comes to the question of him restricting, regulating, organizing, or otherwise getting in the way of or botching economic activity. But, as you have been reminded many times, there is a difference between sins and crimes. And just because something ought not to be criminal, with penalties attached, does not mean that it is spiritually healthy and automatically non-sinful. Lust ought not to be against the law, but that doesn’t make it okay. The civil magistrate is not competent to outlaw greed either, and all messianic attempts to do so have been disastrous. However . . . greed is still a serious sin.

There are Christians who see this, and who conclude from it that a “let ‘er rip” attitude should be allowed everywhere. But the civil magistrate is not prohibited from addressing greed because it is an invisible sin. It is not invisible, and other governments that God established are required to deal with it. A family can see and identify what their problem is. “He that is greedy of gain troubleth his own house; but he that hateth gifts shall live” (Prov. 15:27). And the church is required to exclude from ecclesiastical office men who are greedy. “Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous” (1 Tim. 3:3; cf. 3:8). And the civil government must not give way to this sin itself (Ex. 18:21). The Bible requires us not to elect officials unless they hate covetousness. We have taken this to mean that we shouldn’t vote for them unless they are steeped in it. Our political parties taken together constitute a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Money.

So the fact that even a good civil government is not competent to outlaw greed does not mean that no entity is competent to deal with it. The family and church must deal with it, and civil government must resist temptations to this vice itself. At the same time, all these governments—family, church, and state—need to stay in their assigned lane. The striving and vainglory that Paul prohibits here should be addressed, mortified, and disciplined in the appropriate places. The first would be in the realm of self-government, then in the family as you are teaching your children, and then in the church as we don’t put up with ecclesiastical showboating, and then in the state as we remember the distinction between sins and crimes.  

Better How?

In our text, the word “better” is a rendering of hyperecho. What does lowliness of mind require of us in this? Remember we are trying to “build” the mind of Christ, which cannot be done out of two-by-fours. We tend to read the English here as requiring us to believe that the other person is better at doing whatever it is we might be comparing, which is obviously crazy. Having run into this superficial roadblock, we dismiss the entire problem from our minds because we assume it is “not realistic.” But this is dangerous.

The word hyperecho can also be rendered as “to be above, to stand out.” That does not make the other person automatically right, or superior in his abilities. If someone is teaching piano lessons, a humble teacher does not need to pretend that the student is a better piano player than she is. That would be absurd. But humility still requires something of her.

Remember that the one we are imitating in this is the Lord Jesus—when He became a man, He did so because He believed we were “better” (in this sense) than He was. This obviously has to means the sense of “more important, more valued.” Jesus did not die for us because we were better than He was in some moral sense, or with regard to our abilities. He died for us because He loved us more than He loved His own life. So the issue is humility and love, and nothing in this requires us to embrace absurdities.

Bearing Burdens

Now our task is to learn how to bear our own burden (providing for our own family, meeting our own responsibilities) at the same time we are careful to bear one another’s burdens (holding to a true fellowship of goods). The early Christians kept their own property (Acts 5:4) and they held all things in common (Acts 4:32-33). Here are a few basic principles as we pursue the mind of Christ, as we long for “great grace to be upon us all.”

Make sure you deal first with desire and envy, which run down the middle of every human heart. Deal with all the big problems there first. And don’t think that thirty seconds reflection or mere intellectual assent is going to do the trick. Mortify envy. Learn to hate it like nothing else.

Secondly, learn how justice fits into grace. Don’t go the other way, trying to fit grace into justice. Grace corrodes when stored in justice. Justices thrives and grows strong in the context of grace. It is better to be taken to the cleaners because you loaned money, expecting nothing back (Luke 6:35) than to have an evil eye, tight fist, and wary heart (Mk. 7:22).

Third, work hard and intelligently, expecting your work to not only provide for your family, but also to be a blessing to any brother who is “competing” for the same customers you are. That’s impossible, you say. Tell it to God, who traffics in impossibilities. Zero-sum thinking is the logic of unbelief—where more for you means less for me. That is not the world in which the kingdom grows.

Living in a Cut-Throat World

Keeping ourselves free from strife and vainglory seems like an overwhelming task sometimes. What are to do about the outside world, which does not appear to be functioning with this calculus at all? What grasping and ravenous entities are out there? Besides Microsoft, the U.S. Government, assorted televangelists, the Republicrats, the United Nations, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and more? What should we do about all that? First, we must not envy them (Prov. 3:29-32; 23:17-18). Second, we must not imitate them or their ways (Matt. 20:25-26). And third, we should live in our communities such that we demonstrate for them a more excellent way (1 Cor. 12:31). As we do this, we are encouraging one another in that same “more excellent way.” That way is the mind of Christ.

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