Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. (Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 2, verse 3)
My two granddaughters wanted to play a game with me. But each wanted to play it a certain way and neither one would give up her way of doing it to enjoy our time together. We certainly did not have the fun we could have had. The members of a church in our community were at each other’s throats over an issue of church government. The acrimony, name calling and destructiveness to the relationships was devastating. Neither side wanted to give in on their way of doing things for the sake of the gospel. This once vibrant, explosively outreaching church is now a shell of what it once was.
Paul had much experience with church congregations at war with each other. He saw the two most devastating factors against unity.
Selfish ambition – At the heart of every human being is a will to survive, now motivated by a self-centered, self-exalting craving to protect ourselves without the risky business of trusting in God’s protection. We have become experts at manufacturing ways to take care of ourselves. Some use humor, some strive to keep an image of perfection, some use force of will to control the way others respond to them, some seek to control by pleasing everyone. In a body like the church our lack of trust in one another moves us to try to make sure that our agenda for the congregation is followed so that we will remain in personal comfort psychologically.
My granddaughters each had a personal agenda, a selfish ambition when it came to playing with me. To give it up would have left them feeling out of control and, in their minds, unfulfilled. Each side in that controversy over church government was concerned about who would be in control and whether their agendas for staying that way would remain in place. Paul said we can do nothing out of selfish ambition. It is the antithesis to unity. It is not concerned first about the church and its mission, but about me and my needs. It is not submissive to the will of God, but only to my own will and the will of those who agree with me.
Vain conceit – Selfish ambition would not be so bad if I didn’t also believe that my agenda was obviously the most important of all the agendas in my congregation. My conceit knows no bounds. If I believe it, it must be right. If I believe the course I have set is crucial to our welfare, none dare contradict me. One faction in Philippi believed that sending an offering to Paul was essential to the welfare of the gospel. They couldn’t believe the other side would resist out of self-protection. Sure, finances were extremely tight (2 Corinthians 8:1,2) and the economy of the community was on the verge of collapse. But couldn’t they see how right it was to support Paul in his time of need?
Such conceit is vain. It is empty and ultimately valueless. It will not really accomplish what the owner is hoping for because there will be another threat right around the corner against which a selfish agenda must be constructed and defended to the death. It always results in the death of the fellowship, communion, unity and joy of the congregation. It does not result in the advance or progress of the gospel, either in the bringing of new people to Christ or in bringing those people and ourselves closer to Christ.
When Jesus told us to take up our cross daily and follow him (Luke 9:23) he knew how much we would want to save our own lives with our selfish agendas fueled by empty conceitedness. And he knew how much we would need to die to our agendas every day for the sake of the gospel. Jesus was ruled by one agenda only, the Father’s agenda. He knew he could trust the Father’s plan and purposes even when it meant he had to go to the cross. No congregation can thrive as a beacon of light in this dark world if it does not curb selfish ambitions. No personal agendas can be allowed to control or the gospel will be obscured and the world will never be confronted with the radical love of Jesus Christ that transforms them.
What agendas are you holding onto?