I was reading Philippians 2 today, and I came to the verse I have underlined and scolded myself with many, many times: “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 others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
Every time I read this verse, I get this terrible sinking feeling that I have not done enough. I experience guilt as I reflect on all the ways I looked out for myself last week, yesterday, and today, instead of other people. I feel every time that I’m coming up short in my forgetfulness to mind others more than myself.
So, I got to puzzling on why this verse above all others feels so stinking difficult to follow. No sin is worse than the next one, but why does selfishness seem rooted into my life in a way that sometimes feels impossible to untangle myself from? Well, it could be that pride and selfishness are the root from which all other sins stem. But then why is that?
First off, we already know the Bible is chock-full of contrast. Most of the New Testament calls us to deny our sinful nature, and instead make a very conscious choice to do something contrasting instead. These teachings warn us to be wary of lust, gluttony, deceit, jealousy, impatience, etc., and call us instead to walk in the light of love, temperance, truthfulness, compassion, and grace.
Like the many other teachings in the New Testament, this verse in Philippians 2 is also calling us to deny our sinful nature – in this case, selfishness. It sounds simple… in theory. But in order to obtain a more concrete view of our sinful disposition, I thought it might be interesting to apply some science to this situation as well. I want to look at how, since the fall of man, selfishness has been grown into our biology via our natural survival instincts. Selfishness is not only cultivated under the powerful influence of a sinful soul, but also the powerful influence of a reflexive, defensive body.
Survival instincts are rooted in our biology. Without us even having to think about it, human instincts have naturally evolved over time, to ensure we live as long and well as possible. These instincts don’t stem from moral standards, nor are they learned by social encounters. They are animal, primal, born into us. They just ensure that number one is always looked out for. And to our instincts, “number one” is each of us – each one of us is in the spotlight of our own shows, the stars of our own movies, and the protagonists of the books that are each of our lives.
If you think about survival instincts in animals after the fall of man, it looks like being the fastest, the biggest, the stealthiest, or the smartest. The animals that get to the food first survive. The animals that outrun the predator survive. The animal who can exert the most dominance wins. These are the simple, logical plays that govern animals’ survival, post-fall.
If humans in the modern world were to suddenly disregard any socialization and live solely via survival instincts, it would probably look like: ravaging grocery stores without paying, getting in fist fights when we feel challenged, shoving to be first in line, refusing to share food with others, running right by the wounded on the street without stopping to help, kicking people out if they stumble upon our shelter, and taking the best of all existing supplies for ourselves.
Our inherent moral compass and learned social boundaries obviously keep humanity in check and prevent a purge from happening. But this goes to show that our survival instincts, at their root, are very selfish – simply because our biology is trying to keep us safe in a fallen world of death and destruction. This verse in Philippians is calling us to do something really hard, which is deny our primal, instinctual nature, and serve others before ourselves.
Putting others before ourselves throws our instincts for a loop for a moment. To our instincts, it looks like a warning sign, a red flag. Putting others first might mean letting something valuable of ours go: our time, our money, our thoughts, our feelings. And though it may come as a shock to our natural instincts, that is kind of the whole point. We are continually called in the Bible to act contrary to our human nature, to daily deny and renew ourselves, replacing the old self with the new (Ephesians 4:23-24; Romans 12:2).
But God doesn’t stop there with His commands, bidding us luck in this constant inner battle. The Bible provides a poetic remedy that flows beautifully through the veins of a fallen people. To follow this teaching takes willpower and strength. A willpower and strength that we alone do not automatically have. This inner battle is fought through a second set of instincts that are instilled in the followers of Christ.
That second set of instincts is the Holy Spirit. We are not equipped on our own to deny our selfish, sinful nature. It is too unnatural. It is out of our power. We will fail time and time again. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to put on the armor of God, so that we can stand our ground against the darkness not only in this world, but in ourselves (Ephesians 6:10-17).
The Example of Christ
But God doesn’t even stop there with His help. He also gives us hope for our success in the example of Jesus in a paralleled situation. Philippians 2:6-8 contrasts deity with humanity, explaining: “[Christ Jesus]: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in His appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death – death even on a cross!”
So, in the same way we are faced with opposition between our selfish survival instincts and our knowledge of what is good, so Jesus was faced with opposition between His natural deity and being contained in a human form. This creates not only a really cool parallel between Jesus’s and our inner battles, but also calls us to pursue our spiritual calling over our selfish instincts to honor the sacrifice Jesus made for us when He came in human form.
Philippians 2:9 provides even more contrast, saying: “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place, and gave Him a name that is above every other name.” So, God sent His son to Earth as no more than a crying baby, to grow up a dirty, unattractive carpenter, be ridiculed, and sacrificed in a most humiliating and painful death scene, all before exalting Him to the highest place in Heaven. That’s a huge change! And God promises an eternal Heavenly reward for His children too. If they too devote their lives to denying themselves and serving Him (1 Peter 1:3-5).
Contrast in the Bible
Contrast is the name of the game in the Bible. It is the stuff of salvation, God’s miracles, and Christian living today: the lion and the lamb, the light and the dark, the first that shall be last, the meek that shall inherit, the persecuted who are free, the poor who are rich, the lowly that shall be exalted, the list goes on and on. From Jesus’ parables, to the Proverbs, to the essence of God Himself, the seemingly contradictory is what makes the Gospel so beautiful and so possible. Of course, it makes sense then, that we should be stuck in a paradox of always having to deny one thing in ourselves, while intentionally choosing another.
Living in the Light
I think the more light you shed on your demons, the more they will shirk away. Putting my vague feelings of spiritual failure into concrete, scientific terms feels like watching a photo develop in a dark room. I am slowly watching the truth uncover, and it becomes clearer and clearer every time I dig into relationship of the human condition to the Gospel.
God knows how life is supposed to work, and why things work the way they do. He created it after all. I think He has left little hints and clues all over this world for us to discover. These clues come in the form of science, sociology, history, literature, nature, and more, to resonate with all the different kinds of people He created: doctors, teachers, artists, biologists, psychologists, archeologists, etc. It is up to all of us to be on a ready watch for them.
Uncovering these clues helps me establish facts, that I can look in the face and manage easier than I could when they remained a mystery. For example: accepting how fallen, how imperfect, and how naturally inclined to sin I am – Instead of getting butthurt about a personal affliction, I can feel empowered knowing that I am living in a fallen body in a fallen world, and I am not the only person who has this struggle. This gives me the motivation to tackle the things I struggle with. It makes me want to give my sin a black eye.
I am acknowledging how difficult it is to live in the light, but proclaiming that I want to do it anyways, even when I fail every other minute. I know my light seeking is completely imperfect; laughably so. Living contrary to my sinful and selfish nature goes against every fiber of my natural being. But Jesus is perfect, so I don’t have to be. That keeps me striving towards the goodness that my instincts do not naturally heed.
I can’t help but incorporate sehnsucht into this, as I picture what one day my Heavenly heart will be like: unaffected by sin and greed, unfought for by the master of darkness, and able to live perfectly and wholly in the way God intended me to be, a worshipful picture of His perfect craftmanship. Until then, I will keep trying, failing, and trying again in the name of the safeguarded salvation I have in Christ, and my calling to provide contrast in a world of darkness.