Treating Others as Better than Yourself
The Bible calls us to “consider others as better than [our]selves” (Phil 2:3). How can this be if we are supposed to begin our stewardship of all God has given us at the most basic level, ourselves? The answer lies in the sense in which God speaks these words. To put others before ourselves can only be done in a certain way. This is a huge hang up for most people, because they think it means something that it doesn’t. But if it meant what part of us thinks it means, life would be very short: You wake up one morning determined to put others first. You feel hungry and start to get out your cereal bowl, but just as you are taking down the cereal, you worry that your neighbor hasn’t eaten. Is it common for them to miss a meal? No, but what does that matter? He has not yet eaten, so you must offer your cereal to him. Plus, you have more cereal.
But wait, what about the other neighbor? Pretty soon there is no more food in the house. No matter, you have money, so you head off to the grocery store, but you get a little sick feeling when you walk in because there are other people there. You will need to pay for all their groceries before you pay for your own. Why? Because they are all to come before you. As soon as you find someone who is not in need of your food, you can eat. But that is just it, with seven billion people in the world, you don’t have a chance.
You might be thinking this sounds crazy and you would never do that. I believe you, but you still think you are supposed to…deep down…although you don’t, because at least part of you knows that is ludicrous. These two parts are in contradiction. You’ll never truly live it out, but you’ll always feel somewhat guilty. This will always hold you back from enjoying what you have or truly giving out of your abundance.
Let’s consider honor. If everyone is greater than you, and should go before you, and should be considered to be a better person, then you might as well find a dirty floor somewhere where people are walking by all day and just bow down, face in the dirt, and live there. But in fact, this would be dishonest. Everyone is not greater than you. Some people are greater than you by certain standards. They might be more loving, honest, industrious, courageous, free in Christ. They are ahead of you. They are your equals in intrinsic value because you are both created in the image of God.
Nevertheless, Jesus does say to put others first and to take the lowest place. He did wash the feet of the disciples, though he considered himself their Lord (Jn 13). He did say that whoever would be great among you must be your servant (Mk 10:43). So why did he say that if it is impossible? Because it is only impossible in a certain sense.
In a completely different sense, on a completely different plane, it is not only possible, but required.
We are not to rank ourselves in order of value. So we are not to take personal power over another. We are not to use others. We are not to violate the rights of others: taking their property, looking down on them, treating them as though they are not our equals, keeping from them equal opportunities, judging them by anything but the content of their character. We are to be just.
And when it comes to ourselves, we are to take our identity from the only place we are truly allowed to, from God and our very being. We have an identity as image-bearers, little “i ams,” and we have identity from Aristotle’s law of identity that says, a thing is a thing. Existence is a pretty profound truth, and as such, makes us matter. Since we matter, we don’t need anyone else to make us matter. We don’t need to elevate ourselves in status with our wealth and stuff, comparing to others and climbing in a class or status system. Class is irrelevant. Status is irrelevant. Being better than anyone else is irrelevant. Only who we are in God and in being/existing is relevant. After that, it is proper to judge ourselves by the ways that God tells us to: character, love, courage, truthfulness, purity. Being and existing according to these qualities is not penance or a way to win with God; it is rather the nature of the abundant life that Jesus died to give us.
So when should I consider others above myself? When it would be justice to do so. For instance, you are in a room with your family. Everyone is reading and quiet. You decide to pull out your iPad and watch TV with no headphones. There was an unspoken agreement that everyone was being quiet. You have broken it. You need to have some terms with the others who are sharing the room, and treat each other fairly. This is right, or righteous. No one should be allowed to trample the rights of the others. It is not proper.
What about the others in the room? Should they say, “No, you are more important than us. Watch your show. We’ll deal with it.” If you were only one person saying that, it might be a Christlike thing to do. Except it could be a little dishonest if you are going to resent the iPad watcher. But as long as there are others there, they are the ones to stand up for. An agreement needs to be spoken out loud with some ground rules and boundaries. We’ll be quiet for an hour and then watch TV for an hour. Again, you can be magnanimous and give up your own claims, but it actually isn’t right to allow them to be rude, to enable them.
In a similar way, giving your cereal to your neighbor robs him of an important aspect of being, that is, productiveness and finding his own provision, which is something God actually expects us to do (2 Thes 3:10). So when we give to help or serve others, it should not be done in a way that enables them to be less than human. Then it becomes unloving. Once we know this, to continue to do it belies a false motive on our part. Is it manipulation? Do we love feeling needed? Do we not want to make them upset by cutting them off?
Or worse, do we hate ourselves and it alleviates some of our self-hatred?
There is something going on, and it needs to be discovered and rooted out. Human nature is such that for a great many people, even our own semi-adult children, if we allow them to be freeloaders or parasites by our own “generosity,” we harm them, and we are supposed to love them too much to harm them.
Responsible to Rather than for
Much more can be said about helping, giving ,and serving others, but there are many good books and blogs already about it. The only other thing I will say is that we are not to be responsible for other people. Not anyone, not even our own children (at least not in the sense I’m getting at). But we are supposed to be responsible to everyone. Everyone. In what way? We are responsible to others to be truth tellers, courageous, generous (without enabling), loving, kind, patient, but also discerning. We are to show the way to God by being a concretization of the abstraction that is the Christian life. We are to lead all the “horses” to water, but never attempt to force them to drink. The “water” is God in Christ, the truth, righteousness and the kingdom of God. We show it, and we tell it, but we don’t coerce or manipulate others to live it. That violates them and the command of Jesus to not lead like the Gentiles (Mk 10:42).
Furthermore, whatever we say we will do, we do. We understand that the meaning of life is stewardship for the glory of God. Being. Pursuing life for our own sake, for his sake. This is what it means to be responsible to everyone. It shows value to others and puts them above yourself in the proper sense. In this way there are no contradictions. We treat people with integrity and goodness. The outcome of this truthful living is the right outcome. God will get his way, and we with regenerated spirit will love it.