A Christian Approach to Relating to Others Part 5, Treating Others as Better than Yourself

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.

A Christian Approach to Relating to Others Part 4, The Outcome of the Truth is the Right Outcome

The Outcome of the Truth is the Right Outcome

One main reason that people lie is that they are attempting to control outcomes.  But outcomes are never really in our control, and thinking they should be is a recipe for misery.  We don’t need to think about outcomes because God is already doing that. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Prov 17:1).  And who else but God even could do that?  Think about it. There are a million, billion, trillion things that God is doing at any given moment.  Your situation affects and is affected by countless other situations involving other people and other processes.  You could never unwind it, at least not 99.9% of it, and the .1% you can see is more than enough to keep you busy.  

So what do we have?  Process.  How we live will determine a lot.  If you want the best outcomes possible, though they are barely predictable, you must walk straight.  You must obey God and move in such a way that is pleasing to him.  Jesus told us exactly how to do that: seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Mt 6:33).  Follow God, and walk.  If you do this, you will love the outcome, thought you had not been able to predict it.  Walk according to principles, in this case, the principle that the outcome of the truth is the right outcome, and you will love what God does; you will be strong, and you will like yourself.  Don’t you want to see what God has in mind for you?  Don’t you want to see what he thinks is the best life for you?  Trust him. 

How does this relate to other people?  It relates because, remember, we are in the business of building trust.  As you relate to others it is important that you have integrity.  This means that you must not lie to anyone.  You must act right towards others.  It also means that you must not lie to yourself.  This should be fairly obvious by now.  But the next part might not be as obvious to you: you must not allow others to lie to you and get away with it.  Why?  Because you are committed to truth, and this will serve you well. 

Now we are getting into the realm of courage.  You must walk honestly, but you must also walk courageously.  It takes courage to tell the truth, especially when there will be pain involved.  If you aren’t willing to tell the truth, then it means you either do not trust God, or you have not worked trusting God into the place in your mind and heart that makes your decisions.  It takes constant vigilance and practice to do that.  Dont’ quit.  

But it also takes courage not to allow anyone to lie to you. The simple reason for this is that it will be uncomfortable. If you call them on their bull, they will not like it, and they might not like you.  If they are a worthy heart to get close to, then they will appreciate your honest and brave feedback.  If they are not, you don’t want them around anyway.  If you have up until now lived your life in such a way that you closely monitor people around you for signals about your own worth in their eyes, because you were taught to live that way: people-pleasing, then this will be difficult.  But pressing through and learning to do this will change you like almost nothing else.  

Look at what they said about Jesus:

Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances (Mt 22:16).

This is incredible. The literal translation of that last part is, “for you don’t look at faces.” If you tend toward people-pleasing, then you are an expert at reading faces. Jesus didn’t try. He just said what needed to be said in the most loving but direct way possible. Granted, it can be helpful to see how people are reacting, to read their faces for the sake of understanding their feelings, but searching for approval so that you can form your opinions (which will not be your opinions) is to shirk responsibility for being an image-bearer, because being an image-bearer requires you to have your own opinions, that is, your own judgement, or if you like, discernment.

Knowing this is not half the battle.  It is at best 5% of the battle.  95% percent is in the doing.  Most people know what is right, and yet almost no one changes.  People that live like this, truly righteous and just in their approach to other people, are extremely rare.  Instead they are scheming, lying, manipulating, coercing, evading, resenting, and in the end, hating.  It is a form of hate to treat people dishonestly for any reason.  It is the most loving thing you can do to act in relation to others with total integrity.  

Integrity is a great word.  It means “whole.”  Think of the math word integer, a whole number.  Anything else is fractured and fragmented.  If you are a fragmented person, you will not feel strong, and you will not like yourself much. You will have no good reason to have genuine self-esteem.  You will depend on the approval of others and your ability to hide the truth from yourself.  You can try, but you will fail, and God does not like it, especially after sending his Son to die so you can, among other things, be honest. Have hope; break off the bondage of untruthfulness. 

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Another way to see that value of human life is to realize God’s hatred for murder. From Genesis 4 we see that the taking of a life runs contrary to God’s ways and nature.  The law is crystal clear on the matter.  God reserves the taking of a human life for himself alone.  Even when the state or an army is authorized to do it, it is by the power vested by God to protect an individual entity from doing so.  And if God so values life, so should we.  

Thou Shalt Not Steal or Covet

When considering how to treat others, consider that God tells us in the Word that it would be wrong to take or covet another man or woman’s possessions.  Why? Because it belongs to them.  More accurately, it belongs to God who has given it to them for stewardship.  In that sense it belongs to them, and what belongs to others, we are not allowed to appropriate for ourselves. They have special value by nature of being possessed by one of these image-bearing creatures with intrinsic value and, as it turns out, inalienable rights.  It is not just to take something from someone just because you can.  

Incidentally, this is how we know it is OK to own private property. God’s command to protect it means that he sees it as under our authority.  God gives a lot of credence to what is under the authority of one his image-bearing creations.  Consider that the reason the whole world, including all the people in it, were cursed at the fall was because Adam rebelled, and Adam was in charge of everything.  So Adam went down, and now the “whole creation has been subjected to futility” (Ro 8:20).  “For as in Adam all die.”  The good news is that in the very same way, “in Christ, shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15).  All we have to do is put ourselves under Christ’s authority and he replaces Adam.  Everything owned by a person is considered under a person’s authority.  God protects it with his law so that it is not right to take or covet something that belongs to another.  

Tomorrow let’s look at what the Bible has to say about treating others better than ourselves and how that relates to what we have been saying about justice, dominance, and trading value for value.

A Christian Approach to Relating to Others Part 2, Justice and Value

Yesterday I wrote about horizontal versus vertical relationships and Jesus’ call not to “exercise authority” over others in part one of a multi-part post about how Christians should relate to other people.  Today I want to talk about the concept of “Justice,” a word that I’m sure we misunderstand quite a bit. 

Justice (Value for Value)

After part one of this discussion you might be thinking, “I understand that we aren’t supposed to dominate others, and that we are equals with everyone we meet, but what about all the verses that say I’m supposed to make myself lower than everyone?  Aren’t I supposed to put everyone above me?”  Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”  And Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant” (Mt 20:26).  You already know that no one is supposed to be your head, that no one is supposed to personally dominate you.  But how should you see others?  How should you look at other men and women who you are supposed to “consider better than yourselves?”  

The word justice is the right word for beginning this thought process. God has created us in his image. He is perfect.  A key part of the Gospel message is that God’s justice is impeccable, perfect.  Because of this, he had to send his Son to die for us, to redeem us, justify us, save us.  The fact that God’s justice is perfect means that the justice in the universe is perfect.  It doesn’t always seem like it, and indeed, the Psalmists complain about that (Ps 58). But time is the key ingredient. No one ever gets away with anything.  This is why confession and repentance is so crucial. By confessing and repenting you can clear the decks. Your confession is your not getting away with it.  The universe, that is, the creation is a just place because the Creator is just.  When we live in his image and pursue abundant life as his delegates, we are to pursue justice.

Justice is a misunderstood term.  Social Justice means many different things to many different people, but very often it has the unfortunate circumstances to be misapplied.  When there is a perceived injustice, often well-meaning people seek to correct it. There is nothing wrong with the desire to correct injustice, but because we are so twisted and broken, we often create greater injustices by our attempts.  Social justice and how to go about it are beyond the scope of this post, but for my current purposes, I’d like you to see justice in light of how we relate to all people around us.  

Honesty, integrity, and love must go together in each and every single, solitary interaction that you have with a fellow image-bearer.

Your spouse, your children, your friends, coworkers, neighbors, highway sharers, shoppers, and anyone else, deserve your integrity and love.  This means that when you face them, whether it is for one half of a second, or until death do you part, you must be just in your interactions.  You must be honest.  You must trade with them horizontally, value for value.  You must remember that God loves them more than you do.  You must see them as God sees them, an image-bearer with the potential to be saved.  You must show up on their radar screen with total integrity.  

Those Closest To You

Remember that part of what we have been created for was relationship.  Everyone you interact with is a relationship of some distance.  You cannot be equally close with everyone, so you have had to make some choices.  One the one hand, you should treat everyone the same.  Everyone deserves your honesty, your courage, your kindness and love, your exhibition of the image of God, that is, your Christlikeness.  Everyone deserves your integrity and your authenticity. And this is not for their sake alone, but for the sake of justice, and for your sake. If you have to pretend in any sphere of your life, you will be damaged. The less time you can live being your true self, the more difficult it will be to live the life that Jesus was trying to give you when he died for you and told you to lose your life to find it.  When you are being your most honest yet loving self, you are “finding your life” (Mt 10:39).  

Let’s see what this looks like with your spouse. If you don’t have one, imagine that you do.  You approach the relationship as someone whose identity is in Christ.  You know who you are. You know where your happiness lies. You did not get married in order to become happy. You got married in order to share your happiness with another, and to accomplish God’s purposes with someone who you have entered into a one-flesh, permanent-for-this-life union, most likely (but not definitely) for the sake of producing godly offspring for the glory of God and the good of the world.

With your identity, that is, your sense of self, and your purpose and happiness rooted already in God, you come to this person ready to give love and support and ready to trade value for value. Does this sound like a business transaction?  It is similar in kind in that true value is not a zero sum game.  Capitalism gets a bad name because of those who engage in it dishonestly in order to steal from others.  But that is not capitalism. It is theft. It is crime. True capitalism can and should be perfectly loving.  Consider that you have an old drill you don’t need because your friend gave you a new and better one. You don’t have room in your garage for two, so you decide you need to get rid of the old one.  You thought you might give it to your other friend, but it turns out he has a better one already.  You also realize you’d like to take your wife out for dinner, but you don’t have the money set aside for that. Maybe you could sell that drill you don’t need anymore to someone who needs it and has expendable income he’s been saving for a drill.  You advertise online and within a day you get an offer that is acceptable to you. You meet up and trade the drill for dinner with your wife. You no longer have the problem of an extra drill and no money for dinner.  Your “customer” no longer has the problem of no drill.  Value has been created by the fact that not only has neither party taken advantage of the other, but dinner for you and your wife is more valuable to you than the drill was.  The drill is more valuable to the other guy than his money was.  To top it off, your wife, who gave up nothing at all, gets treated to dinner.  

This is how capitalism should work, on the basis of justice and value for value. Why is this so?  Because that is how God designed all just relationships to work.  I’m not saying that a marriage or friendship should be modeled on a business transaction. I’m saying that a right relationship is a right relationship.  An honest relationship is an honest relationship. It makes no difference whether two people are married or meeting one time in a parking lot to trade cash for a drill.  How you show up as a true human is the very same. The only difference is in the degree of closeness.  

So with my spouse, everything should be totally honest.  I also believe that I should love everyone, especially her.  So all my interactions with her are not only to be honest, but loving.  I should want the very best for her for the sake of justice and righteousness in all our interactions.  This costs me nothing, because no godly transaction is zero sum, meaning it is not win-lose.  It can only be win-win, and value can only be created, not diminished, when conducted this way.  If you conduct all your relationships the same way, the only difference being the commitment to closeness with those you’ve chosen to be closest to, you will have all great relationships, especially your marriage relationship. 

Tomorrow let’s look at the word “discrimination” and see if there is not a good way to discriminate that is just.