Strutting our stuff

Have you ever seen a peacock, up close and personal? They’re spectacular creatures. Strutting about, they pull a long train of colorful tail feathers behind them, waiting for the right moment to spread them out into a glorious, iridescent fan.

That moment, of course, is when he sees a cute peahen whom he hopes to impress.

It can be a little comical. He sees her and makes a showy display, sometimes shaking the feathers for emphasis. She, meanwhile, ignores him. I imagine her saying, Yeah, yeah, buddy, I see you. Look, I’m busy feeding over here, okay? Why don’t you go shake it somewhere else?

But it’s not as funny when you think of how much we as humans want to impress each other, whether in person or on social media. We want people to notice, to look, even to applaud. We want people to tell us we’re right or clever. And when they don’t, we may feel deflated, discouraged, or angry. In that state, it’s hard to be patient with each other and get along.

Paul, again, was concerned about the unity of the believers in Philippi. Not that they were coming to blows at church committee meetings. But the pressure they were facing from the outside made it that much more important that they maintain their unity on the inside. Paul seemed particularly concerned about the relationship between two women, who may have been leaders in the congregation. But his fatherly words of advice were for everyone:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4, NRSVUE)

The key word here is humility. It’s used eight times in the New Testament, and five of those are in the letters of Paul. It’s a compound word with two parts. The first part suggests lowliness; the second is a word for thinking that suggests one’s moral compass, as we saw in a recent post about “having the same mind.” To cultivate humility as a Christian virtue means to point our moral compasses toward the lowliness of Jesus.

That’s in sharp contrast with “selfish ambition” and “empty conceit.” Paul already mentioned the first earlier in the letter (1:17). The term might make us think of a hard-driving executive or unscrupulous politician. But sadly, Paul uses it to describe people who are preaching the gospel. Their motives are less about wanting others to hear the good news, and more about putting Paul in his place (as they saw it). At root, the word suggests something of a mercenary attitude: Whatever I do, I do for my own benefit.

“Empty conceit” is another compound word, that could be translated “empty glory.” We can be like peacocks strutting our stuff, hoping someone will notice. Together with “selfish ambition,” these words suggest that Paul was concerned that the unity of the church was being threatened by people pursuing their own self-aggrandizing goals. He doesn’t try to referee the conflict between them; he points them to Jesus.

But first, as we’ll see, he describes in practical terms what humility involves.