Resisting the temptation to prioritize personal preferences over those that benefit others is essential to overcoming selfishness in our lives and in the church.
Which is more important:
- Arriving at your vacation spot on time, or
- Making sure someone gets the treatment they need for a medical emergency?
Don’t ask the woman who spit in the security guard’s face as she was escorted off the plane.
Recently, I read about a flight that was unexpectedly diverted from its intended destination because one of the passengers on board came down with a severe asthma attack mid-flight. No doubt the diversion was inconvenient for the rest of the passengers, but surely a necessary one in the minds of everyone on board. Everyone, that is, except one.
According to an eye-witness account, “After making the unexpected landing, an irate passenger made a beeline toward the flight attendants treating the sick passenger and demanded they take off immediately. ‘This is ruining my vacation,’ screamed the passenger. When she refused to return to her seat, she was expelled from the flight.” The woman made such a scene that she had to be handcuffed and escorted off the plane by airline authorities. The remaining passengers cheered as she continued to curse, resist, and even spit in the face of one of the officers leading her out.
Selfishness is ugly. We all know how ridiculous a person looks when they are clearly prioritizing their own preferences and are clearly not interested in accommodating the preferences of anyone else. The entire nasty scene on the airplane that day could have been avoided if the woman could have considered the perspective of anyone other than her own. Did she have any idea how absurd her obvious self-interest came across to the people around her? I doubt it.
I doubt we do either.
The prioritization of personal preferences is a turn-off when it appears in a stranger on an airplane, but it’s even more nauseating when it shows up at church. We Christians claim to be the people who do unto others as we would have them do unto us. We’re the ones committed to loving our neighbors as ourselves, right? Why then is it so commonplace to hear about parishioners leaving the church, or even about a whole church split, over things such as musical styles, carpet colors, or the kind of clothes the pastor wears? These things seem about as important in light of the church’s real purpose as a slight inconvenience of vacation plans is to a real medical emergency.
Fortunately, the Bible gives us help when it comes to dealing with our selfishness. In Philippians 2:2-8 the apostle Paul gave the believers in Philippi a word that speaks directly to our tendency to want our own way:
"Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 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 the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as 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 appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!"
Three things in this marvelous passage are particularly helpful for resisting the temptation to make our personal preferences a top priority:
Prioritize the unity of the church. Paul’s calls the Philippians to be “like-minded,” to have “the same love,” to be “one in spirit and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). This is a call to preserve the unity of the church. We find out later in Philippians that two women, Euodia and Syntyche, had a disagreement about something.
We don’t know the specific issue, and Paul doesn’t typically shy away from mentioning specific issues, so it was likely something so minor that it wasn’t even worth mentioning. The rift it was causing, however, was major enough that Paul referred to the ladies by name and pleaded with them “to be of the same mind in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2).
The Church of the Nazarene’s Article of Faith XI, titled “The Church,” states that “God calls the Church to express its life in the unity and fellowship of the Spirit…”[i] Nazarenes believe that expressing our collective unity in the Spirit is nothing less than the call of God. It is God’s will that we prioritize the unity of the church.
This does not mean that we blindly agree on every issue; it simply means that our shared life together trumps our desire to see our personal preferences accommodated as we “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Paul’s teaching in another letter is also of great practical help here: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
This does not mean that we blindly agree on every issue.
Value others above yourselves. Easier said than done, right? Nevertheless, Christians are instructed to be the kind of people who “do nothing out of selfish ambition,” who “value others above [them]selves,” and who look not to their own interests but “to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Such a tall order requires a strong dose of humility, of becoming practiced in the habit of learning to think, feel, and act in humble, Christlike ways. As we humbly prioritize the preferences of others, God delivers us from the selfish ambition and vain conceit that wreaks havoc on relationships in the church.
Adopt the mindset of Christ Jesus. Thankfully, God did not give us instructions to heed without also providing us with an example to follow. To be a Christlike disciple is to embrace the mindset of Christ Jesus, to adopt a pattern of life characterized by self-emptying, humble, and even suffering obedience to God for the advantage of others. We act in ways that benefit other people because this is precisely how Christ has acted towards us.
Too many churches have been diverted by the asthma attacks of ugly selfishness. When Christians adopt the mindset of Christ Jesus by resisting the tendency to prioritize their own preferences, they breathe life-giving oxygen back into their churches. A united church full of Christians who value others above themselves and who embrace the humble way of Jesus would be a breath of fresh air in a world increasingly willing to see us escorted out.
Ryan Giffin pastors the Church of the Nazarene in Paris, Kentucky and is a PhD candidate in Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.
1 Church of the Nazarene Manual 2013-2017 (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 2013), 34.