Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Outward Focused Lives // Changing Our Default Setting

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 05/19/2013
video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand
podcast here: http://feeds.feedburner.com/VineyardChurchOfMilan
or via iTunes here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/vineyard-church-of-milan/id562567379
We’ve come to the point in our series on outward focused lives where we consider how in the world we can change our natural default setting. From a life that’s “all about me” to a life that “considers the needs of others above our own.”
A reminder of our primary source text – one of the first writings in history to recommend this approach to life, in fact:
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. In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
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...
from Philippians 2:1-11
Paul (formerly Saul) of Tarsus
Lets begin by watching this video that we couldn’t see last week, taken by a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005…

THIS IS WATER - By David Foster Wallace from The Glossary on Vimeo.
We’ve examined the research, explored the benefits, talked about some of the essential ingredients. We know that an outward focused life is the way to achieve long term, meaningful success in life. We know that it’s the way to free ourselves from the tyranny of petty emotion and the gerbil wheel of trivial pursuits. We know that outward focused lives are the only kinds of lives that produce deep and lasting satisfactions. The only kind of life that’s contagious enough to fundamentally change the way people relate to one another and even the way we relate to ourselves.
And beyond that, we’ve seen that outward focused lives are the kinds of lives that are faithful to the image of God in us. The kinds of lives that flow from his divine breath, that have his wind at their backs, the kind of lives that cooperate with the restoration and renewal and resurrection he is bringing about in the whole of creation. We’ve seen the example of Jesus, the way he made the noble, humble choice to use his resources, authority, talents, skills, and status for the benefit of others, by lowering himself to serve, in order to raise others up. We’ve been inspired to see that the end result of his outward focused gaze, and compassionate actions, and humble sacrifices was in fact the most extraordinary kind of victory – an elevation of himself and all who follow in his path to glory and the life of the heavens inhabiting every fiber of his being, flowing to everything he touches, like a life-giving King Midas.
All that brings us to here. Where we are today.
We know two things that seem to be in tension with one another.
One, as we talked about last week, is that our default wiring is to help. If we attend to the other. In other words, if we can have what David Foster Wallace calls “awareness” or what Paul calls “Looking to the needs of others”, there are all kinds of things within us that are activated and lead us naturally into well-lived human lives, the kinds of life that give and bring life to us and others.
But the other thing is what David Foster Wallace warned about:

Our natural default setting: The automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
This default setting is the very thing that keeps our default “helping” wiring from doing us or anyone else any good.
Unless, of course, we can change it.
Anyone who has tried knows that this is easier said than done. On our own, in fact, it might be impossible. No matter how much choosing we do, how much of our wills we engage in the process. We might succeed in fits and starts, for periods of time. But what we really, desperately need, is help. And preferably, the best kind of help, help from heaven, from the one Paul suggests we’d do well to emulate and imitate. Jesus, Christ, 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…
Wouldn’t it be great if he would help? Maybe if he’d come alongside of us, put a little divine breath in our lungs, some divine wind in our sails?
That’s what Pentecost is all about.
A new expectation leading to an empowered life.
Pentecost is a story about Jesus’ disciples waiting for him to show up with help for the mission he’d commissioned them on. After his resurrection, he appeared in a locked room, where they were hiding out in fear (if that’s not a picture of an “it’s all about me” life, I don’t know what is). He said “Peace be with you.” Said to them, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” And then breathed on them, saying “Receive my Holy Spirit.” Then, after hanging out with them for a while longer, told them that they were to wait in Jerusalem until his Holy Spirit arrived to assist them in their mission to carry his resurrection life to every corner of the earth. They ended up waiting until a feast day called “Pentecost,” which was 50 days after his resurrection. Once again they were gathered in a room together, but this room wasn’t locked, and they weren’t afraid, wrapped up in their own anxieties. They were praying, expectant, anticipating that sooner or later, God was going to do something great.
We’re going to look at the story of what happened in a few minutes. The main character is a fisherman named Peter. Pentecost transformed Peter’s life from a life characterized by fear to one filled with expectation, from a life fueled by emotion to one empowered by the Holy Spirit. You might say Pentecost changed Peter’s default setting.
Peter was a lot like us. When he was on his game, he was really on. Walking on water. Boldly answering Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am” by being the first to suggest that he was in fact God’s son. But he had plenty of downs to go along with his ups, and his downs seemed to follow a pattern. The pattern of someone showing symptoms of operating in his natural default setting.
Peter had a history as someone who lived fearing the worst, trying to take things into his own hands, and responding emotionally in pressure situations.
When Jesus wanted to go to Jerusalem, Peter tried to stop him for fear Jesus was going to be killed there. (The fact that Peter was right isn’t the relevant bit.) Jesus – because he wasn’t focused on himself, but instead was focused on God and pointed towards others - had an expectation that God’s power would be demonstrated when he went to Jerusalem – an expectation that Peter lacked. When Jesus was being arrested in Gethsemane, Peter tried to fight, pulling out his sword and lopping off a guard’s ear. Jesus expected it was God’s power that would win the day – an expectation that Peter lacked, because again, Peter figured it all came down to him, figured that he’d better take things into his own hands. Jesus, on the other hand, focused on God, pointed towards others, sees the man’s distress, expects God wants to make it right, and heals his ear. When quizzed about his association with Jesus while Jesus was on trial, Peter denied knowing him because he was afraid of what the authorities would do to him if they found out. Jesus understood that the only authority that ultimately matters is God’s authority – an understanding that Peter hadn’t yet experienced. Peter and Jesus, in other words, had different default settings.
What was wrong with Peter? He’d seen Jesus’ example. He’d heard Jesus’ teaching. He’d even been discipled, trained by Jesus – hands-on – for years.
Nothing was “wrong” with Peter, necessarily. At least not anything that’s not wrong with all of us.
Peter was just missing something. He lacked the one thing that makes the outward focused life possible in us sin-infected human beings. The one thing that can change our default setting.
Peter lacked that one thing, that is, until Jesus poured out his Holy Spirit a few weeks later, as the feast of Pentecost was being celebrated in Jerusalem. And then everything changed for Peter. And by extension, for the world.
Jesus doesn’t just teach us a new way to be human. Jesus doesn’t just model a new way of living for us. Jesus comes to dwell within us through his Holy Spirit, empowering us to live his kind of life, to do the same kinds of things he did, with the same get off your butt compassion, the same heaven drenched vision of the world around us, the same life giving power, the same freedom granting authority.

Once, the bible describes Jesus as “the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead.” Which we understand of course to mean that his resurrection is just the first of many – that we too will be raised from the dead when he returns again. Pentecost, in a sense, is when the resurrection begins at a deeper level. A kind of waking up of human lives, anticipating the resurrection.
Acts 2:1-4
Here the students of Jesus are expectantly waiting. No striving, no people pleasing, no frantic efforts to fulfill the great commission out of anxiety and worry, or desire to be significant. No giving up and doing their own thing because nothing had happened yet. Just waiting and praying, with expectation, because that was their marching order from Jesus. And as they wait, eyes looking to Jesus, Jesus pours out his Holy Spirit, and all heaven breaks loose.
Acts 2:14-24 (2 clicks)
Peter’s last experience with a crowd had caused him to flee in cowardice and fear. Not this time. Empowered by the Holy Spirit this time, Peter isn’t concerned with what the crowd may do to him, but instead with what he expects God might be doing in the crowd. So he begins to speak what the Holy Spirit puts on his heart to say.
Acts 2:36-41
Peter’s sword, wielded by his own power and initiative, had once cut a guard’s ear, to no avail. This time, Peter’s words, wielded by the power of the Holy Spirit and under the Spirit’s initiative, cut the crowd to its heart. Peter’s words had a power and love and authority beyond his own. The Holy Spirit was in him and carried on his every breath.
Acts 3:1-10 (2 clicks)
Looked straight at him. Opens the door for compassion. Gives him a chance to see what God is doing. Had the guy look at them. Wants the guy’s attention, not for his own sake, but for Jesus’ sake.
The guy expects something, something that he really wants (some cash), but so much less than Jesus has for him.
Peter, it seems, expects that something extraordinary is going to happen. Nonetheless, no elaborate, well-rehearsed incantation. No 21 steps to healing a cripple, masters degree level prayer. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk. Gutsy, eh? Spirit empowered compassion, coupled with great expectations – what we might call faith - moved him to do that.
Gives him a hand. Again, simple expectation makes this the natural thing to do. Gives the guy a chance to respond to the Kingdom rushing towards him. But the “instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong” part is all the Holy Spirit. The praise part, that’s the Holy Spirit’s gig. The amazement and wonder generated? The Holy Spirit.
There may be quite a lot we can get from these stories. But let’s at least get this: Outward focused lives fueled by our own misguided desires and lived by our own power are going to end with discouragement and burnout. They’ll become all about us, and destroy us. Looking to ourselves always opens the door to death. But outward focused lives fueled by an expectation of Jesus’ kingdom coming in power and empowered by the Holy Spirit become all about Jesus and bring salvation to many. Looking to Jesus always leads to life.
What if you want what Peter has? How do you get it?
Practical Suggestions:
1. Wait & Ask. Start by waiting and asking for the Holy Spirit. At home, in the car, in your bed at night. At work, at your small group, at church. Ask other Christians to lay hands on you and pray for you. Keep asking until you know the Holy Spirit has come. And then keep asking for more!
God wants to give you his Holy Spirit. More than anything else. And his timing for answering will always be perfect. Our job is simple. Asking and waiting.
How will we know he’s come? Jesus didn’t tell the disciples how they would know…but they knew alright. The same will be the case for us.
2. Do a daily gut check. Once the Holy Spirit comes, learn to be sensitive to Jesus’ compassion stirring in you. Look to the interests of others, as we talked about last week, and notice when you get moved. When you do, go with it. With whatever it is Jesus moves you to do or say. Then keep track of the results. You’ll start to learn how the before and after match up. God moved me, I obeyed, God acted, Jesus got glory. Or not. Don’t get discouraged by the mistakes – sometimes we just get it wrong, sometimes we just don’t see God’s power at first even though it’s there.
Always Jesus will be teaching us, because we’re in this together with him. For the glory of his name. For the blessing of his creation. For the freedom and return of the prodigal sons and daughters of our Father in the heavens.

What’s the point of an outward focused life, anyway? Is it to be well liked, to gain the approval of others, to feel good inside about yourself? Never! If that’s the case, outward focused lives are ultimately still about us. Jesus is calling us to live beyond ourselves. Jesus, who died for us, is calling us to live for him. To live for his glory, the fame of his name, the return of lost children to Abba Father’s welcoming embrace, the coming of God’s kingdom to every corner of creation.
[ “That Day” speech by MLK, Jr. ]

“That Day” by Martin Luther King, Jr. - start at 16:12
Next week, sharings from Tuscaloosa, then concluding with what this all means for us as a church…

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Outward Focused Lives // Compassion

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 05/12/2013

alas, no video or audio available for this message due to some technical difficulties.

A couple of weeks ago, Ronni was away with a team from the church working on a Habitat for Humanity project for 7 days in Tuscaloosa. Which meant our 3 kids were mother-less for a while. Which wasn’t the biggest deal for most things… Sure, they ate a lot of hot lunches at school, and probably bathed a lot less than they should have. But where the impact was really felt was in the area of compassion. Perhaps you’ve noticed this dynamic in your household as well, or perhaps it was the case for you as a kid growing up. When our kids get hurt or frustrated, they want Mom, not Dad. When the kids come to me, I tend to suggest to them that if they got hurt, maybe they should toughen up. Or maybe they shouldn’t be doing the thing they were doing that hurt them. Or that of course they got hurt – what were they expecting? And even though Mom was gone, and I knew the kids would need me to step up my Ronni game, no matter how many awwws and let me kiss its I offered, the next words out of their mouths were always, when’s Mom going to get home?

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that there’s a scientific explanation for that – but we’ll save that for later.

In the meantime, in honor of Mothers’ Day, we’re going to talk about Compassion. Specifically, the link between compassion and outward focused lives.


The Bible proposes that the way of Jesus really is the only way to obtain the life we all deeply desire.

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. In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:

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…

Paul (formerly Saul) of Tarsus

from Philippians 2:1-11

It turns out, Jesus is simply teaching us to turn away from badly lived human lives that focus inward to well-lived human lives that are focused outward. As we’ve explored over the last few weeks, focusing on helping others is the secret to all kinds of success. Over time, givers win. They actually come out ahead, on top, like cream that rises to the top. With the added benefits of healthier, less anxious, more deeply satisfied experiences of life. And those that givers give to, win. Many times, becoming givers themselves. Outward focused lives are contagious, it seems. Which of course, is what following Jesus is all about. Learning to live the kind of life he lived, a life that can’t be extinguished, not even by death, but instead one that thrives for eternity.


Today we’re going to talk about the compassion part of outward focused lives, the part that begins by looking not “to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others.”

A group of Princeton Theological Seminary Students unwittingly participated in a study on this topic. Half were tasked with preparing a talk on the story of the Good Samaritan from the Bible. You know, the story about a man who lies beaten and injured on the side of the road and is ignored by various people, until finally a Samaritan stops and aids the injured man. The other half were tasked with preparing a talk on various job openings at the seminary. They were then sent to another building to give their talks. Along the way, they each passed by a moaning, coughing man doubled over in an alley doorway.

Do you think the students who had been thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan were more likely than the others to show compassion to the man?

I did.

I was wrong.

The subject of the talk they were going to give, even when it was a powerful reflection on helping injured strangers in need of compassion, made no difference in whether or not a student helped.

The only thing that mattered was how much of a hurry the student was in to get to the next building. Those who felt like they were in a hurry and preoccupied with their own concerns were far less likely to help. Only 10% of those students stopped to help. Those who weren’t in a hurry helped 63% of the time.

What does this show us about the relationship between compassion and outward focused lives?

It shows us that Paul, once again, was right. Our only hope of compassion is to find a way to stop looking to our own interests, and look instead to the interests of others. For those students, and for us, compassion begins with getting our eyes off of ourselves and onto others.


It’s assumed, isn’t it, that we will be looking to our own interests. Stop a second for a gut check. Look inside yourself, take a quick poll of the interests vying for your attention. Most of them are your interests, aren’t they?

I’m tired, I want to sleep. I’m hungry, I want to eat. I’ve got an itch I want to scratch, but I’m worried about what the people behind me might think. I’m stressed about money, an extra $1000 sure would make a difference. I’m thirsty, I wish I’d picked up a coffee at McDonalds on my way in. Wow, I’ve really got to go bad. I’m bored, I wish he would finish already. I’m really worried about my Dad, I wish I could know how things are going to turn out. Man, that’s a nice sweater she’s wearing, I’d sure like to have one too. Look at that nice family in front of me; if only I had parents that loved me like that.

Our interests, in other words, are right there all the time, like an annoying buzzing bee that we just can’t shake. We’re thinking about our houses, our jobs, our families, our problems, our stresses, our pleasures, our pains. Most all of the time, in fact, unless we’re in extraordinary circumstances. (Such as the kind of circumstances that get our adrenaline flowing…someone we love in mortal danger, inspiring heroic, selfless action. Or when we’ve intentionally surrendered our interests in exchange for some greater good – as members of a team, or an army, or a company, or a family, or a church.)

What isn’t assumed, however, but instead is commanded, is that we lift up our eyes from our own interests to look to the interests of the others. And not a passive, lazy gaze kind of look, either. Rather, an active, penetrating, intentional, sensitive kind of look.


“look to” = σκοπέω (skopeō) v. : notice carefully, watch out for, keep thinking about, ponder, fix attention toward.

The kind of looking a baseball player would do towards the fly ball coming his way; the kind of looking a radiologist would do at the x-ray of her father’s lungs; the kind of looking a high school senior does at the pile of mail that may contain the acceptance letter from college; a mother looking in the eyes of her newborn baby for the first time; a father watching his son’s first high school football game, a groom looking down the aisle as his bride approaches.

Consider this commencement speech by David Foster Wallace, given to the 2005 graduating class of Kenton College. It’s 9 minutes long, but worth our time, I think.

[This is Water…]


THIS IS WATER - By David Foster Wallace from The Glossary on Vimeo.

In fact, all kinds of research back up what Paul and David Foster Wallace are saying. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, says that our default wiring is to help.


If we attend to the other, we automatically empathize and want to help. In the last decade, social neuroscientists have made some fascinating discoveries about mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are specialized neurons in our brains that mirror the sensations and emotions we see other people experiencing, inside our own brains. If you see someone’s leg break on the basketball court, your brain lights up with pain the same way the player with the broken leg lights up. In human beings, our mirror neurons are especially attuned to emotions – if you see someone in emotional distress, your mirror neurons cause you to feel that distress as well. (It works positively too – that’s part of why when we see someone overwhelmed with joy at their new home on Extreme Home Makeover, or filled with pride on Biggest Loser, we get caught up in their emotional response – we are actually feeling, to some degree, the exact same thing they are).


A bonus aside: we actually have two emotional response centers in our brains. One is the mirror neuron system, and this is where our emotional responses to others always begins. The other is the temporal-prietal junction system (the TPJ). These are the analyze and fix it circuits. Both men and women first respond to seeing someone else in distress with their mirror neuron systems. But while women’s mirror neurons stay active for a long period of time – long enough to pull someone in for a hug, and say aww I’m so sorry for you, and gosh, that must be tough, and stroke their hair and say I can see how much this hurts, you’re so strong to carry this, and on and on – men’s mirror neuron system only fires for a brief period of time. Just long enough to get a handle on what’s happening and process it. Then their TPJ starts firing and they start problem solving. Which is still an emotional response; it just doesn’t feel like it to a woman or a child at all, does it? Which is why my kids wanted mom, and not me. At least, that’s what I tell myself…

But back to our main idea. When we get our eyes off of ourselves, even briefly, and cast our gaze towards others, we will be filled with something the scriptures call compassion. Something Jesus experienced all the time. Something that moved him to actions with God’s wind at his back.

Listen to this brief story in Matthew 14

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

Matthew 14:13-14

Background: just discovered his cousin John had been beheaded by the king, Herod, for selfish and petty reasons. Jesus, withdrawing to grieve, but unable to get away from the crowds. Jesus, looking in a healthy way to his own interests, but not with his eyes closed. No, his eyes are also looking outward. And he sees the crowd. Really sees them.

Are they an inconvenient interruption? Surely they are getting in the way of his grief. Can’t they tell that he’s trying to get away from them? Withdrawing by boat, privately. To a solitary place. Can’t they take the hint? Surely he has every right to demand that they leave him alone.

Not Jesus. His response is just the opposite. He is looking not only to his interests, but also to theirs. And he sees every one of their needs. Their fears, their concerns, their confusion, their hurts, their desperation. “Harassed and helpless” it says in another account, “like sheep without a shepherd.” He sees those who have brought friends and relatives in hope of healing, frustrated, anxious, worn out with caring for them, on the verge of hopelessness. He sees the sick ones, discouraged, in pain, feverish, afraid of death. And he has compassion on them, healing their sick.


“had compassion” = σπλαγχνίζομαι [ splagchnizomai / splangkh· nid ·zom·ahee /] v. : to be moved in the inward parts, as to one’s bowels

These strangers, these others, move him more than his own needs do, move him more than grief for his cousin’s death does. They’ve gotten inside of him, under his skin, into his guts. Ever had a child, a friend, someone you love work their way inside of you? Their pain is your pain, their joy is your joy. Jesus lets the crowd into that part of himself. The part of him that’s vulnerable to being moved.

And he’s moved in those inward parts to heal them. To act on their behalf. To forgo his own needs, for a time (note that he does get away to a mountainside to pray later that day), in favor of their needs and his Father’s purposes.

There is no secret formula for compassion. You can’t make it happen. You can’t work it up. You can’t get good at it. But you can open your eyes to the interests of others. Begin to look for what others might need, everywhere that you are. Homes, schools, workplaces, marketplaces, play places, highways and byways.

Your wife? Your kids? Your neighbors? Your friends? Your teammates? Your classmates? Your co-workers? Your boss? Your employees? The strangers God brings into contact with you? Stop looking at them as inconvenient interruptions. Start looking at them as people to be loved. And you will begin to see them as people who are loved, deeply, by Jesus. And his compassion will fill you, and your own compassion will start to wake up, and pretty soon you will be in business with him. Doing business with God is one thing, and we all have to start there. But being in business with him is another, and business is good.


Practical Suggestions:

1. Wake Yourself Up. Set an alarm to go off at 3 relatively random times a day. When it goes off, take 60 seconds to look to the interests of others. Literally look, first. See if you see anyone whose situation might cause your mirror neurons to fire and cascade into compassion. If not, then let your mind linger on people in your life and their needs. Perhaps pray for them during that minute.

This discipline, I think, was forced on many mothers by crying infants, and over time it forms a habit of looking to the needs of others we see in many of our moms….

2. Memorize & Meditate. Memorize Matthew 14:13-14 and reflect on it prayerfully once a day for 12 minutes. Insert the name of different loved one in place of “a large crowd”. Research has shown that your capacity for empathy will increase, and your own anxiety will decrease, giving you a greater freedom to actually see others. To skopeo them.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Outward Focused Lives // Humility

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 05/05/2013

video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand


Continuing series today on living outward focused lives. Lives that make a difference in the lives of others. Lives that aren’t shrink-wrapped in our petty concerns about ourselves, but large, expanding lives that are unafraid and generously powerful. Lives that multiply, not divide. Lives that heal, not hurt. Lives that are full of life and spilling over.

The Bible proposes that the way of Jesus really is the only way to obtain the life we all deeply desire.


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. In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:

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…

Paul (formerly Saul) of Tarsus

from Philippians 2:1-11


As we’ve explored over the last few weeks, focusing on helping others is the secret to all kinds of success. Over time, givers win. Those that givers give to, win. Benefits multiply – the universe isn’t as zero sum as it might seem. Beyond that, living to bring life to others is the way the God described in the Bible is. As we imitate his example, we are true to ourselves in the truest sense. It’s the way in which we are faithful to the image of God in which we are created. Leading to an extraordinary form of synergy – our lives become a cooperation with God, and this experience of having God’s wind at our backs, his breath filling our lungs, his energy multiplying in our world as we seek to bless others. With the added benefits that come from maturing as human beings, such as less anxiety, freedom from the tyranny of petty emotional responses to trivial pains, and deep satisfactions that come from making a meaningful difference to others.


Today I’d like to talk about an essential characteristic of outward focused lives – humility. Humility is the key to turning strength into true success. Humility makes the great even greater. [Pope Francis washing prisoner’s feet]. A person trying to live an outward focused life without humility will only succeed in bringing judgment and conflict into other people’s lives, not to mention isolation and destructive stress into one’s own life. But a person living an outward focused life full of humility will bring love, mercy, and grace that multiplies and produces rewarding returns.

Humility is a quality that many people have some instinctive doubts about, at least when it comes to choosing the humble path for oneself. No doubt we love it when others are humble, but it feels risky to pursue humility personally. Won’t others take advantage of us if we lower ourselves to serve them?


Jim Collins, author of the classic business book “Good to Great,” conducted a 5 year research study on CEOs of the best companies in the world. He observed a hierarchy of leadership, from level 1 to level 5. Level 1, highly capable individuals with talent, knowledge, skills and good work habits. Level 2, contributing team members who contribute to the achievement of group objectives over personal objectives. Level 3, competent managers who organize people and resources toward effective and efficient pursuit of objectives. Level 4, effective leaders who catalyze commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision, stimulating groups to high performance standards. And finally, level 5, simply called “Level 5 leaders” for lack of a better term, who build enduring greatness. According to his research, only a level 5 leader could accomplish the statistically rare feat of taking a company from good to great. And what makes a leader a level 5 leader? Just two components. The paradoxical combination of intense professional will (not surprising) paired with, you guessed it, extreme personal humility.

Wouldn’t that be a fitting description of Jesus of Nazareth as described by Paul of Tarsus in Philippians 2? A paradoxical combination of extreme personal humility blended with intense professional will? Look at the text again, this time with the full hymn included:

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 attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:

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

and became obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:1-11

Talk about extreme personal humility. Not considering equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, instead making himself nothing?

Talk about intense will – sticking out his sense of mission and calling (what the hymn describes as “becoming obedient”) all the way to death, even death on a cross!

And of course there is the invitation, the strong encouragement, which Paul is making to all of us to follow Jesus’ lead, so that we might join him in that extraordinary greatness that comes on the other side of humble, outward focused lives.

Humility can be a challenging topic to talk about, however, because we have a wide variety of ideas and emotional responses when we hear the word humility.


Humility meant something very different for the Philippians than it probably does for us today. For us, humility is usually a concept that has to do with the way we talk or carry ourselves, our psychology, issues of confidence and self-esteem, personal worth. [Muhammad Ali story – “Superman doesn’t need a seatbelt…”]


Eeyore is the mascot for our least powerful concept of humility. Aww, shucks, I’m not very good at this or that, I’m really not that smart or that exceptional, I’m not nearly as deserving as you. Gosh, I can’t imagine ever really making much of a difference.

In light of our usual view of humility, a certain kind of catch 22 arises; we can aim for humility but we can never claim to get there [joke about yom kippur*].

Certainly, arrogance, pride, cockiness, and self-aggrandizement have no place in the life of a Christ follower. But it’s hard to imagine Jesus saying that he wasn’t very good at something, or very smart or very exceptional or very deserving or very significant. Somehow that notion of humility has to be a little off the mark, at least as Paul is describing it.

The bible, and Paul’s letter to the Philippians in particular, reveal a different brand of humility: Jesus brand humility.


John Dickenson, in his great leadership book “Humilitas,” defines the kind of humility exemplified by Jesus this way:

The noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. The willingness to hold power in service of others.

Dickenson argues, from a historical perspective, that Jesus’ earliest followers, by responding to Paul’s encouragement and Jesus’ example, completely changed the way the western world understands and responds to humility.


A little background. In Philippians, humility is a concept that has to do primarily with social status in communities that are based on well-defined hierarchies.

In a hierarchical social structure, everyone’s place and responsibilities relative to others are well defined. Kings, priests, nobles, landowners, tradespeople, servants, slaves, men, women, grandparents, parents, children, employers, employees... Each person knew to whom they were a servant and who was meant to be a servant to them. The social order required you to make your self and your resources available to anyone of higher standing, along with various social conventions related to speech and posture, and often dress as well.

The social order was something determined by birth – it had nothing to do with talent or merit or hard work or good looks. Your standing was something that could be lost if it wasn’t defended against challengers, and something that might be advanced if you played your cards right and found favor with the right people.

Naturally, a person in such a situation would be very guarded, cautious, calculating. Every instinct would be toward self-preservation and self promotion. (watch any competitive reality show and see the same dynamics at work – lies, gossip, flattery, empty promises, not to mention anger, jealousy, bitterness.) [grocery line example; taking credit, not giving it, hiding mistakes, problems, weaknesses; going into debt to keep up with the Joneses; withholding love, encouragement or help so someone who has wronged you doesn’t get the wrong idea, etc.]

Even more than that, the Mediterranean societies at that point during the Roman empire (including the Jewish people, to a large extent) were Honor / Shame cultures. Honor was universally held up as the ultimate asset for a human being, and Shame was the ultimate deficit. Fathers weren’t primarily concerned about their son’s happiness or economic success or moral excellence, but instead about whether their sons would bring honor to the family, especially to his father and to himself. Maybe through military victory or attaining high social standing or some kind of heroic service to the community or village – not because of what he might accomplish, but because of the honor it would bring. If a Roman’s wife was found to be having an affair, he would feel more injured by the shame it would bring him than by the betrayal of love he would experience. Honor was thought to reveal greatness, and the lack of honor was thought to reveal a lack of merit.

The Delphic Canon, written in the 6th century B.C. cataloged the ethical life in ancient Greece, with 147 maxims. Sort of like a Greek version of Proverbs. Listen to a sampling:

“Control yourself”

“Help your friends”

“Return a favor”

“Nothing to excess”

“Honor good people”

“Don’t curse your sons”

“Rule your wife”

“Despise no one”

“Worship divinity”

“Respect the elder”

“Don’t let your reputation go”

“Die for your country”

“Respect yourself”

It goes on and on, but not a single mention of anything related to humility.

Before Jesus, no one had ever taught or modeled the kind of humility he embodied and encouraged, and that Paul writes about in his letter to the Philippians. It was essentially unheard of.

When we encounter true humility today, it actually makes us respond positively to the person in whom we see it. We are more likely to listen to that person, to trust them, to be persuaded by them, to respect them. [Three young men trying to pick a fight with a lone man at the back of the bus in the 1930’s, insulting him repeatedlystanding and handing them a business card before disembarkingthe words on the business card? Joe Louis. Boxer.]


Jesus brand humility means turning our instincts for self-preservation and self-promotion on their heads. Jesus brand humility means intentionally lowering yourself on the social ladder so that you become a servant to people who otherwise might have been servants to you, and voluntarily using your resources and advantages not to defend your own social standing or advance it, but rather to defend and advance the standing of others.


Jesus brand humility means learning to see that lowering yourself to serve others is not shameful, but is in fact a way of demonstrating true greatness.


Perhaps that sounds crazy—so turned around, so inside out. Surely you can’t be serious, Paul, we argue. That’s got to be a recipe for disaster, an invitation for exploitation, a losing proposition if ever we’ve heard one.

Look at Jesus, Paul says. From the beginning one of equal standing with God. One whom every creature in heaven and on earth exists to serve and glorify. One free to defend himself vigorously against every pretender to his throne. One free to use every resource in the universe for his own advantage and happiness. But one who is looking not to himself, but to his Father, and sees his Father’s broken heart for the broken creation.

Who chooses to lower himself, below the angels, below kings, below landowners, taking the lowest rung on the human social ladder, that of servant. Living as a servant to defend and advance social outcasts that they might enjoy the status of insiders in the kingdom of God, using the resources of heaven to aid the sick and broken hearted that they might enjoy the status of healed and whole people.

Then, lowering himself to play the role of sacrificial lamb, one who carries the sins of the people outside the city into the garbage heaps, so that the residents of the city can be raised from the position of estranged and lost kids to the position of beloved and restored children of almighty God.

Finally, lowering himself to death, going below the earth, which the plants use to draw nourishment from so that they can stretch towards the heavens as they seek out the sun. Every rung of the ladder descended. Every resource that could be used to defend his own position or used for his advantage now surrendered for his Father’s purposes. Why? So that he can become the servant of all of creation, that his very lifeblood would become the catalyst that renews the whole earth, every bit of rock and dirt, every plant, every animal, every human being freed from slavery and restored in relationship with its creator.

What is humility? This, Paul says, is humility.


What comes of this humility? Jesus, exalted to the highest place—and Jesus is not alone or lonely in this exalted place…every tongue is confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. What greater glory does a Father have than his children? Now, among those confessing Jesus’ Lordship, are formerly enslaved human beings, who, as a result of their surrender to King Jesus, are now themselves children of the living God, co-heirs with Christ in the kingdom. Jesus, the firstborn among many brothers and sisters, raised up along with all of his newly adopted brothers and sisters—that is the glory of God the Father.

Humility, in other words, is not a recipe for disaster, but a recipe for the infusion of life and love into the world. It’s not an invitation for exploitation, but an invitation to be used by God for his glory and the blessing of others, creating breathing room for all of creation. Humility is not ultimately a losing proposition, but the very path to true greatness.


Practical Suggestions:

1. Listen to Lewis. C.S. Lewis writes this:

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.

Try this prayer: Jesus, my name is __________, and I’m proud. You are humble, and I’d rather be like you in your humility than like me in my pride. Would you be willing to help me?

2. In light of this, keep a “Self-Defense” journal this week. Write down at the end of the day every instance where you felt compelled to defend or advance your reputation or standing. Or where your first instinct was to use your resources or influence for your benefit instead of for someone else’s.

3. Nurture a higher view of yourself. You can’t have humility (which always involves lowering yourself) if you don’t start from an elevated position of awareness of your fundamental dignity. God considered you worthwhile to lower himself to serve.

Try this prayer: Jesus, my name is __________, and you saw something in me that caused you to deploy all of your resources and influence to lift me up and restore me as a beloved and noble sister (or brother).