I’ve already noted in this series that these words were originally written to a local church... They are fundamentally describing the love we are to love one another with. In a real sense Paul is teaching the local church how to put into practice Jesus’ new commandment. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34). These words we’ve been reflecting on in 1 Corinthians 13 are what this love looks like, they are a description of the love we are to love one another with. This is the love which enables others to see we are disciples of Jesus. This is why such love is vital for the health, witness & overall growth of every local church.
Loving one another then, means being patient & kind with one another. It means not envying one another’s positions, gifting or lives. It means not being boastful, arrogant or rude with one another. It means not being irritable or resentful towards one another. It means bearing one another, serving one another, believing in one another & forgiving one another. It means protecting one another & if necessary enduring one another. Col 3:12-14 NRSV says;
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness & patience. Bear with one another &, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
There can be no harmony without such love. Envy, boasting, arrogance, rudeness, dishonouring, irritability, resentments, all these things threaten the harmony God intends us to live in. As a local church we can only know such harmony to the extent we learn to love the way Jesus loves. Another sin which can destroy this harmony is insisting on one’s own way. Paul writes in his portrait of love that “Love... it does not insist on its own way” (ESV) or “it is not self-seeking” (NIV). This is the phrase we are going to think about today which of course highlights the whole idea of selfishness.
This is also a good time to think a little further about three of the different kinds of love understood at the time of the NT. Eros is a love of desire. It is not a selfless love but one that also seeks personal gratification. It’s a love that wants something for itself, in a mostly sexual sense. Philia, or brotherly love, is a love based on personal connection with people who belong to the same family, town or tribe etc... Then there is agape love which we have been thinking about. It is uniquely selfless. Its actions are not based on romantic attachment or family connection etc, it is a purely selfless & impartial love that actively seeks what is best for all. Eros can be self-seeking in that it seeks its own gratification, philia can be self-seeking in the sense it seeks only what is best for one’s own family, friends or tribe – seeking only what’s best for one’s own... Jesus said; “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt 5: 46-47 NIV). The love we are called to love with leaves no room for selfishness or partiality as we will see.
Here’s why all this is important. It’s important because when it comes to church we are not called to do things or judge things only according to what’s best for us, our family, or our friendship or ethnic group. We are called to do what is best for one another, what’s best for as many as possible, what is best for our enemies even - what is best for the church. Church is not our family holiday. Meaning church is not the time or place when we choose what suits us & our family best. Church is the time & place we “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others as more significant that [ourselves]” according to Philippians 2:3. Church is about looking not only to our own interests but also the interests of others according to Philippians 2:4. Therefore the question we should always ask is not ‘what is best for me?’ but ‘what is best for the church?’ This is especially true in the area of leadership. This love we are called to love with is not some kind of subjective feeling that makes us do what is best for our own. Rather this is a love which enables us to be objective enough to consider what is best for all. It is a love that considers everyone & then does what is best for as many as possible.
Jonathan Edwards said; “Selfishness is a principle that contracts the heart, & confines it to self, while love enlarges it, & extends it to others.” If we our controlled by eros love only we will seek only what is best for us. If we are controlled by philia love only we will seek only what is best for our family, friends or tribe. However if God’s agape love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, as Romans 5:5 teaches, then we will go way beyond that & extend love towards everyone without partiality. Agape love has the ability to break the confines we set on love & extend it to all. As we have seen, Christ’s love is the most patient & kind, the least irritable & resentful. It is also the least selfish & the most insistent on seeking the good of others. Or as C. S. Lewis put it; “The Gift-love” of God “desires what is simply best for the beloved.” What is best for the whole church in other words!
Considering everyone, or being impartial, doesn’t mean everyone gets the chance to do all the same things equally. It doesn’t mean everyone gets a turn at everything; that would be disastrous in some cases. Being impartial simply means that when we come to making decisions in church life for the common good. We make those decisions not on the bases of what’s best for us, or who is closest to us, but on the bases of who is best suited for a particular task or ministry at a particular time. On the bases of who will edify the church most in doing so. Partiality would simply choose self, or a friend or family member or someone from the same culture, over what is genuinely & objectively best for the church. Impartiality, on the other hand, chooses what’s best for the church even if it means being unpopular with friends & family etc.
Agape loves looks not for what is easiest, it is not self-seeking in any respect, but always, always, always does what’s best for the church. Therefore being impartial means setting aside family, friendship & ethic connections when it comes to making choices based on what is best for the church. It means impartially considering everyone who is available for a ministry & choosing the person who’s gifting will be of greatest benefit to the church, assuming they have the attitude & character to back up their gifting.
Whenever I talk about seeking what’s best for the church, I mean seeking what is best for the majority, not the few. The majority who come & the majority who will potentially come as opposed to the few who harbour their own selfish ambitions; who put themselves, their families or friendship group first! I mean putting the growth & welfare of the church before our own ministry ambitions. I mean being willing to be misunderstood because the good of the church means more to us than what people think...
James 3:13-17 says; “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealously & selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast & be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy & selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder & every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle (NIV: considerate), open to reason (NRSV: willing to yield), full of mercy and good fruits, impartial & sincere.”
Clearly jealously & selfish ambition have nothing to do with the kingdom of God, they are “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” James says. He also highlights that the fruit of such sins is “disorder & every vile practice”. That’s the opposite of the harmony love brings!
Where does disorder come from? Scripture says here from jealously & selfish ambition, that’s where! And let’s be honest about this, people don’t only get jealous for themselves, they also get jealous & have selfish ambitions for their children, their husband or wife, or even their friends. All of this brings disorder & evil into local church life & it can be described as earthy or unspiritual at best or demonic at its worst. It’s important we see it that way or James wouldn’t have said so...
Selfishness is a difficult sin to expose because it is so easy to see in someone else but so difficult to recognise in ourselves. But let us not be deceived because we are all born selfish & we all are selfish to varying degrees with our interests, time, money & thoughts. Selfishness comes in many different forms. For example selfishness can consist of not stepping aside for the good of the church or it can consist of not stepping up for the good of the church. People of different temperaments struggle with different sins in different ways! One person may refuse to step aside from a ministry position because they are selfishly seeking what is best for self rather than the church at large. Another may refuse to step up to a ministry position & do what is best for the church because their own ease, time or comfort is more important to them than what’s best for the church. Both people are self-seeking in different ways...
In fact here are two questions we should ask ourselves from time to time, especially if we are leaders. Is it time for me to step aside or is it time for me to step up. And our answer needs to be motivated by what’s best for the church not what’s best for us or those closest to us. And it’s worth taking quality time with God before we answer such questions since our hearts can be deceitful above all else. This is vitally important because our choices in such moments are critical to the health of the church...
The Christian life is never about insisting on one’s own way, but about insisting on God’s way & what is best for others. Ultimately self-seeking stops us doing the greatest thing of all. It stops us loving the way Jesus loves. Whether we decide to step up or step aside what’s best for the church has to be our motivation, because “it’s not about me & it never will be”... Listen to these words from Philippians 2:19-22;
“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel.”
Could Philippians 2:20 be said of us? Or would we be found among the "all" of the next verse? Which sentence describes you best? Are you with Timothy or are you with everyone else? Are you genuinely concerned for the welfare of the church or are you seeking your own interests?
1 Cor. 10:23-24 NIV says; “I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’ – but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” Are you seeking your own good or the good of others? Down a few verses (32-11:1) it says; “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Let us turn to Luke 22:39-46 & read just a little of the example Jesus has set.
Jesus never insisted on having his own way, he was never self-seeking, but he choose the cross because he was all about doing what was best for his Church & the world. We could ask, at what point did Jesus refuse to insist on his own way? The answer would be “at every point!” He lived his entire earthly life for others & not himself. Yet this moment in the Gospel’s stands out to us because it was perhaps the hardest moment to choose the way of 100% selfless love. We need to know that there will be moments in our lives when it is a great battle to say “not my will, but yours, be done.” It will mean dying to self to live for others. If fact we can never truly live for the best of others until we learn to die to self. Jesus said in John 12:24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth & dies, it remains alone; but if it dies; it bears much fruit.” How much fruit would be produced if we all died to self? Can we pray that prayer with our Lord today? “Not my will, but yours, be done.” This prayer is opposite to insisting on one’s own way – it’s abandoning oneself to God’s way no matter what the personal cost.
We’ll never find God’s will for your life chasing after selfish ambitions, you’ll find it when you learn to do & desire & sacrifice for what is best for others. Because his will for us is that we would be selfless... And you may have to choose to do & sacrifice for before you have the desire, because remember it’s not about feelings but actions. Henri Nouwen wrote; “Pay attention to the people God puts in your path if you want to discern what God is up to in your life.” Jesus always done so & so should we.
Let's finish by reading Philippians 2:1-11. Close your eyes & meditate on the words.