Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. – Philippians 2:3
I was, as Barbara Pym says, composing myself for sleep last night–scrolling through various websites and looking for a book in the chaos of my bedside table, both at the same time–when Matt, as he so often does, showed me something ghastly on the Internet. It was a hit job by one Christian against another Christian. The title was pure click bait. I’m not going to link it because it’s Sunday and on Sunday I think about Jesus…as opposed to the rest of the days…that’s just a little joke. I skimmed the piece and some of the comments and then returned to the sanity of a real book, but all night I kept waking up to those immortal words penned by St. Paul to his favorite church, “Count others as more significant than yourselves.”
It is an absurd proposition of course. It can’t be done. I know this because occasionally I try. I will, by sheer grit, try to tot up the ways that various people I know in real life are better and more significant that I am. It’s ok if you stop at better because there are lots of people better than I at various kinds of things. I have a friend who can paint things, and a friend who is funny, and some friends who don’t come to pieces over numbers, and a friend who is patient, and one who can sing and so on and so forth. All my friends are better in one way or another. I probably fall somewhere in the middle of the pack for intelligence, beauty, and Christian virtue. I am by no means the worst person ever, but I’m not the best either.
And that’s what we do, we compare ourselves to other people and draw our sense of worth, of value, of merit from those comparisons. It’s easier now a days, of course, because it can be done in the comfort of one’s own Facebook and twitter feed, or in reading other people’s blogs. Surely my best Instagram moments match pretty well against other people’s worst ones. So I must be a Good Person.
But that’s not what Paul is talking about. He isn’t saying, know that you’re the worst person ever. He’s saying, count–make a decision to credit–other people as more significant than yourself. And then he doesn’t go on to specify which other people.
This business of counting, it’s not here only, it’s the basis of his hope for the church in every place and age. He describes what he means else where. Men and women, for instance, in marriage are supposed to count each other as Christ and the church. Neither of them are, but they make a mental adjustment, a decision to behave as if that were so. Goodness knows, Matt isn’t Jesus, nailed to the cross (although occasionally I try to wack him up there) and I’m not the pure spotless church. We are not the lovely couple you see at the end of the book of Revelation. Sometimes I am better, sometimes he is. That is neither here nor there. But we count the other to be a certain way. We make a decision, most of the time badly, to credit the other person with status and significance.
Take it beyond the bonds of marriage, and assuredly most mothers easily accord a great significance to the child. When you’ve had a baby you find a lot of ways to bathe that baby and feed that baby and love that baby and wake up with that baby, and then, six weeks later, you discover that you have to remember how to do those things for yourself. It’s not too hard to let the child go ahead of you into life, although, sometimes, the struggle is real.
But Paul doesn’t say to only count your husband and children as more significant than yourself. He says, “others.” And there the matter lies.
And so I return to the fact that this is, of course, impossible. It can’t be done. Who are these others? And, more importantly, what if they are wrong? Dreadfully wrong? Because they are.
It’s blisteringly hard enough to count someone as more significant than yourself when you basically agree with that person (maybe your husband), or when you are shaping the character of that person (some of your children), but what of the person who is wrong, and perhaps even wrong on the Internet? Is that person more significant?
I mean, of course not. That person is an idiot and should be destroyed. Or. Maybe that person is the Other included in this terrifying verse.
And the thing is, it must be, because consider the distance between Jesus and us, between the Throne of Heaven and our human muck. Paul goes on to describe what the Son of God did in order to rescue humanity. He “did not count equality with God as something to be grasped.” Don’t snerk that he didn’t have to because he was already God. That’s not helpful. No, in terms of human people being good and bad, and in the realm of people being wrong, in both cases he was completely all the way good when we were bad, and right when we were wrong, and yet counted us as more significant than himself.
The heaping pile of our wrongness, and I know this is hard to fathom, is infinitely greater than the opposing political side’s wrongness in our never ending civic and cultural divisions. If say, you’re a Trump supporter, and you think the #neverTrumpers should go away forever, you still need Jesus. The amount of your wrongness compared with the Son of God is still much greater than amount of the other person’s wrongness for not understanding or accepting Trump. Or worse even, Milo. Flip it around, and if you desperately hate Trump and think he is worse than Hitler and all Trump supporters should go crawl in a hole with all their wrong wrongness, you are still more wrong in comparison to Jesus. You are wrong, and yet he counts you as more significant than himself by dying for your sins.
It is pretty hideous–this command. It is the complete undoing of the Internet. And that’s why we better not even think about praying for this to be possible.
On the other hand, isn’t it sort of ugly and awful, the hits we level one against another? Wouldn’t it be possible for the person you disagree with and know to be a boob and a knave to still go free? To still be allowed personhood? Perhaps you would like to be accorded some kind of respectful consideration. Perhaps you would like others to count you as anything at all, even if it can’t be as much as they count themselves.
It really does come down to the word Count. Jesus counted us as more significant than himself, which was of course Not True. We are not anything like him and all his perfection. We are sitting each in our own pit, destined to perish for being both wrong and bad. But he laid aide his glory and his crown and died a brutal and humiliating death so that we could each go free and clear. And then we are counted as members of his own body, counted as good, counted as worthy of heaven. It’s only because he counted us as more significant than himself that we can have any life at all, and that we can feed on his life enough to do the same for others.
Can the person you think is wrong still be allowed to be a person? Can the person you think is bad still be allowed to have a life? Or does your measure of yourself mean that your significance takes over the whole world? Either way, go to church and let your mind’s eye consider the one who considered you. Ask him to help you do this impossible thing. And now I will go find some pretty art to put on Facebook.