Giving The Benefit Of The Doubt
For the next few minutes I want to explore the following passage of Scripture with you. I want to dive in and really look into the application of this passage;
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 4 Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others." - Philippians 2:3,4 (CSB)
The challenge with well known verses of Scripture is that the real meaning behind them gets lost, because we focus more on the familiarity than on the meaning. Because the above mentioned verse is so well known people assume they know what it means but I want to ask this question, "What does it look like when put into action?"
If I were to ask you, "What does, 'considering others as more important than yourself,' actually mean?" "What would your answer be?"
I have asked this question many times and usually get answers around prioritizing others over yourself or some form of going out of your way to do a nice deed for someone else. However, I think it goes much deeper. I would venture to say that the answer goes down to the very fabric of humanity. Something that reveals our very nature.
At the very beginning of recorded history in the Bible, Isaiah refers to the Devil as the "Shining Morning Star." We know this is referring to him, because he is the only one who fits the description of "falling from the heavens," and being a "destroyer of nations."
In Isaiah's refrain about this event he comments the following;
13 "You said to yourself,
'I will ascend to the heavens;
I will set up my throne
above the stars of God.
I will sit on the mount of the gods’ assembly,
in the remotest parts of the North.
14 I will ascend above the highest clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.'" - Isaiah 14:13,14 (CSB)
The devil's desire was to be like or even greater than God. He wanted his throne higher than God's. He wanted to be above the highest clouds. The Devil was the originator of selfish desires. He tricked Eve into believing that God was holding something back from her and to go ahead and eat the food from the Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil. Instead of listening and trusting God, he told her to essentially be selfish and believe that God was keeping something back from her.
I share this back story because that is what is at the root of why Paul gives this command in Philippines chapter 2. Paul knew that he was writing instructions that go against the selfishness that is inside of each one of us.
So what does it mean? What does it look like?
We have to begin by challenging our own presuppositions. This means that we can't just assume because we meant good, we are good. For most people, they judge themselves off their intentions - "I meant to do well." "I wanted to go." "I am sure they will understand that I would have if I could have." Some form of these statements are shared when we don't follow through with the opportunities that are before us. And while that may be normal for us, the problem comes in when we don't extend that same level of grace in our judgement towards others. Instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt we usually say things like, "Why didn't she show up?" "Why didn't he help me?" "I can't believe they didn't do what I wanted them to do!"
You see, we judge ourselves off our intentions and others off their actions. I think part of what Paul is speaking to in Philippians 2 is taking that paradigm and flipping it on its head. Instead of judging others based on their actions, we should hold ourselves to that standard. And instead of judging ourselves on our intentions, we should reserve that for how we judge others. (A quick note here, I can hear someone thinking, "But we aren't supposed to judge anyone." I agree, but I am not talking about final judgment or casting aside judgement, but the form of how we think about others. Judgement here is more about how we form our thoughts about others. Thoughts that form and lead to our actions towards others.)
"Consider others as more important than yourselves," means that we judge like this - "I bet they meant well." "I know they would have, if they could have."
This paradigm shift takes some time to get used to and some intentionality to remember to use it, but when we regularly put that type of thinking into action we slowly stop being critical of others. We slowly stop judging them on ways that they have "failed" us. Somewhere along the way we become critical of ourselves, our own thoughts and our actions. This is how we are able to esteem, as other translations put it, others better than ourselves.
As we stop judging others based on our own selfishness a process starts in our hearts and our minds and we are able to begin looking out for their best interest. Paul said in verse 4 that we are to look out for the interests of others. We no longer think the worst about their intentions and begin trying to find ways to help them succeed.
There is an assignment that I use with couples that I am helping to prepare for marriage. I have them list things that they can do to better themselves and prepare themselves to be the best spouse possible. Then I have them make another list of ways that they can help their spouse to succeed in marriage. What they end up learning is that they really can help their spouse succeed in marriage as they focus not only on themselves, but by focusing on the needs of their partner. The other thing that they learn is that they can help their spouse not only succeed in marriage, but also in life.
We all have the ability to help others thrive in this life, but it only happens when we stop focusing selfishly on ourselves and start focusing selflessly on others.
I believe this is partly what Paul had in mind when he penned the words of Phillipians 2.
Today, may we look closely at our own actions and may we give the benefit of the doubt to others. May we look for ways that we can serve those around us.