If we’re honest, unity can be a trial for God’s people. Selfish ambition, and vain conceit crouch at the door of every Christian church. Envy and rivalry rear their ugly heads in our Bible study groups, pastoral staff meetings, members meetings, councils, synods, and Christian ‘tribes’. The rise and fall of Christian leaders often bear testimony to those who look to their own interests and not to the interest of others. And the pain and grief of such behaviour can cause irreparable division and damage. That’s why unity is deeply cherished in God’s church.

Unity can be a trial for God’s people. … That’s why unity is deeply cherished.

But not all unity is good. The unity of over 2000 protestors invading the Capitol building in Washington DC (Jan 2021) was lethal. The unity of the 11 people involved in the gang rape and torture of a 20-year-old woman in East Delhi (Jan 2022)[1] was evil. And the unity of the human race at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) was an assault upon God.

However, a Christ-exalting, God-glorifying, gospel-saturated unity is deeply cherished. It is the kind of unity that Paul exhorted the Philippians to embody by ‘living as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ.’ (Phil 1:27)[2]

First, gospel citizenship entails a gospel-wrought unity in the face of opposition from the outside. Paul urged them to contend as one soul in the gospel to face this hostility! As such, dwelling in unity would be a sign to their enemies of their destruction—and, to the Philippians, their own salvation. (Phil 1:27-30)

Gospel citizenship entails a gospel-wrought unity in the face of opposition from the outside.

But this citizenship involved a gospel-wrought unity in the face of division on the inside. That’s why Paul urged the Philippians to do nothing out of selfish ambition but in humility count others more significant than themselves (c.f. Phil 2:3). Ultimately, this means contending for one mind by conforming to the mind of Jesus:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Although he was God, Jesus didn’t take advantage of his status. No, he emptied himself. But what did Jesus empty himself of? He did not empty himself of his glory. Nor did he empty himself of his deity. Rather, he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave.

From the heights of heaven, the second person of the triune God descends down, down, down to become human. As Ray Galea writes: ‘In a world where you’re lucky if someone will cross the street to help you, God crossed the universe to help you in the flesh’[3].

Jesus wasn’t trapped by his Father’s plan … This is the first time in the Bible that we have a consenting sacrifice.

Please note, Jesus wasn’t trapped by his Father’s plan. He chose his role. Notice the verbs: he emptied himself; he humbled himself; he became obedient. This is the first time in the Bible that we have a consenting sacrifice.[4]

Please note also that Jesus chose to become a human slave. What do slaves empty themselves of? Their rights. Slaves serve people who are in a class above them. So, with the mindset of a slave, Jesus treated everyone as if they were in a class above him. He gave and gave and gave—to the point of death, even death on a cross.

In a world where you’re lucky if someone will cross the street to help you, God not only crossed the universe to help you by humbling himself as a man, he came to take the raging ocean of righteous wrath that we deserve on the Cross.

You want to see what it means to treat others as ‘better than yourselves’? Then look at Jesus.

Better Than…

To consider others better than yourselves does not mean pretending that someone is superior to you in intellect, or sport, or musical ability if they are clearly not. That would be as foolish as Rafael Nadal coming up to you and saying: ‘Oh you are so much better at playing tennis than I am.’ That’s not humility!

To consider others ‘better than yourselves’ is to treat them as if they are in a higher class than you are. It is to be their slave. It is to lose yourselves in the interests of others rather than your own—like Jesus! Genuinely humble people don’t put themselves down in comparison to others. Rather, they forget about themselves. They lose themselves in the interest of others.

Genuinely humble people don’t put themselves down in comparison to others. Rather, they forget about themselves.

As C.S. Lewis allegedly wrote: ‘Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.’ It’s a wonderful quote that captures Lewis’ thinking, but it doesn’t belong to Lewis. It in fact, belongs to Rick Warren in Purpose Driven Life. [5]

But listen to what Lewis actually wrote:

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble person, he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him, it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise 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.[6]

If you don’t think you are proud, you really are very proud indeed. Pride can sadly manifest palpably amongst God’s people when they do think more highly of themselves, or their church, or their ‘tribe’ than they ought. But on the other hand, pride can manifest in a false sense of insecurity. Insecurity is a complex phenomenon that is multi-faceted. But is it not possible that one of the reasons we feel insecure is because we are constantly comparing ourselves to others, or competing with others? With laser like application, the famous Puritan Richard Baxter wrote: ‘Two dangerous rocks which our natures are prone to dash upon: security and pride” [7]

Pride can manifest in a false sense of insecurity.

My guess is that we all know someone who is genuinely humble the way Lewis & Warren describe it. Whenever you meet with them you always come away encouraged. That’s because somehow, they always turn the conversation around to you. And they lose themselves in your interests rather than their own. If they hear of the fruit of your ministry, they genuinely rejoice rather than envy.

Constant Service

In 2020, I went to the funeral of Helen Grant—the wife of Colin Grant, who is the pastor of the Reformed church in Canberra. I discovered from the eulogies that Helen was terrible at languages, and not even great with her native English! But she constantly served international students in her home. She loved them, cooked for them, cleaned for them, and tirelessly cared for them, even though she found it hard to speak with them. One of her children said: She ‘joyfully pursued excellence in the ordinary and the mundane for the glory of God.’ She displayed gospel humility even to the point of her own death just like her Lord Jesus by conforming her mind to his mind. And in death she can say with the apostle Paul: ‘For me to live is Christ and to die is gain’ (Phil 1:21). For look at the exaltation of Jesus

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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 2:9-11)

When Jesus is exalted, it is right because he is indeed Lord of heaven and earth. Everyone will kneel before him as Lord, either willingly or unwillingly. That’s the pointy end of the gospel! And yet, even as his greatness is irresistibly set forth—it is still ultimately for the glory of his Father! Here is gospel-shaped humility displayed even in Jesus’ exaltation.

The only real antidote to division in our churches (nourished by pride) is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Only this gospel will enable us to strive side by side in the face of opposition from the outside. Only this gospel will humble us to conform our minds to the mind of Jesus. Only this gospel will unite us in confession that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/india-alleged-gang-rape-torture-woman-paraded-in-streets-delhi-arrests/.
[2] Where the NIV has ‘conduct’, and the ESV has ‘manner of life’, The original Greek reads: ‘Live as citizens’.
[3] Ray Galea ‘Eager to Serve’ p 19.
[4] Ibid p20.
[5] Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, where it appears as part of Day 19, ‘Cultivating Community.’ https://aaronarmstrong.co/what-cs-lewis-wrote-is-better-than-what-he-didnt/.
[6] Mere Christianity, Book 3, Chapter 8, ‘The Great Sin.’
[7] The Bruised Reed, Puritan Paperbacks, Banner of Truth, p 19.