I remember the moment like it was yesterday.
I was standing at the front of a bus with 50 teenagers seated before me. We were on a week-long mission trip, sleeping on gym floors, taking cold showers, and being stretched way outside our comfort zones. The morning had been rough, attitudes were sinking, and it was my job to rally the team.
I reminded them of our mission — to bring hope to those less fortunate than us — to endure a little hardship before returning to lives of relative ease and comfort.
“Let’s keep the goal in front of us!” I encouraged before concluding: “I need you to remember: life is not about you.”
“Well, Pastor Rick, it’s not about you either!”
The reply flew out of her mouth before she realized it had happened, coming at me like a line drive off the tip of a bat. It was a student who had been struggling with the idea that life indeed was not all about her. Just a few weeks earlier, as we had been talking about the concept of putting others first, she had shared an observation with me: “you say life isn’t all about me, but I’m the only person who’s always there. If my life was a movie, I would be the only person to appear in every scene.”
This analogy has stuck with me, and it’s a prime example of why I love working with teenagers. They think outside the box, they challenge status quo, and they have not yet become too sophisticated to blurt out their struggles, right or wrong.
There is so much truth in this statement. If our lives were the only movie, then indeed, we are the main characters. But to think of our lives in this way is to miss the larger story happening all around us. It’s the grand story that God has been unfolding even before He spoke the words: “Let there be light!”
And when we identify our lives as a minuscule subplot in a much larger story, we find meaning and purpose like never before. Like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon or staring into the starry night sky, there is something humbling, and freeing and life-giving about a vastness larger than ourselves.
Paul calls us into this larger story with these words in Philippians 2: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (v. 3-4)
These words sound beautiful and idyllic — everyone considering others as more important than themselves. This is the world we want to live in — the type of person we aspire to become. At least until we merge onto I-4, or try to find a parking space at Target, or have to make it through that next family reunion.
Putting others first is easy, until you disagree and find others’ desires competing with your own.
So how do we live this? How do we become people known for putting others first?
Paul gives us a bit of the answer in the next verse: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” We will never find humility by focusing on ourselves. Humility is not natural, it’s supernatural. It’s not something we find within, but something that occurs when we turn our focus outward looking first to Christ and then to others.
There are three keys to doing that well:
Remember the greater story.
Remember that your story is important because it is your story. But it is even more important because it is attached to a greater story. God designed you with a purpose in mind, and that purpose is found in the midst of the mundane. Your dreams, your desires, your disappointments are all important. The details of your life are important. God cares about them and has promised that “even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:30) but they are also important because you have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared.” (Ephesian 2:10)
In other words, there are people that only you can impact, a story that only you can live, a legacy that only you can leave behind. As you move through the days that make up your life, remember the greater story. The people you encounter are all part of your purpose — your family, your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers — they’ve all been placed in your life with a purpose. They will shape you and you will influence them.
And as you remember the greater story, you will find the value of your own story increases exponentially.
Remember the future.
When trying to count others more important than ourselves, it is always helpful to remember the future. Far too often our immediate desires are in conflict with our ultimate desires, and “winning the battle” sometimes sets us back in our attempt to “win the war.” So when we find ourselves in the midst of conflict, it’s always best to take a deep breath and ask: will this path deliver me at my preferred future? Usually, the path we should take is not the path of least resistance.
The author of Hebrews reveals this as a strategy that Jesus used on his way to the cross. “Looking to Jesus… who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” When striving to put all of humanity ahead of himself, when seeking to count others as more significant than himself, Jesus purposefully remembered his future and located his joy there.
Paul describes this future to us in Philippians 2: “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.”
It was in remembering his future that Jesus found it possible to endure the cross. It will be in remembering your future that you will find it possible to serve others, improve your relationships, and count others as more significant than yourself.
Remember the past.
Regardless what your past story is, if you are a Christian, you have one. Maybe your life before Christ was full of wild parties and blatant sin, or perhaps your story and sin were a little less obvious, quietly obscured by self-righteous, joyless obedience. But whatever your past, it was offensive to God.
And despite your offense, God loves you, forgave you, and brought you into His family. This truth can empower you and as you rest in the grace that has been extended to you, you will find grace to extend to others. Remembering how far God has carried us and how much He loves us strengthens us to think of ourselves less and others more, because we know that our truest needs have already been met.
No, the big story isn’t about us, but God has graciously called us to play a part in it. By recalling the past and the future and practicing humility in the present, we can live out our calling with the mind and the heart of Christ.