If you were to ask me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was a no brainer: a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. I’m still holding out hope, and I’m willing to expand my options beyond Dallas.
Other popular answers include being a fireman or a policeman. A nurse. A doctor. A ballerina. A gymnast. Or a social media influencer.
I have never heard anyone, a child or an adult, confess that their personal ambition is to become nothing. Nothingness goes against everything we are wired to pursue. We want to be something. Maybe even something great.
Great students. Great athletes. Great parents. Some of us want to be great preachers. We want to be great in business, in art, in music, in gardening, in interior design, in construction, in automotive repair — great in whatever we pursue.
What we don’t want to be is nothing. A no-name. A nobody. We want to be and be known for something.
For many if not most of us, what we consider our greatness is our identity. My identity is whatever I do that receives praise. To put it another way, we could say that my greatness is my righteousness.
Some of us spend a lifetime building and polishing our righteousness, like a new car or prized vase. Glorying in its shine, we revel in compliments when people comment on its beauty and splendor. Truth be told, in the flesh, we all live for praise.
It is said that German-American actress/singer Marlene Dietrich used to invite friends over to her home for dinner only to have them sit and listen for hours to ovations from her international performances. She didn’t play the actual scores, but just the ovations, providing commentary, “That was Frankfurt. This is London. This is New York and here is Chicago.”
I know. That sounds creepy. But it is no more creepy than my unspoken desire to have such a soundtrack to play for my dinner guests. Maybe an old photo album is the next best thing.
The apostle Paul, as a master theologian and doctor of the soul, was well-acquainted with the human heart’s desire for praise and approval. His own story included a preoccupation with the pursuit of self-glory as a rising religious star in Judaism. If he had a vinyl of ovations, just like Marlene, he would have played it for his dinner guests, too.
But then something happened to Paul that changed the trajectory of his life. While on a road to the city of Damascus to arrest Christians, Paul, who then was known as Saul, was blinded by Jesus. When he regained his sight, everything had changed, including how he viewed his former self-righteous self.
He writes about this transformation in Philippians 3:4–11. First, he summarizes what he formerly prized as glory. Then he throws it all away like garbage.
Here are his words:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. 7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Without taking the time to provide commentary on this entire passage, I want us to see the radical change in perspective that took place in Paul’s life when Jesus gave him new eyes. Previously, he had been motivated by self-glory in the pursuit of self-righteousness by finding his greatness is some personal attainment for which he would be known and praised. But upon seeing the beauty of Jesus’ gift-righteousness, he gladly, even enthusiastically, was willing to count his self-glory as refuse. Like rubbish to be tossed into the bin and carried away to the dump. The actual Greek word he uses is quite graphic, implying not only garbage but animal excrement. Apparently, he really wanted to contrast the two kinds of righteousness for what they really are.
One is worthless; the other, priceless.
At that moment, Paul became what we all fear becoming in ourselves: nothing. But for him, it was not a moment of death and loss but of life and gain. Becoming nothing entailed emptying himself of the self-righteousness that he found in his lineage, accomplishments, and moral reputation. Not that those things were bad but that they had become idols in which he found his greatness — his identity, his righteousness. Having emptied himself of his self-righteousness, he was able to be filled with the perfect, gift-righteousness of Jesus. No longer was Paul concerned about his own reputation. His passion became magnifying the reputation of Jesus as Savior of sinners.
A Sherpa’s Wisdom
I began a recent post by noting how the Nepali Sherpa, Kami Rama, who holds the Mt. Everest summit record with twenty-four successful climbs to the peak, says that the most dangerous and deadly part of climbing the mountain is not the ascent but the descent. Far more people die coming down the mountain just after achieving mountaineer glory.
This is exactly where churches are on the journey down the mountain of COID-19 to base camp as we plan to re-open in person services. We have been through shut down together. We have summited the virus. Now we must head back to base camp and reopen.
But as Kami Rama warns, the descent is dangerous territory. How we proceed could make or break us. And I do not mean that our plans will make or break us, but our attitude toward the plans and toward each other — that is what will make the difference.
Differing opinions concerning re-opening are fracturing communities all over the country. The church will not be immune from the challenges as we navigate our way back to base camp. But I am convinced that the Lord intends to use this for good in the church. One reason for my confidence is because, on this next leg of our journey together, we are being called to become nothing. Otherwise, rather than uniting around our common mission, we easily could break into factions where personal agendas and personal preferences turn the ship from missional harmony into ecclesiastical mutiny.
A Template for Becoming Nothing
The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian church in Greece from prison, likely from Rome around 60 AD or so. Not only was Paul experiencing persecution for his faith, so were the believers in Philippi. They were under extraordinary stress. Much like we are today.
Paul knew what the Philippian church needed as they faced personal and congregational pressures. To remain united, they not only needed to clarify their mission but they needed to commit to putting the good of others above themselves for the sake of the mission. They were being called to radical humility and love. This would demand they apply their new ambition of becoming nothing by emptying themselves like Paul and more importantly, like Jesus.
Let’s turn one chapter back to Philippians 2:1–11, where Paul expresses a deep desire for the church’s unity in mission, warns about personal agendas wrecking the mission, and extols the example of Jesus as the template to emulate in their relationships with one another, especially during a season of high stress and uncertainty.
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The key phrase in this text contains these words in verse 7: “[Jesus] made himself nothing [how?] by taking the very nature of a servant.” With this simple expression we discover that it was through Jesus becoming nothing for us that we have become something to God. As verse 1 says, we are now “united with Christ,” whereby through that union we receive his righteousness as our new identity. Having received the tenderness of mercy and compassion of grace, we now are objects of the Father’s eternal affection. We who believe are no longer condemned but instead are fully forgiven, sons and daughters. We no longer have to earn righteousness. We are able to receive it through union with Christ. Like a lamp that receives its power from being plugged into to a source of electricity, we are plugged into Jesus and receive our identity from the source of perfect righteousness when we believe the gospel.
These blessings are the result of Jesus emptying himself, which is a good translation of the original Greek word, kenoō, in verse 7.While studies in theology are extensive concerning various theories of the kenosis — or emptying — of Christ, we know that by becoming a human being, even though he retained his deity, Jesus disrobed his glory from his human form to become the King who dressed among his people as a pauper.
I don’t want us to miss the significance of choice. Jesus’ emptying was a choice. He wasn’t constrained unwillingly into removing his glory but consciously emptied himself of his glory. In the same way, he wasn’t forced into the humiliation of crucifixion but he chose it, as verse 8 says, “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death.”
In John 10, Jesus himself claims that his life would not be taken from him. He would lay it down voluntarily. It is imperative that we make note of the decision involved in Jesus’ emptying himself of glory, as the same choice will be demanded of us, since making ourselves nothing will be an active, not a passive endeavor. Emptying ourselves of self-glory is going to require commitment and conviction.
The Incarnation of Seth Holmes
Dr. Seth Holmes is a medical anthropologist at Cal-Berkeley. During his career, he has been awarded both MD and PhD degrees. In 2013, he published a groundbreaking book entitled, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States.
While many academic texts are written from the confines of proverbial ivory towers, Dr. Holmes’ study is “based on 18 months of full-time, on-site ethnographic research within a transnational migrant agricultural circuit linking villages in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, to agricultural areas of Central California, Oregon, and Washington State.”
In layman’s terms, Seth became a migrant worker. For a year and a half, he stripped himself of his professorial titles, wore their clothes, picked blueberries and strawberries by hand, lived in uninsulated plywood shacks, and worked to meet the same quotas as other farm laborers.
Seth Holmes became a migrant to understand the plight of the migrant. He wanted to identify with their struggles and chronicle their impoverished conditions in order to raise awareness. His desire was that through his sacrifice, someone would rise up to improve their lives.
When Jesus became like us, he didn’t merely want to understand us. He didn’t come just to help us. He came to save us as one of us.
To become one of us, he had to empty himself. He had to become… nothing. At least nothing compared to his true identity.
In his kenosis, Jesus as King of Kings became the servant of servants. The one who deserved honor chose the dishonor and humiliation of a cross, the method of Roman execution reserved for the worst of criminals. But Jesus wasn’t a criminal. You are I were.
In verses 3–4, Paul challenges us, “3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” When I evaluate myself in view of that charge, I have to confess that I have failed miserably. Guilty as charged. I assume you are, too.
In the flesh, humans are selfish, self-centered, and conceited. Do I hate that in myself? Yeah, big time. Look the threat we face in the descent is not someone else’s problem, it is my problem. It is an issue I have to deal with and confess.
But the cross tells me that if I look to Jesus as my sin-bearer, who endured justice before the law of God so that I could receive mercy as a gift of God, and believe that he has paid the debt in full that my sin deserved — through trusting in the sacrifice of Jesus, I am forgiven of all charges.
Here is what this means. When I by faith am able to behold Jesus emptying himself of his glory, making himself nothing, putting my interests above his own, valuing me more than his own life, I am empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the same — to empty myself for others.
- To empty myself of self-importance.
- To empty myself of human wisdom.
- To empty myself of all my distorted desires, personal agendas, and idols that I look to for a name, a reputation, and righteousness.
When I become nothing and Jesus becomes everything, I am set free from the burden of creating a name for myself and am able to live with the new ambition of magnifying the greatness of Jesus. That is what I want — a new ambition that exalts Jesus as Savior and King, to the glory of God the Father. I bet that is what you want, too.