November 18, 2012

Thinking Rightly about the Other

When I was growing up I played all the standard sports.  I had baseball in the summer, soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and soccer again in the spring, rinse, wash, repeat.  I did this for a couple of years until my folks wisely said, “You’ve got to choose.”  They understood well that maintaining that kind of a schedule for very long was going to do more harm than it was any good for me relationally, personally, and perhaps most important, spiritually.  Kids aren’t made to sustain that level of activity on a long term basis.  Just like we grown-ups need some downtime in order to stay healthy (and I don’t just mean physically), so do kids.  In fact, they need it even more than we do.  Anyway, the real challenge to all of this for me was not the schedule.  It was the fact that with the exception of soccer, I wasn’t very good at any of the standard sports.  I wasn’t very good, and I was really competitive.  I hated losing.  I still hate losing.  If there’s a way for me to be right, for me to win I’m going to seek it out almost without regard to the collateral damage I leave in my wake.  The other side of this, though, is that I’m also pretty aware of times and places in which victory is not going to be possible and look to cut my losses early.  In other words, I try not to get into fights I don’t have a pretty high measure of confidence from the outset that I’ll win.  Anybody else in here like this?

How many of you love to compete?  Be really honest here: who was looking around just a second ago to see if you got your hand up first?  Don’t raise your hands on that one.  Have you ever thought much about what it takes to compete well?  You have to have a desire to win.  Or, put slightly more negatively, you have to want your opponent to lose.  You have to want to beat your opponent.  Here’s the challenge: when we are set up against another person, there’s something intuitive in us that knows there isn’t any real difference between us and them.  In order to compete, then, we have to create one artificially.  We create this difference, fixate on it, and compete against that.  Lisa and I just finished reading through the Hunger Games trilogy together.  The premise of the books is that sometime in the fairly distant future, after World War 3, the land mass formerly known as the United States has been divided into twelve districts ruled over by the Capital.  Once a year the Capital selects two teenagers from each district, a boy and a girl, to compete in the Hunger Games.  The Hunger Games pit all 24 teens against one another in a battle to the death.  The winner gains his or her district extra rations of food for the ensuing year.  The author, Susanne Collins, did a really good job showing how these kids who weren’t so different from one another and under other circumstances might have been friends began creating these artificial differences so that they could gear themselves up for the reality of having to kill one another.  The series itself is rather violent, decidedly dystopian in its outlook, and if your kids or grandkids have read it you should too so you can talk about it with them, but on at least this point, it does a good job of using an extreme example to show how this drive to compete manifests itself.

Because the reality is that we compete in all kinds of arenas of life.  We compete in business.  We compete in school.  We compete in sports.  We compete in shopping.  We compete with our friends.  We compete with our family.  But of all these different areas in which competition is pretty normal and can even be healthy in some ways, there is one area in which competing is never helpful: marriage.  And yet, how often do we take the same spirit of competition that characterizes so much of the rest of our life and bring it right into the marriage relationship with us?

This morning finds us in the fourth part of our series, Married Well.  The big idea here is that while getting married is easy, staying married and more importantly staying married well is not.  We need to have the right foundation and the right structures in place in order to increase the likelihood of our finding success in this venture.  So far in this journey we’ve talked about the foundation and a couple of the structures we need.  From Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus we learned that the foundation of our marriages is Christ and the church.  That relationship gives us the interpretive framework for looking at our own.  If what we are doing is in line with how Christ treated the church we should go for it; if not, we should stop it at all costs.  We then used Paul’s comment about two becoming one flesh to look more closely at this idea in Moses’ zoomed in telling of the creation story from Genesis 2.  We were convinced that in marriage the husband and wife are not merely partners.  They are interdependent parts of the same body.  They no longer work well without the other.  Trying to maintain anything as “yours and mine” is nonsensical in marriage.  Finally last week we looked at the next major structure we need in place.  This one dealt with our words.  Words have incredible power in general and especially in marriage.  As a result of this, we were exhorted by Paul’s command in Colossians 4:6 to let our words be well-seasoned with grace.

Yes, our words must be well-seasoned with grace.  But, there’s actually something that comes logically prior to that.  Speaking graciously to our spouse is vital in marriage, but before a word exists on our tongues it is first born as an idea in our minds.  All our words start here.  If we don’t think rightly about our partner, we can’t speak rightly to them.  Indeed, in continuing to build on our marriage foundation, one of the things we have to keep in mind is: how can I follow the example of Christ in my marriage?  Certainly grace-seasoned words help.  Clinging to one another over and against all others helps.  But there is another piece necessary.  We must first think rightly about our spouse.  Well, not unsurprisingly, Paul has something to say about this as well.  This morning I want to take you just a few pages back from where we were last week to a passage that, again, was not written with marriage in mind, but whose ideas we can appropriate for our purpose this morning without fear of over- or under-interpreting.   In your Bibles find Philippians 2 with me.

Philippians is one of Paul’s happiest letters.  He had a special place in his heart for the Philippian church because of both their unwavering commitment to the truths he had expounded to them and their dedicated care of him even in difficult circumstances.  Throughout this letter Paul offers a wealth of encouraging advice for how believers in difficult circumstances can remain on the path of Christ.  The source of this faithful lifestyle is ultimately rooted in the example of Christ which Paul lays out here in glorious detail in what was probably a confessional hymn for the early church.  So then, let’s look together at Paul’s words here and as we go we’ll see if we can’t get some clarity on what it means to follow the example of Christ with a special focus on our marriages.  I’ll start reading at v. 3 if you’d like to follow along with me: “Do nothing from rivalry 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.”

Okay, let’s stop here for a minute and go back to the idea of competition we started talking about a few minutes ago.  Paul says to do nothing out of rivalry or conceit.  That’s a pretty broad statement.  What’s he talking about?  Well, he’s not outlawing all sporting events or games or contests or the like.  Let’s establish that right now.  This is not an anti-sports passage of Scripture.  As for what he is talking about, Paul’s talking about our relationships with the people around us.  None of the things we do for or even simply toward the people around us should be motivated by rivalry or conceit.  That sounds good, but what does even that mean?  Well, what does it look to act toward someone else out of rivalry?  Does it not mean that we embody the spirit of competition I described before?  Does it not mean that we find something about them to oppose and work toward the elimination of whatever it is?  For example, if we are competing with a co-worker for a position at work, we might find something about their character worth opposing and conclude that they shouldn’t get the job because they are not morally suited for it.  As a result, we begin to look for ways to undermine the likelihood of their getting the job.  We might try and sabotage their work or we might poison the well so-to-speak by sharing unfavorable facts about them in the spirit letting the truth be known.  This picture is made more complete when we add the idea of conceit, or more literally “vainglory,” to the discussion.  Vainglory is working for our own interests to the exception of all others except where they help advance our own.  What Paul is arguing is that in our behavior and mindset toward the people around us, but particularly those people who are our brothers and sisters in Christ or those people to whom we should be the closest relationally, we must eliminate all spirit of competition and of putting our own interests ahead of theirs.  This looks like ball player who works his very hardest to be the very best he can be in pursuit of seeing his team win every game, but who simultaneously celebrates good play and well-won victories by the other guys.  This is competing without rivalry or conceit and it is not an easy thing to do.  Especially in marriage.

You see, in marriage, we stand with the potential to lose more personally than in any other relationship.  The marriage relationship is the one in which we invest more of ourselves and thus it is also the one in which we stand to lose the most.  In marriage we run the risk of losing our finances, our personalities, our passions, our hopes, our dreams, our freedom, and the list goes on.  Think about it.  She stands in the way of you advancing your career as far as you might be able to on your own.  He stands in the way of you developing this or that ability to the extent possible.  She stands in the way of you seeing every fleeting desire or whim fulfilled.  He stands in the way of getting everything you always wanted.  There simply isn’t a way for you both to get everything you want.  Because of this, we compete.  She is the other.  He is the opponent.  We create those artificial differences, but we don’t have to because as men and women there are enough real differences.  Then we fixate on those and focus on how we can avoid or eliminate them.  It makes my heart sick every time I hear a man cast his wife or wives generally as the stereotypical “ball and chain.”  This is a man who is competing with his wife out of rivalry and conceit.  She is standing in the way of him doing something he’d rather be doing.  The same goes when women do this of husbands.  This is not the example of Christ.  And we have Paul’s command here to do nothing out of these two motivations.

So how do we do this?  How do we eliminate this kind of competition in marriage?  What does it look like?  Well for starters it means not keeping score.  How many of your keep score in your marriage?  You know what I’m talking about.  You don’t have a stat sheet anywhere, but you mentally keep track of all of times you mow the grass or fold the laundry.  Each entry like this is a point in your favor and every now and then you feel entitled to cash those points in for something you value.  Friends, don’t keep score in marriage.  If you’re keeping score then you’re trying to win.  If you’re trying to win then your spouse is your opponent.  Your spouse isn’t your opponent.

Instead Paul argues that we should treat the people around us as more significant, more important than we are. Have you ever been in a setting in which you weren’t the most important person in the room?  How about this: have you ever been to a wedding other than your own?  Who was the most important person there?  The preacher.  Okay, that’s not true.  It’s the bride.  Even the groom is just window dressing.  The wedding is the bride’s show.  She is the queen.  Well, how do you treat people who you know are more important than you?  How do you act around them?  Don’t you kind of look to them with at least a little bit of awe?  I mean, let’s be honest: if Billy Graham came in the room, how many of you would clam up and start doing silly things like a teenage girl meeting her favorite boy band for the first time?  Do you treat your spouse this way?  I’m not worried about “should” right now.  Do you?  Have you ever asked if she feels this way?  If not, why not?  Have you ever wondered why you don’t?  Look, Paul makes room for watching out for our own interests.  We need to do that to a certain extent.  His exhortation is to treat the interests of others and the others themselves as more important than ours.  Why don’t we do this?  Why don’t we follow the example of Christ in this manner?

I would submit to you that the reason is simple: we don’t think about them rightly.  Our view and understanding of our spouses is incomplete and off-kilter.  Grab your Bibles again and look at the next verse with me.  From v. 5: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”   Now, we’re going to talk about this in a lot more detail in a couple of months, but let me say this now: our minds play a huge role in our ability to work with the Spirit in order to live out of the example of Christ.  Notice that Paul doesn’t anything like “have this behavior among yourselves” or “have this belief among yourselves” or even “have this example among yourselves.”  He says that we are to have the mind of Jesus.  This flows from the same reasoning Paul applied in Romans 12:1 when He said that part of the reasonable service we are to offer up to God is a renewed mind.  Behavior flows very naturally from belief.  And belief begins in the mind.  Behaving toward our spouse the way we ought to requires not simply a commitment like the one we make at the altar.  It requires a complete mental transformation.  Now, for some folks, this happens at the altar.  But for most of us it happens over the course of a marriage in much the same way as we grow in our commitment to Christ over the course of a life spent learning to think about Him rightly.  But here’s the catch: we can’t think rightly about our spouse until we think rightly about our Lord.  It just won’t work otherwise.  As long as our thinking is colored by the kinds of things our culture values we will compete with our spouse.  We will look at the world through a zero sum gain lens (meaning there’s only so much to go around and when it’s gone too bad for the folks left holding the bag) and vie with them to get what we feel is rightly ours regardless of what it is.  Indeed, unless our view of the world is informed by the abundance of God, this mindset of scarcity is the only one that makes sense.  What we see is all there is and when it’s gone, it’s gone so we’d better get ours while we can.  When through the mind of Christ we grasp God’s wealth of resources, though, we are able to see that competing doesn’t make any sense.  It’s like a troop of ants coming across the Thanksgiving spread that’s going to be down in the fellowship hall later this evening and fighting with each other over who gets what.  It’s totally nonsensical.  This is why I tell every couple I marry that apart from a growing, active, healthy relationship with Jesus Christ that plays itself out in every area of your life you will never have fully the relationship you desire.  And if you find yourself thinking you do, your desires are too small.   If we are going to build properly on the foundation of Christ and the church, we have to strive to think like Jesus in our relationships.  But how?

Look with me at the next three verses and we’ll drive all of this home.  From v. 5 and then continuing: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God [meaning He was of the same substance of God, He was God], did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [not in the sense of “taken” but rather of “used for His own benefit”], but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men [that’s just Paul saying the same thing in three different ways].  And being found in human form [in other words, since He was fully human], he humbled himself [He did what humans are supposed to do] by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

So then, what did Jesus do?  What was the example He set that we’re to follow?  He put others first!  He put everyone else first.  He treated everyone else around Him as if they were more important than He was.  Now, were they in actuality?  Of course not!  He was the eternally preexistent second member of the Trinity, after all.  In fact, it’s worth your time sometime to meditate on the wonder of Jesus’ making Himself nothing, His self-emptying.  He didn’t give up any of His divine abilities in becoming human (He could still know what people were thinking, create matter, control the weather, and raise the dead for example).  Rather, He refused to leverage them for His own benefit, instead using them only at the discretion of the Father in a glorious example of the loving functional subordination among the members of the Godhead.  But more importantly, what does all of this mean for us and our marriages?  It means two things.  First, the value of your spouse relative to your own is utterly immaterial.  You are to treat him as if he was more important than you in the same manner Christ behaves toward you.  Second, and more important for our immediate purposes, how did Jesus put others first?  I mean, I don’t put others first very well.   I want what I want, when I want, how I want.  If that’s the case I’ll gladly serve you, but until then, I’m really just serving me.  How did Jesus do it so consistently?  And simply saying, “Well He was God,” is a cop out.  He was fully human and so He had to have done something that’s at least within the realm of possibility for us.

The answer lies in a little word in v. 6 that my translation actually obscures just a bit.  Verse 6 said that although Jesus was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God something to be grasped.  Other translations translate the word “count” as “consider.”  Jesus didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped.  What does it mean to consider in this sense?  It means He reasoned and made a mental decision to not leverage His divinity for His own good, but only for the eternal good of those around Him.  This was an intellectual decision on His part.  “Consider” is, in this sense, a cognitive word.  His mind led the way and His heart followed.  This is why Paul wrote: “Have this mind among yourselves, which was also [or is yours] in Christ Jesus.”  Here’s the key: if we want to do what Jesus did, we have to think as Jesus thought.

Here’s the truth, and it sounds so obvious, but in practice it’s so often overlooked.  Your spouse isn’t your enemy.  Your spouse isn’t your opponent.  She’s not your competition.  He’s not standing in the way of you becoming more fully who God designed you to be.  You are actually the only thing impeding that progress.  If you want to do what Jesus did, you have to think as Jesus thought.  You have to move your spouse out of the mental category of “personal impediment” and move her over to the category of “one for whom Christ died and whose spiritual growth has been entrusted at least partially into my care.”  Do you see the difference?  You have to move him out of the category of “tolerable irritation” and over to the category “one for whom Christ died and who I have been equipped to enable to become more fully who God designed to be.”  Do you see the difference?  The one category leads unavoidably to competition.  It leads to acting in ways designed to provide the kind of outcome you’ve deemed most necessary for you to experience (even if there are self-worth issues at play and it’s actually a somewhat negative outcome) regardless of the collateral.  But, if you want to do what Jesus did, you have to think as Jesus thought.  If you want to step into the role designed for you by Jesus Himself as a reflection of His mission while on earth, you have to condition your mind to make the mental choices and category distinctions He did.  If you want to successfully minister the Gospel of grace to those around you (which, by the way, is part of what it means to be a follower of Christ) with a special focus on your spouse, you have to make the cognitive decision to esteem both yourself and the people around you as Jesus does.  If you want to do what Jesus did, you have to think as Jesus thought.

We are left here, then, with the third major structure resting atop our foundation.  Christ and the church provide the model.  The first pillar is the one fleshness described by Moses.  The second pillar is grace-seasoned words that foster a climate in which that oneness can be experienced.  This morning we have erected a third pillar: shaping our minds so that we think rightly about our spouses in order that we can choose grace-seasoned words in the first place.  If we want to do what Jesus did, we have to think as Jesus thought.  Next week be here for the final installment of our series when I share with you the final pillar which is in many ways a continuation and further application of what we’ve talked about this morning.  If you want to do what Jesus did, you have to think as Jesus thought.  Think rightly, friends.