In troubled times, “looking out for Number One” is absolutely the wrong thing to do. Just as a threefold cord is not easily broken, so we as believers benefit by facing the certain troubles as a unified body, looking out for and supporting one another. Troubled times are the worst times to be fragmented or to go it alone.
Paul pleads with the Philippian believers to be
of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others (Php 2.2-4 NASB).
This verb “to be of [a] mind” occurs 10 times in this brief letter (Php 1.7; 2.2 [2x], 5; 3.15 [2x], 19; 4.2, 10 [2x]); it’s a major theme. How we think, how we set our attitude, has everything to do with how we fare in this world.
The kind of mind Paul describes here goes against our instincts. When we have problems, we’re inclined to give attention to them, not to the needs of others. But that’s illogical, even if natural. If we concentrate on our own problems, there’s just one person trying to take care of them—and that one person is limited in his creativity and strength. But if he takes that limited strength and creativity and applies it to the problems of others—many others—they will all benefit. And as they reciprocate and turn their attention to helping him with his troubles, he gets the input of exponentially more creativity and strength than he could ever have applied to his concerns by himself.
Paul spends the rest of this chapter giving examples—and he begins with the greatest of all. Christ himself provides the supreme example of selflessness by not clinging to his divine privileges, but adding to his person a genuinely human nature, living among us, and even dying in our place—and dying the most cruel and ignominious death ever conceived.
Because I’ve written elsewhere on this passage, I won’t develop it at length here. But Christ is certainly the ultimate example of selfless service in troubled times. And as we are “in him” (Php 3.9), we are certain to be empowered by him to live as he did (Php 2.13).
There are three more examples that fill out the chapter.
Paul encourages the Philippians to imitate him (Php 2.17-18). This is not an apostle holding himself up as some great one—that would make nonsense of the entire chapter—but a man who has learned to serve, and who counts all his earlier achievements, which are considerable (Php 3.4-6), as rubbish, in order to win Christ and be found in him (Php 3.7-8), inviting his friends to join him in this delightful and joyous exercise. “Come on in!” he shouts, “The water’s fine!”
Another example is Timothy. Amidst a school of fish “looking out for Number One” (Php 2.21), Timothy swims upstream; he “will genuinely be concerned with your welfare” (Php 2.20). When Timothy arrives, the church will do well to follow his example.
But in the meantime, Paul is sending Epaphroditus (Php 2.25). Everything we know about this man is in this verse and one more later in the epistle (Php 4.18). It’s intriguing that he’s named for the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite; his name literally means “On Aphrodite,” a term that gamblers would use as a wish for luck. From that pagan background he came to Christ and is probably a leader in the church at Philippi, who has come to Rome to serve Paul for an extended time and is now returning, carrying this letter.
Selfless service. Rapt attention to what others need, at the expense of your own assets.
This is how you deal with troubled times.