Question: "What does it mean to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit (Philippians 2:3)?"
Answer: Philippians 2:3–4 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Paul goes on to instruct the Philippians to have the same mindset as Jesus when relating to others, and he details just how humble Jesus was. What does it mean to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit?
First, let’s define a few terms. Selfish ambition can be understood as “motivation to elevate oneself or to put one’s own interests before another’s.” It is a self-above-others approach. The Greek term here carries with it a connotation of contentiousness. In fact, the King James Bible translates the word as “strife.” Vain conceit means “excessive pride” or “self-esteem that has no foundation in reality”; vain conceit is an elevated and incorrect sense of self. Therefore, doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit means not letting our actions be motivated by selfishness, pride, or one-upmanship.
We can learn how to avoid acting out of selfish ambition or vain conceit by looking at the contrasting words in the same context. The opposite of being selfish and vain is to “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” (Philippians 2:3–4, ESV). We must learn to be others-focused, not self-focused. If we’re putting others first, we won’t be conceited or proud or overly ambitious. It’s hard to be self-important when we’re considering others as more important.
In Philippians 2:1–2 Paul writes, “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, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” It is through understanding our salvation that we can live in unity with other believers and love them in Christ. The basis of our being like-minded and free of strife is four-fold: 1) we are united with Christ, 2) we are comforted with God’s love, 3) we have the same Spirit, and 4) we have been given tender compassion for others. When we truly see how much Christ has done for us and understand the fullness of His love, pride and selfishness melt away. Those who know the love of Christ do not wrangle for position within the family of God; rather, they recognize the purpose of the body of Christ and live it out. They are willing to take a lower place in order to serve others (1 Peter 4:10). They engage in Christian fellowship with a focus on loving God and others (Mark 12:30–31).
Philippians 2:3b–4 instructs believers to value others above themselves and look out for their interests. We do not elevate ourselves above others but willingly sacrifice in order to love them. When all believers act this way, we are of one mind and everyone is cared for. Paul gives similar instructions to the Galatians, counseling them to carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) and to do good to all, especially fellow believers (Galatians 6:10). Jesus was the epitome of servanthood. Shortly after washing His disciples’ feet, something usually done by the lowliest of servants, Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34–35). Jesus’ love was self-sacrificial. He acted for the best of others rather than for His own glory (see Matthew 20:28).
In Philippians 2:5–11 Paul details Jesus’ example of humility. Jesus was “in very nature God, [yet] did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (Philippians 2:5). Rather, the Son of God became human. More than that, He humbled himself to the lowliest position and died a shameful criminal’s death in our place. How can we who follow such a Lord act in pride? When we consider what Christ did for us, we learn not to be so self-absorbed. Jesus promised that, as we seek to glorify God, our needs will be met (Matthew 6:25–34), so we can focus more on meeting the needs of others.
When we understand the incredible sacrifice, grace, and mercy of God on our behalf, we realize that we have no use for pride. When we recognize God’s abundant grace, provision, and love, we understand that we have no need for selfishness. We need not focus solely on our own interests because we rest in our Savior. We have been adopted into an eternal family, and we can learn to love that family as the Father loves us. Rather than be motivated by selfishness or pride, we can be of one mind with fellow believers and put their interests before our own.