Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; Philippians 2:3
Selfishness – Take just a moment and describe selfishness. What does it mean to you? Is it about an attitude that pursues only your own desires? Is it cold-heartedness toward others? Is it the “what’s in it for me?” lifestyle? You might find it revealing that this Greek word, eritheia, has both political and practical overtones.
Eritheia comes from eritheno, a verb that means “to work as a day-laborer.” Over time, this verb was used to describe the attitude of those who work for daily gain. It became a pejorative verb, expressing contempt for someone who would do whatever it took to get what the person wanted. In other words, this was someone who worked to gain for himself rather than worked to fulfill his calling or be a productive contributor to the community. In fact, the word was applied to prostitutes and to political officers who manipulated the public in order to gain power. It’s an interesting combination, isn’t it? In the Greek mind, there is little difference between sexual manipulation and political manipulation. Do you suppose that connection is behind the feeling that all politicians are whores? This abuse of power, whether sexual or political, is the reason the Greeks believed that any public officer had to serve without personal gain.
The word eventually took on the meaning of the attitude of a self-seeker no matter what the circumstances. Someone who displayed this attitude was willing to do whatever it took to achieve personal gain, even if it meant throwing away a noble reputation. In other words, these people are power hungry. Buchsel says that this word describes “the despicable nature of those who do not strive after glory, honour and immortality by perseverance in good works, but who think only of immediate gain.” Many English translations, especially older ones, miss this point when it comes to dealing with eritheia. They often translate the word as “contentious,” but this doesn’t capture the disgust that the Greek world associated with the word.
Let’s translate this again. “Do nothing with an attitude of self-serving manipulation. Don’t act in power-hungry ways, seeking only what’s good for you.” To put it as boldly as possible, “Don’t sell yourself for personal gain.” Do you see how radically opposed the Christian worldview is? Everywhere we look, political prostitution reigns. Everywhere we look, the standard operating procedure of the world is personal gain. Our current economic crisis, worldwide, is the direct result of greed, not mismanagement. As Christians, we must stand up against this eritheia. We must refuse to make personal accumulation the first principle of living. How can we be called followers of the Way if we adopt the mindset of the world? We must face the enemy inside; that part of every human being that desires self-fulfillment, power and possession above all. Denying myself means a lot more than simply refusing the next brownie. Denying myself is a fundamental change in direction. Without this change, we are lost.
Topical Index: selfishness, eritheia, power-hungry, greed, Philippians 2:3