Philippians 2 – Vain Conceit

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

Typically I associate vain conceit is with one’s obsession over appearance.  As stunningly handsome as I am it might shock you that vanity concerning my physical appearance has never been a major temptation of mine.  I know, I know…as I sit here at my desk in my ratty brown tee-shirt, out of style jeans, nasty smelly sandals, and uncombed hair I too wonder, “Jeff, even though you haven’t showered in three days, how is it that someone as incredibly handsome and stylish as yourself isn’t weighed down by the chains of conceit?”  It is a shocking miracle.  

No, vain conceit confronts  me on a very different field of play.    

Strengths Finder 2.0 lists me as an…

  • Achiever – I have to accomplish something to feel good about myself.  I push myself to constantly do more.  I have an illogical, relentless drive to achieve that gives me crazy energy.
  • Context – I understand the present through the lens of the past.  Making sense of  history brings me confidence to tackle the future.
  • Learner – I’m crazy about learning new things; and have a deep desire to want to improve.  It is the process of learning, not necessarily the knowledge gained, that gets me all excited.
  • Restorative – I love solving problems.  I’m energized when things breakdown and I get to try to fix them.  I love bringing things back to life. 
  • Strategic – I’m great at weeding through clutter to find the best way to do something.  I see patterns where others see complexity.  I play out alternative scenarios to bring clarity and make decisions. 

This description is perfect.  Really, it describes me beautifully…and I like that a little too much. 

I love that I can call myself a “problem solver.”  It makes me feel like some kind of church super hero.  “Look!  In the sky!  It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  No wait…It’s the Problem Solver!”  My theme music wouldn’t be some lame orchestral score by John Williams though.  As I land, my cape blowing in the wind, a big PS emblazened across my chest, you would hear the sweet sounds of Vanilla Ice, “If you got a problem, YO, I’ll solve it.  Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it.  Ice, ice, baby.  To cold.  To cold.”

I also love the title strategic thinker.  It is just vague enough that it creates a sense of mystery but strong enough that it feels intimidating and important. 

“Ohhh, whose that impressive looking gentleman over there?”

“Why that is Jeff.  He’s our church’s STRATEGIC THINKER.” 

Of course it is good to know your strengths and weaknesses; but for me knowledge quickly crosses into vanity.  I know I’ve skipped across that live when I begin to celebrate gifts and talents I have while taking credit for work that’s been accomplished.  

Someone will say, “Wow, that was a great __________.” 

“Yeah,” I’ll reply, “I love doing _________ because it really falls within my gifting.”  Do you see the problem?  As if my gifts, talents, or strengths had anything to do with the success of God’s stuff. 

Francis Schaeffer wrote an amazing essay that changed my life entitled “No Little People, No Little Places” in which he compared us all to the stick Moses carried around.  Schaeffer explained that there wasn’t anything super special about the stick.  What made the stick special was that God used it.  We might be awesome sticks.  We might be the most amazing, problem solving, strategic thinking sticks in the whole pile…but in the end we are still just a sticks in a pile.  What makes us special sticks is that God picks us up and decides to use us. 

Vain conceit engages me on the playing field of ministry by tempting me to think that I am good at what I’m doing, and that the positive results of my ministry are in some way due to my personal effort.  There are two horrible consequences of giving in to this thinking: 

First, we end up taking credit for stuff that God did.  That sermon may have been fantastic, but what made it fantastic was that the Holy Spirit decided to use it in the hearts and minds of the people.  I actually had very little to do with it.  That event may have gone wonderfully, but it wasn’t my quick thinking and magic pixi-dust that caused the success; it was the Holy Spirit.  I need to not take glory for things I simply participate in.

Second, the more excited I become about our own gifts and strengths the more I stare at our my own belly button and miss what is going on around me.  I know it is popular right now to determine what our jobs should be based on our abilities; and in a large organizations where work is highly specialized that makes a lot of logical sense, but I can’t help but feel like my work in small church world should rather be based on the needs of people. 

From what I have read and heard the “focus on your strengths” mantra is a response to leaders trying to do everything.  It is an encouragement toward team mentality, toward empowering others, toward not trying to be the answer to everything.  Can’t we simply just have a team mentality in which empowering and equiping others is always the goal?  Knowing strengths is great, but they can quickly become a obbession causing me to focus far to closely on on my own capabilities and miss what is happening around me.

“Hey can someone help this old lady across the street?”

“Oh no.  I’m sorry.  I’m the ‘great communicator’ of the organization.  The guy with the servant gifting is on vacation.  He’ll be back on Thursday.  Can she wait until Thursday?” 

So God is empowering the work; and God is responsible for the work’s success.  We might be cool sticks, but if we depend on our coolness we loose.  Therefore, we need to think less about what our coolness and more about how we can serve and empower others to serve. 

Next: humility

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Philippians 2 – Vain Conceit

5 thoughts on “Philippians 2 – Vain Conceit

  1. Jeff, I have never understood the following thinking. Could be me.
    You wrote the following:

    Vain conceit engages me on the playing field of ministry by tempting me to think that I am good at what I’m doing, and that the positive results of my ministry are in some way due to my personal effort. There are two horrible consequences of giving in to this thinking:

    First, we end up taking credit for stuff that God did. That sermon may have been fantastic, but what made it fantastic was that the Holy Spirit decided to use it in the hearts and minds of the people. I actually had very little to do with it. That event may have gone wonderfully, but it wasn’t my quick thinking and magic pixi-dust that caused the success; it was the Holy Spirit. I need to not take glory for things I simply participate in.

    Now, Here’s what I don’t get. What is wrong with having a measure of confidence and acknowledgement of the good outcome of one’s efforts? What is wrong with beleving you are good at something? The positive results of your ministry are (for the Christian) the shared effort of you AND the Holy Spirit. You are (with effort) using the gifts and abilities the Holy Spirit afforded you. If you do not expend the effort to use them, they will lie dormant. When you choose to take the time to think, plan, organize and execute an event, sermon or any good work, you actually have a great deal to “do with it” no matter what the perceived result.
    In any given outcome, how do we decide what percentage of credit goes to God and how much goes to our effort?
    What about when the results of your ministry produce negative results? Let’s say someone commits suicide as a result of your counsel. Do we then say, “Oh, it was not me, it was the Holy Spirit.” Is God responsible for the works perceived failure, as well? Or, if something goes badly, is that merely me getting in the way?

    Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

    1. Thanks for a great response, Mike. It really made me think. I’m going to try to continue yours and Jeff’s thoughts.

      I think the foundation of this topic is your question, Mike: “How do we decide what percentage of credit goes to God and how much goes to our effort?

      Is there anything we could deserve credit for other than putting ourselves in a position to be used? Any skill, talent, greatness, etc. is a gift from him and has nothing to do with us — except to the extent that we offered our lives as a living sacrifice. I think that while we may deserve a little credit, it’s dwarfed by the credit due to God. Taking credit for something that wasn’t us is where the conceit comes in.

      1. jeffandwendy says:

        I like that Shane. Great explanation. I think to add to it I would say that there is nothing wrong with being proud of an accomplishment or even recognizing a strength. The line (for me) is crossed when I begin taking credit (as Shane said). I want to always error on the side of thankfulness, awe, and humility. Cause when I humble myself He will exalt me…but if I exalt myself I end up being humbled.

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