A common moral dilemma we as all humans have is the combat over self-focus. We have an instinctive moral sensitivity to the idea of thinking about ourselves, so that we are inclined to think anything “selfish” if it is about what we want and to act with our own regard. As a consequence, we principally define selfishness/selflessness around the issue of intention: what is your purpose or goal? To think about yourself is bad, to think about others is good.
But what if I told you that isn’t what selfishness and selflessness is about? What if I said that the way we construe self-focus in terms of intentions in our actions is a way to make us drop our defenses to others to make us more pliable for other people’s interests? In other words, our modern notion of selfishness/selflessness is construed around being controlled by others rather than sacrificial service giving. When people say others are being selfish, it is commonly said with the veiled intention that another person’s interest should have been prioritzed. As a result, all sorts of disregard of people through moral judgment of people’s behavior is justified by the idea “selfishness,” automatically delegitimate anything and everything done with one’s own well-being in mind. As a result, people’s own wellbeing are commonly disregarded by other people in the name of selflessness, which is precisely what the Kingdom of God is not about.
In Philippians 2, when the Apostle Paul addresses the community, encouraging them to be more other-focused like Christ was in His own life, Paul doesn’t engage in the language of intentionality that we do. RAther, Paul calls people away from two types of self-absorption.
1) Self-absorption based upon aspirations and perceptions of status
As it pertains to motives, Paul says Christians should not act based upon ἐριθείαν or κενοδοξίαν. This is not language that condemns thinking about oneself. Rather, it condemns the specific ways in which people think about themselves in relation to other people, which we know of as status.
ἐριθείαν is a political term that has more in common to do putting one’s name out there for a political position and operating as a candidate. IT is a word referring to the zero-sum of political contention. As a consequence, ἐριθείαν often times works in a mindset where it is either me or yet; either I win or you win. ἐριθείαν is an attitude where we will seek to take something for our own when there are other people who may benefit from something, simply because we want it, IT is not just a personal ambition, but ambition that suggests other people’s interests are entirely unimportant in comparison to one’s own interests.
Then κενοδοξίαν is a term that has a meaning that is closer to delusion. It is the type of thinking where we think we are better than we truly are we think we deserve much based upon our elevated sense of self. The term more likely refers to the entitlement of arrogance.
The contrasting attitude Paul encourages is a perception of the status of other people being higher than your own. This converges with the attitude of Jesus, who was equal with God but that did not determine what actions he would take. The first self-absorption that Paul calls people to move away from is a self-absorption based upon status.
2) Self-absorption based upon our overriding focus
The second form of self-absorption Paul speaks against is a focus on the self that is defined by ⸀σκοποῦντες. The word σκοπέω is not the language of intentions, but the language of attention as it pertains to what our primary focus. It pertains to the question of what is the principal focus on your attention. Are you constantly try to find a way to advance your interests? Are you constantly evaluating events in your life and the time you spend with others trying to maximize your own interests? Or, do you give more consideration to what can be of benefit to others? Paul encourages this latter attitude, and it converges with Christ who took on form/status of a servant, thus making His life about paying attention to other people’s interests.
What Paul is not saying is to not think about yourself in anything and everything. Paul is not giving a moral criteria by which we can evaluate the intentions of specific actions we take. Rather, his exhortation is more about addressing the virtues of life that we allow to define ourselves. Instead of letting a focus on personal status and self-preoccupation define one’s life, focus on the important status of other people and be preoccupied with their interests. This is not said in such a way that excludes ever speaking your own feelings, your own concerns, or acting for your own benefit. Paul is not addressing our modern notions of selfish/selfless intentions behind individual actions.
Therefore, if I were to render Paul’s language in a dynamic way more suitable for modern idioms, I would translate it as “Don’t act based upon self-important ambitions and delusions but treat other people as the important people they are. Don’t be obsessively preoccupied with how to get what you need and want, but be preoccupied with how to benefit other people.” Thus, a life lead by such an attitude will have many of their actions done out of interest for others rather than themselves, but Paul is not advocated for the extinction of the self or the absolute forgetfulness of one’s own life. Rather, Paul’s concern is about the overriding purpose and mindset that directs one’s life, and thus also determines one’s future, because God will openly honor those who are concerned about others as children of God, just as Jesus was publicly honored as bearing the Divine identity.