“It’s All Greek to Me: Selflessness” by John Burke

“It’s All Greek to Me: Selflessness” by John Burke

“You are special—you are unique.” 

For some of us, that message was a prevalent one while we were growing up.

And that message is true because God sees you that way.

God says to Jeremiah:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart. Jeremiah 1:5

God feels that way about you—that’s what He says to you, because He created you—you are of great worth, great value, because of who God made you to be. 

So don’t miss that—that’s the anchor to understanding what we are talking about today.

Selflessness Is Counter Cultural

Selflessness—which only comes when you stop looking to people for value and find your worth in God.

Over the next 3 weeks we are looking at 3 pivotal words in the Bible—the New Testament was written in Greek, and each Greek word we are looking at is pregnant with meaning—and the word today is Kenosis, loosely translated “selfless” or “to empty oneself.” Which may sound strange, because of American culture.

American Cultural History: A Journey Towards Selfishness

So let me give you a little history lesson—this is not complete, there’s much more to our history, and different cultures have their own histories.  But many in America have been shaped by a skewed view of self. If you’re not from America, it will help you understand what may feel counter-cultural to you, especially if you grew up in Asia or Africa or honor cultures.

  • So VJ Day 1945 The Americans had just won WW2. 
  • A TV show with all the most famous celebrities hosted by Bing Crosby is going out to America and all the troops who had just fought and won WW2. 
  • He says this, “We’ve just learned we’ve won this war, but I guess at this moment we don’t feel too proud, we just feel humble, we’re just glad we got through it.”
  • It was a very humble, self-effacing tone.
  • Eisenhower was the president during WW2 – he said one of the most important lessons he learned as a child was when he wanted to go trick or treating but his mom said he was too young. He had a great temper, so he punched a tree until he was bloody.  His mom said, “Dwight He who conquers his own soul is greater than he who conquers a city.”  Eisenhower said that stuck with him. “I have to learn to control myself, my impulses, my self-centered desires.” 
  • The WW2 Generation was not perfect, had all kinds of issues and problems, but the cultural norm was don’t elevate yourself, pride is not a virtue, think about others.  Maybe you got that message.
  • But then the 60’s hit—and a cultural revolution happened. The popular slogan became this: “If it feels good, do it”.
  • It was the theme of the sexual revolution and the hippie movement in protest to Vietnam and other bad situations. 
  • But this “me first” and “I call my own shots” “resist authority” message kept swinging the pendulum, until the 70’s the Boomers are first called “The Me Generation”. 
  • The idea of Self as the Center of everything, which would have been unheard of 2 decades early, became so popular that Self Magazine launched in the 70’s and grew rapidly, during the 70’s and 80’s the Divorce rate skyrocketed 145%.
  • The Gallup poll found parents ranked “material possessions” as more important than “children” for the good life. The term Latchkey kid was invented to describe GenerationX, who the New York Times said:
  • Because self-focused material goals mattered most.

“[The Latchkey generation] went through its all-important, formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history.”

– New York Times
  • By the 80’s Madonna wrote the anthem song: Material Girl as our culture promoted self-agrandizement and more is better. 
  • I remember Bumper stickers in the 80s proudly displayed on sports cars: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” 
  • Into the 90’s corporate raiders and the Cult of Self were celebrated in business, along with the famous slogan by Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street “Greed is Good.
  • Not surprisingly Business Insider shows what “Self-at-the-Center” does when CEOs believe “it’s all about me.” 
  • CEO to Worker pay ratio went nuts in the 90s with an exponential uptick.
  • By the mid 2000s, it even invaded the church.

We laugh, but it’s not just Covid that’s keeping people from re-engaging relationally, face to face, in church—the trend across American churches for about 1/3 is

“I’m good. I get what I need the way I need it.”

The problem with that “it’s all about what I need” is that it misses God’s heart for community, interaction, loving and serving new people and each other.

The Results of Selfishness

But here’s what’s really troubling:

This obsession with self is not helping us become more self-confident, self-aware, or selfless. 

2013 Time Magazine cover “The Me Me Me Generation” talked about how Millennials have been harmed growing up in this Cult of Self. 

“Here’s the cold, hard data: The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.”

– Time Magazine (2013)

AndWe hate narcissists, but we’re breeding them. 

And at the same time, it’s not helping us with self-confidence or understanding how special we each are to God—it’s killing us. Literally. 2020 Psychiatry periodical reports:

“Mental health issues among U.S. adolescents and young adults began to rise in the early 2010s. These trends included sharp increases in depression, anxiety, loneliness, self‐harm, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and suicide….”

– 2020 Psychiatry periodical

I realize history and stats and graphs and cause and effect can be debated—but don’t miss the point:

Our culture swings the pendulum from self-deprecation to self-worship, but in both cases we are focusing on self PLUS we miss the most important example ever—Jesus. 

Jesus shows us how to both love self and be selfless by grounding ourselves in God, not cultural norms. 

But we need to understand that we’ve been shaped by culture, or we won’t understand why Jesus example is so foreign. 

But this is going to help us become people who feel more loved, accepted, self-aware, self confident, and yet less selfish, less self-centered, and more free to bless others.


Theologians call Philippians 2:3-11 the Kenosis Passage because of this earth-splitting Greek word Kenosis that appears in it.

The passage begins:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” – Phil 2:3-5

Let’s pause here. 

Paul is actually concerned with disunity.

In Philippians 2:1-2 he says “be united” and “work together as one for the good of others.” 

Do you think unity is an issue in our culture today?

Do you think our approach has helped unify us?

Do we better value diversity, seeing the other as equally important as the self? 

This message is SO relevant for us and our culture–the way toward unity. 

So Paul says, here’s the secret to unity:

Selfish Ambition

Do nothing out of Selfish Ambition

Notice he says selfish ambition.

Ambition is not bad—you can have good ambitions to achieve for God, you can be ambitious to do good for others—but selfish ambition destroys unity.

Selfish ambition is putting our desire for advancement, promotion, recognition as central in importance to those around us.  It’s Self First.

Have you ever seen what happens in an office or work environment when one person is obvious and obnoxiously self-promoting—trying to take credit, get attention, get the bosses to notice them–elbowing and clawing their way over and past everyone else? 

  • What happens?
  • First, everyone hates that person.
  • Watercooler conversations go like:
  • “Can you believe the nerve of Steve—he is such a self-centered [fill-in-the-expletive].” 
  • It divides people, but even more, it scares people.  Secretly, we all start worrying we aren’t going to get noticed, or get ahead, so we subtly start to elbow our way to be seen, to be special, before Steve steals my credit or my promotion that I deserve! 
  • Soon everyone’s subtly trying to hide the secret self-ambition growing within like a cancer.  It kills companies, teams, friendships—it divides people.

Vain Conceit

So does Vain Conceit.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.

What is vain conceit?

Conceit is thinking too highly of one’s self, of having an excessive self-interest and self-preoccupation. It could be more literally translated “empty glory.” 

Just endlessly jonesing for recognition, honor, titles, validation from others—it’s vain, or empty, not lasting glory. 

A dictionary definition of conceit is “An excessively favorable opinion of one’s own ability, importance, wit, etc.”

When we live with the feeling that we are so important, or so special, or so talented compared to others, we are out of God’s will.


Because we are not seeing how equally important to God each person is, and how dependent on God and others we are in reality. We are working against the unity Paul pleaded with the Philippians and all Christ-followers to have. 

So how do we get rid of selfish ambition and 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. Philippians 2:3-4


Humility is a very misunderstood word.

People think of humility as thinking you’re just a lowly worm, not worth much, everyone else is better. 

That’s not humility.

And humility is not deflecting praise, like Christians especially do when complimented.

When I was learning to teach, my mentor would come up after and compliment me “Wow—Eric that was really good. You really gave some great insights and delivered it well, you were funny. Great message man.”

And I’d be bursting with pride inside, but I didn’t want to seem proud, so I’d say “Oh thank you—but it wasn’t me, it was all God.” 

And he’d say “No, if it were all God, it would have been better, but you did really well.”  He was teaching me about false Humility. Humility is seeing yourself accurately as God does—unique, special, worth love and compliments.

Humility can receive it with gratitude to God.

Humility is saying “Thanks that encourages me” and to God saying “Thanks for your gifts.”

Humility is seeing yourself accurately, with God at the center, He’s valued and gifted you, and others are equally important.

As one person said, Humility is not low self-esteem, but low self-preoccupation.

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

– C.S. Lewis

True humility, as Jesus demonstrated, is not self-deprecation, humility can see and celebrate God’s good gifts and my own abilities—but not to elevate myself above others (that’s the world’s elbow game)—but to also value others above yourself (but why above myself?).

In the original Greek this reads “in humility be esteeming on another surpassing yourself.” Philippians 2:4

In other words, esteem and lift up others, surpassing how much you want others to esteem and lift up you. 

And the next verse 4 says: “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Philippians 2:4.

Leaves out a critical word in this English translation–the Greek word Kai, “also.” 

Not looking to your own interests but ALSO to the interests of others. (most English translations keep “also” and it’s important because…)

  • Humility is not having no sense of “self”, no interests, no boundaries, do desires, only doing what others want because you have no right to want anything—that’s not humility.
  • Humility is fully valuing yourself as God sees you—special, worth something, your thoughts, ideas, goals all matter—and others matter too. 
  • And then, when we prioritize lifting others up, in a community like the church, this beautiful thing happens. 
  • Everyone feels valued and esteemed and lifted up, and no one feels dissed or missed or put down.
  • If I consider you above me and you consider me above you, then we have a community where everyone is looked up to, and no one is looked down on.
  • That’s God’s way.
  • Humility is not zero self-interest, but ALSO considering the interests of others.

How do we live this out?

How do we grow this humble inner strength?

Well the answer is “have the same mindset as Jesus” which is found in this powerful Greek Word, Kenosis.  Kenosis means “to empty” or “pour out”.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he [ekenosin] made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. Philippians 2:5-7

Think about this:

God is humble. 

  • That’s crazy countercultural. 
  • The powerful are not humble, yet Jesus shows that the Most Powerful, is the most humble. 
  • Jesus, this says, is by very nature God. 
  • If you missed the Trinity message last month, go listen at gatewaychurch.com.
  • There’s only One God, Jesus revealed the unseen, infinite Creative Power of the Universe—in a form we could relate to. 
  • But this says, even though Jesus had all the privileges and power and glory—he laid it aside.
  • “eKenosin” – emptied himself of all the rights, privileges, power and glory of God) to become a human. 
  • That doesn’t mean God was confined to Jesus body, which is why Jesus prayed to God the Father.
  • God was still God, fully, because Jesus set aside all his rights and powers as God to come serve us.
  • Kenosis—it’s a very counter-cultural concept. 

Now honestly, “made himself nothing” is not a great translation of Kenosis, because he emptied himself of his prerogatives as God to live as a human, but Jesus didn’t think “Oh, I’m nothing, I’m no good, just a lowly terrible human.”

That’s false humility.

When Jesus got baptized, God the Father declared: “This is my beloved son, in whom I’m pleased.” 

Jesus didn’t have low self-esteem, he stood up to the pharisee bullies condemning the woman caught in adultery.

Jesus wasn’t boundary-less, he said “no” to people so He could say “Yes” to what God the Father wanted.

But He also lived his life not just to please Himself, or do what He wanted above all else—me first—He served, cared, healed, fed, touched, loved, forgave…and finally chose to lay down his own life to meet your greatest need—forgiveness and restoration of relationship with God as a gift.

That kind of Kenosis – selfless humility – doesn’t come from a poor self-esteem, or from not receiving compliments with gratitude, or just being a doormat with no life, no self. That’s not humility, or Jesus. Jesus was the perfect model of humanity.

Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he is doing. John 5:19-20

Jesus knew who He was—the beloved son, loved by God. This is the key to Selfless Kenosis living—do you know who you are? 

You too are God’s beloved child. Jesus knew He was chosen, the Messiah, special beyond comprehension.

That’s the key to selfless living—do you know how God sees you? If not, you’ll be self-preoccupied, forever be trying to get people to validate you-yourself, and you will not be able to live in Kenosis humility. 

And Jesus received praise, but gave thanks to God the Father. Can you receive praise or recognition without deflecting, but rather in humble thanksgiving to God?  

And Jesus lived not to please people, and not to please self, but to please God—seeking to do God’s will, even when self-will was at odds with God’s will.  

That’s humility—that’s Kenosis, emptying out “self-on-the-throne” laying aside “my rights” “my entitlements” “my will be done” – dying to self in order to live for God. 

That’s who Jesus showed God to be. God the most Powerful is the Most humble. He uses Power to lift up others.

That’s what humility does—in all it’s power, position, specialness, uniqueness—it empties itself of self-centeredness, it thinks of others, and how to use the gifts and uniqueness God gives to lift up others out of gratitude to God. 

So how are you doing with Self-emptying, Kenosis humility?  It’s a struggle for all of us, me too. But it grows as we focus on 2 things. 

1. Get your self-worth, self-love, self-acceptance from God. 

Not by trying to prove something to the world or getting others to say how great you are.

2. Practice dying to self.

Philippians 2 continues…

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Philippians 2:8.

Dying to self for the sake of others—what a counter cultural way to live. Humility in Power. Love in action. God in skin.

We say, “I follow Jesus” – really?

Honestly, many times, I don’t want to follow Jesus. Following Jesus is not easy. You die! Self-first dies. Following Jesus is not the “me first” “self-focused” way we’ve been trained. So it often feels like something’s dying. But it’s also not a lack of self-care or boundaries. Jesus stole away for self-replenishment for himself and his disciples. Jesus said “No to the masses, no to the Pharisees, no to people pushing him to run for King.”  So what then IS dying to self?

Dying to self is living for God-first.  Jesus didn’t want to go to the cross. He was human, one of us, who had set aside all his Divine privileges in order to love and serve us.

So that night in Gethsemene as he prayed in anguish, knowing crucifixion was ahead—he was Honest with God the Father. “I don’t want to do this Father. Take this cup of suffering away, isn’t there another way?”

When self-will wants something different than God’s will, we all struggle too—don’t we?

And there are times our self-will runs riot. Self-will rules us. You’re struggling with an addiction or some sin-pattern your flesh/body craves. 

Your self-will isn’t thinking about anyone else—just your craving.

Pray what Jesus prayed, Father, Your will be done, not mine

Or your struggling in your marriage, and your pride and anger over how your self has been treated, it has you walled off. 

Can you follow Jesus, praying Father, Your will be done, not mine?

Can you die to self and apologize, or forgive, or try again though they don’t deserve it?

Or when someone has hurt you, or offended you, can you follow Jesus–the peacemaker, the reconciler, the restorer—not for them, for God–you Follow Jesus Father, Your will be done, not mine. 

Following Jesus is dying to self-first. It’s hard—but not as hard as crucifixion. Dying to self is true humility. That’s what heals and restores and unites our world.  When people live this way, it leads others in the way of Jesus.

And don’t forget that dying to self is not the end of the story.  If that feels like loss, like dishonor, like self-deprecation—you’re missing God’s Promise.

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. James 4:10.

Those who follow Jesus in Kenosis, God says, will share in His Glory. Maybe like Auntie Anne it will be in this life, or maybe in the Life that lasts, but for sure those who humbled themselves for God’s sake, they will be exalted.  Don’t forget that.  One day, the Greatest will be those who knew how Great they were to God, so they had nothing to prove to people, they could die to self-preoccupation and think of others. That is Jesus, the perfect human. Our passage ends:

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:8-11

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