November 9, 2003

Managing God’s Estate: Our Relationships and Influence

Philippians 2:1-13

You certainly get conflicting impressions from the media. Are people genuinely important? Do relationships really matter? An entire page in today’s Patriot is covered with glistening faces—newly weds. Just a section or two earlier we read again that Scott Peterson allegedly killed his pregnant wife. One article brings the encouraging news that low income families can now apply for additional energy assistance in light of the current escalating price of natural gas, while another relays the story of George Guyer Young III, a local attorney who cheated disabled veterans out of tens of thousands of dollars. I looked over one short entry that provided simple but helpful advice on how to feed your family affordable but nutritious meals, and another that described four severely malnourished children in Collingswood, NJ, barely surviving under the depraved supervision of their adopted parents, Raymond and Vanessa Jackson. Mixed signals. Conflicting impressions. Are people really important?

Here in Philippians 2:1-13, Paul wants desperately to put all doubts to rest. He is writing to a congregation for which he has great affection—Paul loves the believers in Philippi. They’ve encouraged him and supported him financially in the past, and a very special bond has developed between them over the years. Now, sensing what appear to be some interpersonal struggles, Paul beautifully challenges these people to realize again that, as followers of Jesus, they must manage their relationships. People, Paul suggests, really matter, and the ways that we relate to them are of the utmost importance.

From the earliest pages of Scripture, we human beings are depicted as social creatures. “It is not good that the man should be alone,” God announces as he continues creating the world. From that moment onward, the absolute importance of personal relationships only increases as the biblical story unfolds. No less than six of the ten commandments directly involve the ways that we think about and treat other people, and Jesus himself said that loving one’s neighbor ranks just beneath and in direct connection with loving God.

We were created to interact with other people at multiple levels of intimacy, and those levels move increasingly outward like waves upon the sea. Those of us who are married relate to our spouses in what are intended to be profoundly intimate ways. We relate to other members of our families, whether children, parents, brothers and sisters, or extended relatives. We relate to people who have authority over us, such as our supervisor at work or our teachers at school. We relate to those under us, including our employees and our students. We develop relationships with colleagues and friends, and as the ripples extend still further, we casually rub shoulders with a whole host of people all around us: a teller at the bank, a cashier at Walmart, a salesperson on the telephone, and even a policeman writing up a ticket. We are social beings, and we find ourselves in a sometimes intricate web of relationships that extends even in directions that we might not be aware of. In all such situations, Paul assures us of this crucial fact: people matter, and the ways that we treat them are of inestimable importance.

“While I am away,” Jesus says, “watch the house.” “Manage my estate.” As managers of God’s estate, we not only are called to be good stewards with our talent, time, and money, but also with our interpersonal relationships and the influence that we cast. So what does that involve? Here in Philippians 2, Paul first informs us of sure fired ways to mismanage our relationships and spheres of influence. An inflated self-image, he suggests, is a sure bucket of cold water on our relationships. “In humility, …” he writes. People who think they are good at everything or know everything—or at least give that impression—rarely develop relationships of any substance. Genuine self-confidence is a wonderful thing, but projecting an image of invincibility or excessive importance, as though we are God’s primary gift to the world, does little to endear people to us.

Selfish ambition, Paul continues, is no better. Such ambition projects its ugly head in any number of ways. I’ve seen marriages, for example, deteriorate because one of the people involved was far more concerned about advancing professionally or reaching some other personal goal than he was about nurturing this very special gift from God—his marriage. I’ve seen relationships between parents and children fragmented for similar reasons. Parents, for example, often struggle with placing their own priorities and agendas over the welfare of their child. Just this week I met with no less than three young people whose lives were in pieces as a result of the excessively manipulative influences that their parents continued to have over them. One of them feared that her parents would disown her if she majored in something other than what they wanted. At the same time, children might become so engrossed in their unfolding hopes and dreams that they shun both the counsel and at times even the very presence of their parents.

Selfish ambition also tarnishes relationships on the job, as when employees disregard company policy for their own ends or when employers sacrifice the welfare of their employees for the sake of corporate prestige and profit. I recall working as a truck driver for a produce company one summer during my college years. My boss—the owner of the company—was nearly intolerable. Everybody, including both his employees and customers, hated him. One occasion in particular sticks out in my mind. I had just delivered a load of produce to this man’s store at the Allentown Farmers’ Market, and he happened to be there. One customer was gently touching the tomatoes in search of just the right one, and Dan—in typical fashion—rebuked her. Suddenly, she shoved this big, juicy tomato right into Dan’s face! “Yes,” we all thought to ourselves. But sadly, Dan was an active member of a local Mennonite church.

And selfish ambition even affects those relationships that are far out on the fringes. Have you ever seen anyone argue with a sales clerk or bank teller in order to manipulate a refund or get something else that they want? I watched for a moment a few years ago as a disgruntled customer raked a United Airlines employee over the coals at the airport in Denver. His flight had been delayed, and he needed to get to a particular destination at such and such a time. This poor woman behind the counter, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with his flight’s delay—the entire airport was behind schedule. But he had to get where he was going. I finally asked him to stop and catch his breath. It was almost funny, were it not so hurtful.

Self-absorption is still another injection of deadly poison into the web of interpersonal relationships. Do you know people who seem only to think about themselves? It need not be the arrogant type of self-absorption that goes along with a grossly inflated self-image. Self-absorption comes in different forms and varieties. You’ve just returned from a life-changing trip to some developing country, and you can hardly wait to share your experiences with someone else. One moment into the conversation, you say something that triggers a memory in the other person’s mind—a memory of a similar experience that she had earlier in life—and she begins to describe in great detail her own experiences from years gone by. You never get the chance to tell your own story.

Or perhaps you know people who speak constantly about their own struggles or sicknesses. I know certain people who seem invariably to recite a lengthy litany of all of their pains and heartaches the moment they get on the phone. I realize that a wide variety of struggles and often a great deal of loneliness often stands beneath such tendencies, but that type of self-absorption stifles conversations and literally suffocates relationships. With stifled conversations and suffocated relationships comes pain and a whole host of wasted opportunities to be the people of God in the world.

“Watch the house while I am gone,” Jesus instructs us. “Manage my estate.” And managing God’s estate requires that we avoid mismanaging our relationships and areas of influence. What, then, are we to do?

Paul is no less helpful here. Develop the habit, first of all, of affirming the immense value of every person you come in contact with. Every person on the face of the globe—your spouse, your mother or father, your son or daughter, your employer, your teacher, your colleague, your neighbor, the local clerk or bank teller—every person on the face of the globe is someone who God deeply loves and someone for whom Christ died. Here, it seems to me, is where one of Karl Marx’ fears about western capitalistic society is particularly relevant. Marx feared that, with the increased emphasis on production and consumerism, individual people would correspondingly lose their value as people and subsequently be viewed as objects or commodities. In our fast-paced and competitive society, people often become empty faces at best or obstacles at worst. “In humility,” Paul argues, “regard others as better than yourselves.”

Imagine, for just a moment, just how transforming this could be. How might it affect your trip to the store, particularly if you were going to return a product you were seriously dissatisfied with, if before you entered the store you simply reminded yourself that you would be encountering a variety of people for whom Christ died. Imagine how it might transform your business relationships if you continually cultivated the conviction that those people over whom you exercise authority are if fact people of inestimable worth in the eyes of God. Imagine the breath of fresh air that would blow into our marriages and families if we genuinely viewed each other in this way. “My spouse has been created in the image of God. My son and daughter are genuine, real life people for whom God cares deeply. My mom and dad, although I might disagree with them at times, are people for whom Christ died.” We often spend so much time jockeying for position, gaining the upper hand, making a “name” for ourselves. Instead, we must develop the discipline of regarding others as better than yourself.

Paul encourages us also to redirect our focus from our own perceived needs to the needs of other people. “Let each of you look not to your own interests,” he writes, “but to the interests of others.” I recall waiting eagerly in Masai Mara Game Park in Kenya for certain wild animals to appear. On one occasion, I focused my video camera on a particular animal off in the distance. Suddenly, a rhino appeared in the bushes off to my right, and I quickly turned to see it. You can imagine the streak on the resulting film! In a similar way, we are encouraged increasingly to shift the focus of our lives onto other people.

This was a challenging lesson for me to learn when I was first married. My understanding of roles was relatively traditional, and it caused considerable distress in our relationship. I went off to class at the seminary, came home and ate supper, and went to my desk to study for most of the night. Deb was working a demanding job in the welfare department for the state of Kentucky, and yet I expected her to come home, prepare dinner, wash the dishes, and do everything else that went with being a “wife.” Thank God she refused to put up with it!

One night I had a dream. In that dream, Deb was terminally ill, and I found myself caring for her as she lay in bed. It was as real as life itself. When I woke up, I was literally shaking. I rolled over and just looked at her—she was sleeping peacefully—and I wanted to hold her and tell her I was sorry. I waited until morning! I have thanked God countless times over the years for that dream, and for helping me to see that life—and marriage—is not just about me.

We really do get mixed impressions through the media. Do other people really matter? The Bible offers no such mixed messages. As Paul grasps for communicative strategies through with which to convince his audience of the absolute importance of managing our relationships and spheres of influence, it suddenly strikes him. Managing our relationships involves nothing less that modeling the self-sacrificial attitude and life of Jesus himself. There are no mixed messages here. Jesus set aside the security and benefits of heaven—he put aside his own interests and demonstrated no concern for personal advancement—and emptied himself for the primary reason of redeeming a needy human race. You really matter to God. Other people should really matter to you.