In Philippians Paul says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” These seem to be among the hardest commands in Scripture to carry out. Partly, this is true because humans are selfish creatures, and partly it’s true because over time the instructions within these verses have been misrepresented repeatedly until their meaning is twisted in our minds. Just as Jesus’ words in Matthew, "Blessed are the meek" have incorrectly become synonymous with lifetimes of doormat-hood in some circles, the idea of not only looking after our own interests but also looking after the interests of others has become the springboard for many misguided journeys in which people shortchange their contributions, dreams, passions and needs out of a belief that the Bible actually says everyone else’s life is more important than our own.
Even knowing that the true meaning of this passage encourages those who would dare to live their lives according to the principles laid out in the Bible to look after the interests of others while they pursue their own interests as well has not made these commands easier to follow. Understanding the simultaneous nature of pursuing personal interests and protecting others’ interests makes the commands less constraining but definitely not easier to follow. For me, I think this is true because so few people get the balance right. I know I don’t. While we see a lot of examples at either unhealthy extreme, there aren’t a lot of places that we can look to see someone who is full-out pursuing the life that they want personally but is still willing to turn aside and do whatever they can to meet the needs and serve the interests of those around them. But I have found one example to watch this summer. I’m guessing a lot of you watch, too.
His story begins this way: "My name is Michael Weston. I used to be a spy … When you’re burned, you’ve got nothing … You’re stuck in whatever city they decide to dump you in. You do whenever work comes your way … Bottom line: as long as you’re burned, you’re not going anywhere.” In case nothing is sounding familiar yet, this is the opening sequence from USA network’s espionage series Burn Notice. The foundational plot line of the show over time deals with Michael’s efforts to discover who burned him, so he can go back to being a spy. As I have watched the show recently, however, I have noticed that almost every episode involves Michael and his friends helping to protect someone else—from clueless civilians of every variety to, most recently, a retired Cold War spy unaware of the danger headed his way—while they continue the journey to find and confront the person who burned Michael.
Certainly, while Burn Notice routinely hits its mark as entertainment, it is not particularly spiritual or even morally grounded in many of its plot lines (aside from the pattern that some good usually triumphs over some evil). Having said that, Michael Weston’s example of pursuing the thing that he most wants personally while continually also focusing on the needs of those around him who can benefit from the specialized skill set he has developed presents a potent visual of what balancing personal interests with the interests of others might look like. I don’t know about you, but sometimes, all I need is a good visual that connects with the truth I already know to keep me interested in the story—the one written each week for the show and the one I’m writing every day with my life.