The Mind(set) of Christ

by David Baer, May 13, 2018

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Text: Philippians 2:1-13

Last summer I got the chance to visit, if only very briefly, with an old friend during a family vacation. We met at a farmer’s market on a Saturday morning, and the rest of my family had come along. It had been three years since we last got together, but as we talked we found ourselves so immersed in our conversation that time just slipped away and we lost track of where everyone else was.

Do you have friends like this? Are there folks you can just pick up with after a year or two or three, and it’s like no time has passed at all?

Whenever I read Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I imagine that was how he felt about his friends in the city of Philippi. You might remember how a few weeks ago we read a story about Paul’s first visit to the city, when he landed himself in jail for healing a slave girl with a spirit of divination. In spite of this misadventure, the Christian community Paul helped found in Philippi grew and thrived, and they stayed in touch with Paul. Now Paul finds himself held captive once again, only this time he’s not going to be freed. He’s writing to the church in Philippi to thank them for remembering him—specifically for sending money to support him while he lives under house arrest, and for their encouraging words. What comes across in this letter is Paul’s deep affection for the Philippian church, and his hope that the message of Jesus that he planted among them will continue to grow and transform their community into a shining beacon of God’s love in Jesus.

In the part of the letter we heard today, Paul wants to teach them what they can do as individuals to help nurture this kind of community. Here’s what would make my joy complete, he says, what would give me the greatest pleasure: to see you believing and acting as one, animated by one purpose, pursuing the same goal. He wants them to be a community that puts into practice Jesus’ commandment: love your neighbor as yourself. Now that’s the goal–that’s the end-state Paul wants to see. But how do you get there? What’s the plan? What’s the path you take if you want a church steeped in neighbor-love?

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” writes Paul. What is “the mind of Christ,” though? We can’t literally borrow Jesus’ brain to replace our own. And even when we put our trust in Jesus–when we embrace him as the promise of God’s never-ending love for us and the promise of our never-ending life with God—we don’t stop being creatures who think and decide and act for ourselves. If it were otherwise—if God meant to take away our choice and direct our every decision—then Paul wouldn’t need to write any of this, because we’d just do the right thing all the time automatically. But we know that’s not the case. Our own minds are still there, exercising a powerful influence over what we do. So what does it mean to let the same mind be in us that was in Jesus?

As the husband of a teacher and the father of an elementary school student, I feel like everywhere I turn, I keep hearing the name of Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor whose research and writings are driving a lot of new practices in education. She talks about the concept of “mindset,” a set of beliefs about ourselves and our capabilities that have the power to shape our behavior.1 The biggest contrast she wants to point out is the contrast between a so-called “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset.” If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that your intelligence and abilities are givens that you can’t change. So fixed-mindset people are afraid of risk—why stretch yourself if your potential is fixed? They are closed off to criticism or self-evaluation—why dwell on your shortcomings, when there’s nothing you can do about them? And failure is to be avoided at all costs, because to fail is to receive a devastating judgment about the only “you” you will ever get to be. The fixed mindset gives a paradoxical sense of self that craves strength, but is in reality so very fragile.

On the other hand, when we live with a growth mindset, we believe that we can develop and strengthen our abilities. In my daughter’s class, the teacher asks each student the same question every day: Was there a time when you showed a growth mindset today? What that teacher is looking for is for students to think back about any frustration or difficulty or setback they faced, and how they responded to it—did they ask for help, or try a different approach? With a growth mindset, the person you were when you woke up this morning is the floor, not the ceiling, of the person you will be when you go to bed tonight, and life’s challenges present opportunities to stretch ourselves and become something more than we are. An experience of failure is not a judgment on your essential value as a human being, but a chance to learn and adapt and become stronger.

What’s important about this is that Dweck’s research shows that growth-minded students are more likely to succeed—and it makes sense. They’re more resilient in the face of failure, and eager to seek out new experiences that will stretch them. Learning—and for that matter, life itself—is not a steady, predictable march of progress through familiar territory. It’s full of setbacks and unexpected obstacles. So your mindset–your beliefs about who you are and what you’re capable of—deeply affects the way you act.

In Paul’s letter, what he is telling his friends in Philippi is that he wants them to have a “Christ mindset” instead of a “self mindset.” In the middle of this passage, Paul seems to be quoting from an ancient Christian hymn that describes Jesus giving up the privileges of glory and godhood to take on a human face and body, and even to die on the cross. Jesus is now glorified, he now inspires awe and devotion, not because he exalted himself, not because he put himself first, but because he humbled himself, because he lived and died for others. Look at what animated Jesus, what drove his choices, says Paul—not a spirit that says “me-first,” but “you-first.” Take that same spirit on yourself, take into yourself the mindset of Christ, Paul writes, and you’ll be walking a path that honors and glorifies God. Replace the “self mindset” with a “Christ mindset.”

The “self mindset” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person or that you do bad things. It just means you live with the understanding that your worth as a person depends on your ability to command, to produce, to perform, and to defend your stuff and your rights. Maybe you know someone in your own circles who likes to drop hints about how much their stuff cost or the prominent people they know, or someone who constantly dwells on how aggrieved and outraged they are. It’s true that we’re all the heroes of our own stories, but when you live with the “self mindset,” there seems to be little room for anyone else—all the supporting cast is made up of cardboard characters. Looking at myself, I know I’ve often lived with a “self mindset”—too wrapped up in my own stuff to hear and appreciate the worries and hopes and disappointments and joys of others around me. And that’s why a bunch of blinkered people living with the “self mindset” can never become the kind of community Paul dreams of.

I was at a conference a few years ago where Sara Miles, the founder of the Food Pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, was talking about her ministry and her faith journey. One of the other conference participants asked a question. He said his church had a similar program, but that some of the women who ran their pantry set aside strawberries for themselves. As it happened, the pantry ran out of food that week, and they had to send some of their guests away empty-handed. When he found out about the strawberries that had been secreted away, he confronted the women who had done it, but they said, “Well, those people don’t appreciate the strawberries like we do. If they took them home, they’d probably let them rot on the shelf. We’re going to make jam.” The man’s question to Sara Miles was how to forgive them for selfishly committing this scandal against the hospitality the church was trying to offer. Another conference participant answered, “It’s not about the strawberries. It’s nothing to do with the strawberries. They’ve got a hole inside them, and they don’t know how to fill it, so they grasped at the strawberries. Think of the gaping emptiness that must be inside those women for them to take food away from hungry families. Think of the anxiety and brokenness they have to wake up with every morning. Transform your anger into pity and compassion. That’s how you forgive. And that’s how you stay attentive to the kind of healing they need, even if they don’t know it.”

The woman who said this was showing all of us the “Christ mindset.” It’s not wrong to be angry about cruelty and selfishness and injustice. But transforming that anger into pity and compassion is the difference between self-righteousness and plain old righteousness. It’s the openness to the hurts carried by the people around us that opens the way to building a community that lives out one love and one mind. Now, for the time being, the strawberry thieves probably need to be asked to take a break from staffing the food pantry—vulnerable people like the food pantry clients shouldn’t have to bear the pain of others. But the Christ mindset doesn’t dwell on who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s not about justifying myself or others. It’s about seeing and hearing and feeling the needs of my neighbors, even the obnoxious ones, and asking where I can serve.

And there’s freedom in not having to constantly guard yourself and what belongs to you. Sara Miles, in one of her books, talks about giving a fourth-grade class a tour of her food pantry. They asked her, “How do you know the people who come to get food really need it? … Do people take advantage of you? … What do you do to keep people from cheating?” She writes:

I talked with the kids about the idea of “taking advantage,” explaining that it was impossible to be taken advantage of as long as you were giving something away without conditions. “If it’s a trade, then it’s fair or unfair,” I said. “But if I’m going to give it to you anyway, no matter what you do, then you can’t take advantage of me.” …

I was trying not to sound like a proselytizing Christian nut, but I had to add one more thing. “In my church,” I said, “we say that judgment belongs to God, not to humans. So that makes things a lot easier for us. We don’t have to decide who deserves food.”2

There’s a joyful freedom she’s found in not having to decide who’s worthy, not having to grasp and hold onto what after all are God’s gifts to share.

Paul acknowledges that the “Christ mindset” is a serious thing to think about when he invites his friends to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” But his last word to us today is not about fear. “… for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” Paul concludes. God plants in us the desire for freedom from a mindset that puts the self at the center of everything. God allows us to let go, to build up our neighbors. This is promised to us. More than that, it is already present–God is already at work doing just these things. Through prayer we can open ourselves to the reality of what is already taking place within and among us. But the work is God’s. God already envisions the good you are going to do. God has planted its seeds and is tending them. And when you blossom with all the colors of resurrection, when your life takes on the mindset of Jesus, your ears will be tuned to hear those words God spoke first to him: “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” Let it be so. Amen.

Footnotes

  1. Carol Dweck, Mindset: the New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine, 2016.

  2. Sara Miles, Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. pp. 36-38.

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