Goldfish, Towels, and Missions

Christ’s example for a gospel-shaped life begins with humble care for others.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4 ESV)

Nearly a decade ago, a toddler’s fistful of Goldfish crackers led me down the trail to full-time ministry.

The atrium of the church bustled with visitors between services, a fraction of the more than 1,800 who would attend over the course of the five Sunday worship gatherings. Visiting from out of state, my wife and I absorbed the megachurch’s sights and sounds—from neon signage near the trendy café to the top-40 music thumping over the loudspeaker. Overwhelmed and overstimulated, the last person we expected to see among the crowd was the pastor due onstage in moments.

Yet there he was—with a broom, quietly sweeping up a young child’s snack scattered on the lobby floor.

Months later, I was interviewing for a student ministry position in that same church, asking myself if I was a fit for its culture. I stepped into the role in faith, uncertain of many things but sure that I was drawn to the servant-leadership of this shepherd.

I had witnessed firsthand what it meant to “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3), and it put my life on a new trajectory.

In Philippians 2, the Apostle Paul begins a series of exhortations to his audience to live with the mind of Christ. In light of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation, Christians too should humble themselves and serve others in the cause of the gospel for the glory of God (vv. 1-11). In verses 3-4, the key verses of this passage, Paul describes two of the simplest ingredients in the gospel-shaped life: humility and care for others.

First, we are warned to flee selfish ambition and conceit. Notably, Paul has just rejoiced that God sovereignly uses even gospel preachers with selfish motives (1:15-18). Yet God’s free choice to work through flawed vessels is no justification for such pride. Rather, we are authorized to do exactly nothing at all out of conceit—not ministry, not missions, not even household chores.

C.S. Lewis aptly captured the spirit of Paul’s appeal in Mere Christianity:

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3, Chapter 8, “The Great Sin,” Kindle location 1665)

In sum: humility is not thinking less of oneself but thinking of oneself less.

The next exhortation follows this line of thought: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (v. 4). This is the simplest definition of love. Though today we equate love with emotion or affirmation, biblically, love is the active, self-sacrificial pursuit of the good of another:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

One of Scripture’s most potent images of self-giving love comes in John 13, when Jesus dons the towel of a household slave to wash the feet of his followers. Referencing this event, a mentor of mine—who had also mentored the pastor with the broom—often repeated, “It’s not about titles; it’s about towels.” Christ’s humble act, of course, was but a foretaste of his outpouring on the cross. The Lord Jesus Christ came to serve, not be served, and calls us to do the same.

The missionary task is more than washing feet or sweeping up Goldfish— it involves evangelism, discipleship, and church planting as well. But in another sense, it isn’t much more than these things, because in the Christian life, we are never to graduate from towels and brooms, whether we find ourselves in the lobby of a megachurch or at the far-flung ends of the earth. May God grant that humility and love would mark our lives on mission.


Lord Jesus,

You have commanded me to never do anything out of selfish ambition. Yet I live in a culture entirely concerned with selfish pursuits. I confess that I am often motivated by my own self interest, even when I claim to be serving you. Forgive me, and wash me in the same forgiving love with which you washed your disciples’ feet when you assumed the position of a servant. Renew my mind, so that I would consider not only my own interests, but the interests of others, just as you considered my interests when you died on the cross in my place. Do all this, so that your own love and humility would be more clearly displayed in my life, for your glory.

In Jesus’ name,


Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray for your pastors and others serving in your local church to stay humble in their motivations.
  2. Pray that God would open your eyes to global and local needs as you consider the interests of others.
  3. Pray for missionaries serving across the world to remain humble and driven by genuine interest in others, not pursuing their own reputation or notoriety.
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