Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First

(Philippians 2:12) Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

On a flight out of Calgary last year I was seated between two ladies. The flight attendant was going through the standard safety repertoire which included the admonition: “If there is a sudden drop in cabin air pressure, oxygen masks will release from the compartment overhead...those travelling with small children should put their own oxygen mask on first before putting one on a child...” The logic of such an order is obvious: the well-being of the more vulnerable is best served by the guardians first insuring that they themselves are safe and functional. Here, then, is an example of tending to oneself first that is not selfishness but sensible and necessary to the saving of others.

A light conversation developed with the lady on my right (I will here call her Rose). She was sharp and self-confident, articulate and amiable. Rose explained that she is a highly-trained yoga instructor who takes personal health seriously. As it turned out, we had both just been reading the same book about the health benefits of fat (eating it, not growing it) and my mind drifted for a moment to visions of uncured apple-wood smoked organic bacon turning golden brown under the broiler. Let us here pause to reflect on the goodness of God in making a New Testament in Christ which eliminated the dietary law that forbade the flesh of swine (LEV 11:7 c/w 1TIM 4:1-5)! It is my vain hope that in the new heaven and earth where there is no death (REV 21:4), that pigs will shed bacon like a deer sheds antlers. Rose brought me back from hog heaven by saying that “Put your own oxygen mask on first” is kind of her philosophy of life and went on to explain herself. As I recall, Rose had grown up as a daughter of a Protestant minister who had devoted himself to service of others but the latter part of his life was defined by loneliness and diminishment in an apartment. I suspect that this had had a deep effect on her. By her words and tone, I think it would be safe to say that there was a lingering pain about that paradoxical picture of her lonely, dispurposed father. Rose had resolved that she would take a different path in life, one that would find fulfillment in taking charge of her own course and her own health and, accordingly, be better fitted to face life’s cruel turns with a determination to overcome them and help others do likewise.

Scripture in many ways promotes the principle of “put your own oxygen mask on first.” Our opening text (PHIL 2:12) is a good example: “...work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Each saint is personally responsible to work out what God has by grace enabled, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (PHIL 2:13). Thus, “...every man shall bear his own burden” (GAL 6:5) and “...every one of us shall give an account of himself to God” (ROM 14:12). Peter was once concerned that Christ had given him a sober burden but the same was not said about another disciple present. Christ answered Peter, “...what is that to thee? follow thou me” (JOH 21:18-22): focus on your own appointment.

At Pentecost, Peter preached repentance and baptism to Israel, enjoining them, “...Save yourselves from this untoward generation...” (ACT 2:38-40). Their first duty was not to save the evil and adulterous generation (MAT 12:39) in which they lived but rather save themselves from it. One may not save the culture but one can save himself from it. Take care of personal reform first, then of others’ personal reform through your good example and witness, and if the culture be eventually improved, glory to God. But save yourselves even if nobody else comes along.

The Apostle Paul, in instructing his son in the ministry, Timothy, about his studies and teaching in the church at Ephesus said, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1TIM 4:13-16). Ministers must cherish their study time and not be given over to excess distractions: “No man that warreth entangleth himself with the cares of this life...” (2TIM 2:4). God rebuked Israel earlier, “His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant...” (ISA 56:10). The blind only lead the blind into ditches (MAT 15:14).

Having the knowledge of the truth is one thing; living it is another. Paul rebuked the Jews who boasted about having the Law, “Thou therefore that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?” (ROM 2:21). Hypocrites make lousy reprovers and “...the name of God is blasphemed...through you” (ROM 2:24). Each must clean up his own act first; God will use flinty vessels, even flawed vessels, but not filthy ones:

(Psa 50:16) But unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth?

Who should put food on your table or care for the needy in your family: neighbors? the church? the state? No. “If any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home...if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1TIM 5:3-9).

Similarly, Paul says of work:

(1Th 4:11) And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you;
(1Th 4:12) That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.

(2Th 3:11) For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.
(2Th 3:12) Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.

If people would mind their own business, they would not be meddling in or depending on others’ business to supply their needs. The Pilgrims, upon landing in the New World, tried a socialist form of government without individual incentive and responsibility to supply for oneself and they had to rapidly abandon it because it only produced economic leeches, strife and little foodstuffs. James Madison later said, “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of government.” Charity is not charity when it is taken from one man by force and given to another who did not work for it: that is theft. Further, to force one man to labor for the benefit of another is not charity; it is slavery. Perhaps this would be a good place for the following verse:

(Eph 4:28) Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.

If folks stopped taking from others’ hands and instead worked with their own hands, there would be more resources and incentive to give genuine charity. “Charity” by taxation disincentivizes personal industry (since a handout is easier than labor) and also disincentivizes true charity (since each assumes that others will bear the cost of relieving the needy).

Scripture has much to say about serving others (putting their oxygen masks on for them). Our blessed Lord Jesus came not to be served but rather (He said), “...I am among you as he that serveth” (LUK 22:27), and so we should “...by love serve one another” (GAL 5:13). Until His time was come that He should let the power of darkness take Him (LUK 22:53-54), He moved around much---He “...went about doing good...” (ACT 10:38), healing here and there, preaching near and far. Such labors would have demanded a common sense approach to life. His diet was not the sumptuous fare of the rich (c/w LUK 16:19); He would not have violated His own decrials of gluttony (DEUT 21:20; PRO 23:21), nor have been a lavish banqueter (1PE 4:3); His moderation would have been known to all (PHIL 4:5). It was not His bulk but His bones that could be tallied later on Calvary’s cross when they had taken his garments (PSA 22:17-18). He ate to live rather than lived to eat, that He might live and move lighter in His arduous tasks. Jesus felt weariness and had sense enough to sit down and rest (JOH 4:6), and called His disciples another time to Himself, “...Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat” (MAR 6:31). He is the epitome of rightousness but He measured His righteous duties reasonably; He was not in that sense “...righteous over much...” (ECC 7:16), compulsively driven by an unbalanced view of duty, time and His Father’s knowledge of human needs (MAT 6:31-32). For practical purposes, He, as it were, put His own oxygen mask on first that He might ably walk and work: “...Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected” (LUK 13:32). Wise shepherds know that they should not overdrive the sheep (GEN 33:13), nor overdrive themselves. Our Good Shepherd (JOH 10:11) was a driven Man but not a delusional Man. He pressed through His duties towards Calvary with a measured determination that took into account human infirmity: He was “...touched with the feeling of our infirmities...” (HEB 4:15) that we might by His example see that godliness is a “...reasonable service...” (ROM 12:1), not a ridiculous one. Life will give us seasons of pressure to keep us humble and try our faith; we need not increase pressure by assuming burdens that are not ours to bear, nor by assuming that a season without pressure is wrong. Matthew Henry observed, “There may be over-doing even in well-doing, a being righteous over-much; and such an over-doing as may prove an undoing through the subtlety of Satan.” It is a defective religion that considers itself holier than Christ by “...a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh” (COL 2:23).

In contrast to neglecting the body, we are witnessing a cultural dynamic of the importance of perfecting the body: feeding it properly, exercising it properly (and displaying it improperly). Fitness and athleticism are multi-billion dollar industries. A legitimate question arises here: how much of this trend is owing to a desire for better health and how much of it is owing to pride, or to a fear of a premature death beyond which there is no hope or fun? Some say, “...let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die” (1CO 15:32). Carpe diem! Others say, “Let us eat fish and drink alfalfa juice so tomorrow we won’t die.” Carp for dinner! While not denigrating the value of good diet and exercise (Christ certainly knew the value of such), the fact is that (unless Christ returns first) we are going to die, and beyond that is the judgment:

(Heb 9:27) And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:

That which best fits us for the present distress and for that future dark hour is not a chiseled physique. God has never been impressed with that but rather with something else:

(Psa 147:10) He delighteth not in the strength of the horse: he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man.
(Psa 147:11) The LORD taketh pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy.

(1Ti 4:8) For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.

Physical prowess can win you a piece of gold; godliness gives a peace of God that passes all understanding, which keeps the heart and mind (PHIL 4:6-7). How many people have dedicated their lives to perfecting the health and shape of their bodies, only to be struck down by a debilitating injury or a terrible disease which takes its toll on that perfect form? Where will we be, and how will we react when, as happened to Daniel, our comeliness is turned into corruption (DAN 10:8), or as happened to good King Hezekiah when he was told at the peak of a great career, “...Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die...” (ISA 38:1), or as happened to perfect Job who was suddenly smitten “...with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown” (JOB 2:7)? It is true that men and women have suffered and overcome great personal tragedies in spite of a lack of godliness or even have cursed the God they refuse to believe exists or has a right to regulate their lives. But the end of life is a different story: there is no strength there. And what of the afterlife? It is not Goliathness but godliness that yields hope for that state. Godliness suggests that one belongs to God Who changed his nature and gave him a hunger and thirst for righteousness; therefore he is a blessed man who shall be filled with the same (MAT 5:6). Godliness therefore also implies that one has a full righteousness from Christ, not from human achievement, and this speaks of great hope for this life and the next:

(Rom 5:6) For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
(Rom 5:7) For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.
(Rom 5:8) But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
(Rom 5:9) Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
(Rom 5:10) For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.

(2Co 5:21) For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

To this end, Jesus Christ conspicuously one time did not put His own oxygen mask on first. He could have but He would not do so, explaining His restraint of His own power, “But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?” (MAT 26:54). The greatest show of strength is not using it. Mockers said at the cross, “He saved others; himself he cannot save...” (MAT 27:42). The fools had stumbled onto a great truth: the greatest love possible demanded that He die for sinners, for the ungodly who had no strength to ever stand before God. They would be His beloved bride, drawn unto God with an everlasting love (JER 31:3), guaranteed to them by covenant while He echoes daily to their souls the words of Solomon to his beloved, exclusive bride:

(Song 2:1) I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
(Song 2:2) As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.

He is the rose before He is the lily, the red before the white, the blood the path to purity. Health may fail, plans may fail, others’ love may fail, but not God’s love for His bride. He loves us in spite of ourselves, in riches or in poverty, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and eternally.