I think perhaps one of the most dangerous things in life is the human tendency to rest on our laurels. We can learn and accomplish great things, but then once we’re there we get comfortable, with where we are at… and we coast… spending the rest of our time trying to re-live or re-capture that glory. We often see this in the entertainment industry, most tragically with individuals who become stars in their childhood or teenage years. They reach great heights of popularity and success in the early years of their life, but are not well equipped to be able to handle the real-life consequences when their time in the sun fades. It’s nothing new. Even the Little Rascals had their struggles when they grew up, several of them died well before their time in tragic circumstances, and they pre-date all of us!
It happens in churches too… remember the story from a few weeks back of a church that I worked in that sought to recapture the glory days of the 1950’s, when they literally had hundreds of children in their Sunday School… largely thanks to the reality of the post-war Baby Boom. So enamoured with their past were they that they ended up spending $15,000 on a program that was fraudulently sold to them as being the magic bullet that would restore the glory days… needless to say it didn’t… and in fact, it accomplished the opposite.
And then there’s Paul… and it’s such a wonderful contrast to all of this. He speaks of his own accomplishments in life, and yet he is not content to sit on his laurels. He tells the church in Philippi that he has a lot to brag about, but he doesn’t because he’s not one to bask in the glory of past accomplishments, far from it. He talks about constantly “pressing on to the goal” and has some interesting and rather crude things to say about his own past accomplishments.
It is a caution for us when we subconsciously worship our own accomplishments, things we’ve built, but not God. We become complacent and lose sight of the goal, and we become imprisoned by the very things we’ve built around us. Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote that “the best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he’s in prison.”
I think that’s what Paul was after in his letter to Philippians… here he was in prison, with a lot more time on his hand to think about what really matters in his life. Paul himself was a going concern, a deep thinker, someone who was very much concerned about his faith being grounded and real. When working with the early church communities, many of the typical human problems would arise. One of the most common would be about status and personalities… and frankly that’s a constant within our churches. Not everybody is going to get along… but Paul was particularly concerned about how one’s personal accomplishments, one’s status and position could have as a negative impact on the life of the church community.
So what does he do? He invokes his own personal accomplishments and status, reminding the people that his credibility is rock solid… particularly in his life within the Jewish traditions. This was particularly important to the Philippian community, because there were many who believe one needed to become Jewish first in order to be Christian. Paul himself, who is Jewish by all standards, and has all the credibility to be well recognized. He calls himself a Pharisee quite proudly, when it comes to the law, he has sympathies with the Zealots, and even goes so far as to identify himself as blameless under the law…
Wow… that’s awfully presumptive…
…but then watch what he does. After quickly establishing his credibility, he demolishes it with just a few words. “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” He even does so far as to describe all of his gains as rubbish… well… in the original Greek, he’s actually much cruder… So crude in fact that I would get complaints if I actually use the best equivalent word in English. I’ll let you think about that for a moment, rather than stepping in it myself.
Paul establishes his credibility with his short list, and then immediately puts it aside to say that the most important thing in his life is striving for what lies ahead. It is also curious as to how he talks about his own faith, his own spiritual life. Keep in mind that this is a leader in the early church, one whose writings were so foundational to the Christian faith that they became sacred. Yet when Paul writes about himself in verse twelve, listen to what he says: “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached this goal; but I press on to make it my own.”
Paul is careful to say that he hasn’t got it all. There is still more. There’s more to learn, more to explore, more to experience… and the core reason that he presses on is not because he’s trying to earn favour with Jesus… but out of gratitude of what Christ has already done for us. He was optimistic in a way that’s hard to fathom, and remember he says all of this from prison! Paul may have been physically in prison and genuinely unsure of his fate, but in his heart he was free… and that gave him the strength to press on.
If maybe I haven’t been clear before, that’s something that we don’t really highlight enough in our churches. Paul’s personal faith is far more accessible than we realize. As we often do, we put him on a pedestal, thinking that he’s got it all figured out… and yet when we read a passage like this, we realize that Paul is merely a companion on our own journey of faith. He’s striving for something more, for a better balance, for a deeper relationship with God, not to earn it, but because of what God has already done in Jesus Christ. So focused on this, that he is willing to forget about all of his personal past glories, to look to the future with hope, and strive for something more and better. Maybe, when we find ourselves in our own prisons that we have built, that maybe we need to let that go, trusting in God, and pressing on to the goal.