I have a simple but profound philosophy when it comes to the Christian life. When it is fully understood it can be revolutionary. By that I mean it can take a self-absorbed, idolatrous rebel and empower him to pursue a life that truly honors God. It can take a hopelessly depressed, self-loathing woman and restore meaning and value and joy to her lowly life.
I’ve said this before, so I doubt if it will strike you as novel or unique. But here it is again:
The key to the Christian life comes not from trying harder but from enjoying more. Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, let me explain. I’m not saying you can experience success in Christian living without trying harder. I’m not at all suggesting that the Christian life isn’t hard work. It’s a war, a daily conflict, a moment-by-moment challenge that stretches us often beyond our limits. What I am saying is that pleasure in God is the power for purity. It is the enjoyment of Jesus Christ that empowers the human heart to exert the necessary effort to live as God would have us to live.
I want to demonstrate this to you from what Paul says in Philippians 3:1-11.
I know that many of you are still skeptical. I know that you are asking yourself right now: “Can fascination with God and delight in Jesus really help me overcome my failures? Can my life genuinely be changed? Can this truth really make a difference down in the gutter of lust and greed and pride and envy and shame where I live?”
Yes! I honestly believe it can. It certainly did in the life of the apostle Paul, and I have to believe that one reason the Spirit led him to say what he says in Philippians 3 is to encourage other Christians that it’s possible for them too.
This passage is all about a transformation, a personal revolution, a moral and mental 180 in one man’s life and how it can happen in our lives as well. It is as if Paul envisions himself walking down a certain path in life, heading in a specific direction, believing certain things, honoring and valuing what he was convinced would bring him life, cherishing and nourishing his earthly achievements, only to find himself suddenly walking in the opposite direction. “Those things of which I once boasted and loved and pursued, those things that energized me and gave me joy and got my juices flowing; I now look upon them and say, YUK!”
How did he do it? Why did he do it? How do you explain this phenomenal experience that all of us yearn for so deeply?
First, we must look at what Paul used to prize. There are seven things in which he had once placed his confidence. The first four relate to birth and upbringing, the last three to personal choice.
In vv. 5-6 he lists the following: 1) circumcised the 8th day; 2) of the nation of Israel; 3) of the tribe of Benjamin; 4) a Hebrew of Hebrews; 5) as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6) as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; 7) as to righteousness, blameless.
We will look more closely at these in a subsequent article, but for now one can almost hear Paul’s prideful reminder: “No one did it better than I. I was the best. I was number one. If it is possible to have good reason and warrant for boasting in human achievement and religious excellence and ethnic purity, I did it! If it’s possible to live in such a way that one can justifiably boast in the flesh and in human achievement, I did it!”
Perhaps it would be wise for each of us to pause at this point and draw up our own list. They will undoubtedly be different from Paul’s, but that’s o.k. So let me ask you: What are the seven things in this world, in your life, that compete with the most intensity to win your heart away from Jesus? If you were of a mind to boast in earthly achievements and accolades, what would they be?
Your educational degrees?
Your annual salary?
Your investment portfolio?
Your physical beauty?
Your reputation in town, at school, at your place of work, in your church?
Where you live and the car you drive and the position you hold in your company?
Your high level of self-esteem?
The achievements of your children?
Are you getting a mental picture of what you cherish most, of what you prize most highly, of what you sub-consciously depend upon to find happiness in life and a reason to get up in the morning?
The second thing of importance is for us to recognize we are not going to simply wake up one morning and discover that we suddenly hate what we used to love. The things of this world will never appear as “dung” when viewed in and of themselves. They will smell good and taste good and feel good and bring satisfaction and we will treasure and value them and fight for them and work for them and find every excuse imaginable to get them at any and all cost; they will retain their magnetic appeal and allure and power until they are set over against the surpassing value and beauty of Christ Jesus.
This is precisely what Paul is describing in Philippians 3. The things of the world (what we value, do, purchase, think about, possess, want, etc.) will not, in and of themselves, cease to be appealing. There is no magical transformation. In fact, their power to draw you into their trap will actually increase. Transformation will never happen until your heart is captivated by a rival attraction that is comparatively superior. Merely praying for sin to lose its grip on your heart won’t work. Merely fighting against sin won’t work.
In other words, to give up something simply for the sake of giving it up may work for a time, but in the long run you’ll return to it. Saying No to sin simply because you recognize it as evil may have momentary impact, but in the long run you will find a way to rationalize and excuse and justify your return to it. Saying No for no other reason than “my parents told me it was the right thing to do,” or “my teachers taught me . . ,” or “my pastor preached that . . .,” or even “the Bible says so . . .” has limited value in loosening the vice-grip of sin on our souls.
Paul’s greatest struggles were tradition, heritage, education, and above all else, religion. Where did Paul find greatest satisfaction and joy and a sense of value and meaning in life? He found it in his Jewish heritage, his ethnic identity, his educational accomplishments, and above all else in his religious devotion to the Law of Moses.
As we look more closely at what Paul says, one might have expected Paul to say that his previous personal advantages, although still good, are being left behind because he has found something better. But this was not a decision to go from good to better. Once he saw the “surpassing value” of knowing Jesus, he re-evaluated what he formerly regarded as gain, was struck with revulsion at it, realizing that it was actually working against him, that it blinded him to his need for Christ as well as to the beauty of Christ. Now he views it all as loss, as dung.
The key is found in what Paul identifies as the ground or motive for his decision: it was because of Christ. It was the prospect of gaining Christ, the promise of all that God is for him in Jesus that provoked and stirred and stimulated him and accounts for his re-evaluation of everything in his life. Paul actually makes this point no fewer than eight times! We’ll look at these eight declarations in the next article.