January 18, 2015
“Finding New Focus”
I hope you are finding this letter to the Philippians as rewarding as I have, as we are now on week three of reading through this short, but joy-filled letter. A quick recap as we begin today: Paul begins by thanking God for his partnership with the believers in Philippi. Paul is confident that as God began a good work in them, so God will carry it on to completion until the day Jesus returns. He prays they will grow in love and knowledge and depth of insight to be able to discern what is best, pure and blameless until the day Jesus comes. He prays they will be filled with the fruit of righteousness through Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
This is what we want too, in our best prayers and desires for our lives of faith. We know, however, that these good hopes and aspirations can be laid aside in the stress and worries of everyday life. Paul talks about being in prison as he writes, so it is a surprise to hear him say that his time in prison has served to advance the gospel. What? God is using Paul despite his being in jail?
Hearing that puts a whole new spin on service. God can use me when I am sick or hospitalized; God can use me whether I am unemployed, retired, or struggling in my work; God can use me despite any family troubles, personality flaws or lack of educational opportunities. God can use me wherever I am and whatever I am going through. God can use whatever I would deem my minus attributes and bring them to plus. This truth necessitates a shift in attitude, to realize that God can use us even at our worst, to bring about God’s best.
Paul writes in the close of last week’s passage that it has been granted to those in the Philippian church not only to believe in Christ, but to suffer for him. Undoubtedly they were experiencing some hardship because of their faith. They may have been tempted to feel discouraged or wanting to draw back from the conflict. We too may get discouraged, though perhaps in different ways. The morals we see around us are different from what we believe, and others would call us old-fashioned or out of touch with today’s reality. People don’t worship regularly the way they used to, and faith is considered elective rather than essential. Therefore, when we feel discouraged we need a source for encouragement. For us, this is Christ, but it is also one another.
Faith was never intended to be a solo sport. It is not a singles tennis match – one person pitted against another in a competition. It is always a team endeavor. Together we find encouragement in being united with Christ, receiving comfort from his love and fellowship with the Spirit. We grow in tenderness and compassion, which are attributes expressed within relationships. Paul asks the Philippians to make his joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Be the team you were brought together to be.
In order to become this team for Christ, however, we need to find a new focus, and this is what Paul speaks about in this passage of scripture today. In order to develop a team-oriented love and become as one in spirit and purpose, we need to grow in the attribute of humility. I realize humility is often undervalued or not regarded as a positive character attribute. We see humility as weak, even spineless. Stick up for yourself. Do what is right for you. Sometimes that is helpful advice, but know that Paul is speaking of humility in the context of Christian ministry and service.
Paul says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Most people want others to think well of them, and want to get along with others. Problems begin when our desire to please others bumps up against our need to do what helps us. I want to look good in the eyes of others, but that may mean squashing someone else down. I want to be valued, but it may cause me to point a accusing finger at someone else. I see my behavior in comparison to that of someone else. If I look better than them, I’m okay.
In the short term, puffing myself up at the expense of someone else may protect my fragile self-ego, but in the long term, it will damage my relationships with others who may retaliate and poke further holes in my self-esteem. Selfish ambition and vain conceit isolate and alienate me from others. It is the complete opposite to being part of the body of Christ. Paul says, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This makes sense for any group setting, whether at work, within your family, or among any group to which you belong, but it is essential within a church.
Paul says it well when he says that our attitude should be the same as Jesus, who was in his nature the same as God, but chose to empty himself, becoming a person like you and me, and even more, a servant. “Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
There’s a lot here in a few sentences. Paul affirms that Jesus is God in human form. This is the incarnation – God came down to earth to become one of us. Jesus, the word of God, lived before any life began, but as a human being, Jesus gave up his right to power and all knowledge. Instead, he became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
For someone like Paul, trained in the Hebrew Scriptures, crucifixion was the worst kind of death, because it is written in Deuteronomy 21:23 that anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. Paul understood more than some the full extent God was willing to go in order to reclaim us from the curse of sin and death. Christ is our supreme example of one who laid aside any personal aspirations he might have, even his desire to continue to live upon this earth, in order to be obedient to God’s will. The worst we could experience pales beside what Jesus experienced, enduring the very curse of God as he hung on the cross to die.
His obedience brought our redemption, and his example can bring about our transformation. So I want to pay attention to why God is asking us to cultivate humility and look not only to our own interests, but the interests of others. I have to ask some questions: why does God want me to be emptied in order to take up God’s plans? How can I learn to be obedient? What do I need to do to empty myself of what I have considered important, in order to embrace what God wants for me?
I don’t have answers to these questions except as I allow myself to be immersed in God’s word in scripture, pray deeply, and reflect in quietness. These are all things that can be easily set aside in the busyness of a day. Life can lead me astray to think that my ideas are best, my hopes are most important, and my worries belong at center stage. I begin paying more attention to what I am feeling rather than asking God to lead me well.
When I begin to listen to my voice more than God’s voice, I do God a disfavor. After all, it is God who has greater wisdom, longer insight of years, and a bigger and better plan than mine. If I cultivate spiritual deafness and listen only to my voice, I am going to be filled with selfish ambition and vain conceit as Paul talks about. I will not find fellowship in the Spirit. I will not know tenderness and compassion. I will not be able to be like minded with the same love or one in spirit and purpose. I will be in God’s way.
I think this is one of the most important lessons we can learn in the Christian faith – how to become less of an obstacle and more of a help to God, how to tune into what God has in mind, and how to empty ourselves in order to be filled with God. It is a conscious decision we have to make day by day and moment by moment. I don’t think it matters whether you have been a believer for many years or just a few.
Any one of us can get led astray and be tempted to put our emotions and worries ahead of what God wants for us. But anyone can choose to make a new start, and ask God how to draw near again, to the glory of his name. That’s what Christ is all about, forgiveness and new life.
Paul says, “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…” Has Christ encouraged you? Have you found comfort in Christ’s love? Have you been in fellowship with God’s Spirit? Do you have tenderness and compassion, which are gifts of the Spirit? If you have been blessed through any of these signs of God’s presence, respond. Express your gratefulness for Christ’s love by showing that same love to others. Find your new focus, following the example of Christ.