Do you ever worry about running out of things? Full disclosure: I do. But not things like money or food. I worry about running out of things to do or learn. I’ll drag out a task just to delay that moment when I complete it and have to ask, “What do I do next?” The possibility that time does not exist in heaven still unnerves me, as if the world had finally run out of events–or the prospect of a heaven that’s just endless repetition of the same activities, as if God had run out of new and interesting things to have happen. And historically, I have worried that maybe there was nothing to begin with. I worry that maybe I’ll come to the end of my life and discover that not only have I run out of me, but moreover there was no me to begin with, that there wasn’t anything, that God is nonbeing and heaven is union with him in illusory existence’s own self-annihilation. I fear running out of reality.
What’s good enough for you? What’s worth committing to? Paul wrote more than one letter explicitly dealing with legalism, especially first-century Judaism’s Torah-based legalism. And while he doesn’t hit the problem as aggressively in his letter to the Philippian church, it’s still a concern: he warns his readers about “evil workers,” the “false circumcision,” even calling them “dogs” (2). These individuals are committed to adherence to the Law, thinking they can make the grade based on their own works. What’s good enough for them? Being good enough.
The first eight verses of Philippians 2 loom large in my high school memories. I loved the passage, memorizing the third and fourth verses, committing to its ethic of unselfishness–or at least advocating for it. I knew my attempts to live up to Jesus Christ’s standard of sacrificial giving would inevitably fall short, but I made his example my goal anyway. Eighteen years of adult experience have opened my eyes to how hard it can be to give yourself to others, and part of me wants to remark on my high-school self’s idealistic naiveté. But I gotta give the kid credit: at least he tried. I’ve had periods in my adult life, like years, where I did as much living for self as I could hide.
Welcome to a new letter from Paul. He wrote this one to the church at Philippi while he was imprisoned at Rome. As I read through the first chapter, I found myself asking: how am I gonna talk about this one? Paul’s all over the place! One moment he’s expressing his gratitude for the Philippian church, then he’s talking about preaching the gospel to his captors while he’s imprisoned, then he’s talking about how some people are preaching the gospel out of selfish motives but he doesn’t care because people are still hearing the truth about Jesus Christ. And that’s not the half of it–he’s got more to say about suffering and sacrificing and how faith manifests itself in action, to the point where I ask myself, what’s the theme here? Is there a theme? What ties it all together? Then it hits me: the theme is Jesus Christ himself.
Here, at the end of the chapter, is another of Paul’s well-known metaphors, in which the Christian life is represented as a race or athletic contest. It requires discipline and long-term commitment, both training and grit, more than just a quick sinner’s prayer to use as a get-out-of-hell-free card. And I could easily skip right to Paul’s running metaphor and offer a few inspiring words of encouragement–the sort of thing you’ve heard before. But when I look at the metaphor in the context of the whole chapter, I’m faced with a question: why is Paul saying this stuff to the Corinthian church in the first place?