Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Resting and Running

Here is a normal Christian narrative about legalism: if you're relying on your own works to establish your righteousness, you'll be continually aware of your shortcomings, always anxious about whether you've done enough.  You'll have to work harder and harder to make sure that you're okay, without ever knowing for sure if you've made it or not.  But then, when you become a Christian and realise that the gospel offers you a righteousness that is not dependent on your own efforts, you'll find rest.  You won't have to be constantly striving.  You can just receive God's gift.

There is a lot of truth in this narrative.

But preaching from Philippians 3 over the last couple of weeks, I notice this isn't the story Paul tells.  Back when Paul was relying on a righteousness of his own, from the law, he seems to have been happy and confident.  "Blameless" is his own verdict on himself in that era.  Pre-conversion Paul was undoubtedly a busy guy - church ain't gonna persecute itself - but he doesn't seem to have been driven by anxiety about his status.  He was secure and apparently at peace.

It is actually post-conversion Paul who describes himself as not having obtained, as not being complete, as straining forward, making every effort to take hold, pressing on like an athlete in a race.  I don't think there is anxiety here, either, but there certainly is effort, running, striving and straining.  There has to be, for Paul.  He now knows that what matters is only Jesus.  Being performatively righteous is no longer the big concern.  Being in and with Jesus - that is the thing.  And Paul is very aware that he does not yet know Jesus as he wants to know him, that he is not with Jesus (and indeed, it would be far better from his perspective to die in order to get to him).

I imagine different people have different stories, pre-conversion.  Relying on the flesh, on your own efforts, could make you confident, or it could make you anxious, depending perhaps on how high you set your standards and how close you came to meeting them.  But post-conversion, the story is always Christ Jesus, the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.  And whilst that certainly means resting from both anxiety and boasting, it also means running.  Running like someone who wants the prize.

Running like Jesus is waiting for us on the finishing line.


  1. Blessed Blanche Balance

  2. I'm not asking this to be snide, just interested to know how you tie 2:12 into this. As in, 'fear and trembling' sounds like some degree of anxiety is involved.

    1. I don't think it can be anxiety in that verse, just because it is God who is working in Paul (according to the second part). My guess is that the fear and trembling is the awe and reverence involved in the fact that your living out of salvation is actually God's own work; that *you*, a sinful human being, are the place where God is in all his holiness... The sort of 'Israel at Sinai' trembling, perhaps.

    2. I don't know - it seems to me that the context is obedience, that something is at stake for the Philippians, just as it was for Israel at Sinai should they be unfaithful. Paul's not afraid of talking about the possibility of not entering the kingdom due to errant behaviour elsewhere.

      Something that's intrigued me of late is 1 Cor 4:3-5, the only place where Paul seems to entertain the possibility he may not make it. I still don't know how to weave these things together exactly but it's a notable passage in these regards.

    3. I think not just something but everything is at stake! But I don't think that leads to anxiety, because of Paul's confidence that God is at work. It's a dialectic: work out your salvation (because if you don't you'll be lost), because God is working in you (and therefore you will not be lost). Reach out to take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of you.

      I am not sure that 1 Cor 4 is about that, though. I think here that Paul *is* confident, but that he wants to make it clear that his confidence is not the basis of his justification. It ends up resolving everything into the judgement of God, which of course for Paul has already been expressed (at Jesus' resurrection) in favour of all those who are trusting in Christ.

    4. Perhaps concern rather than anxiety would cover it?

      I'll have to chew over 1 Cor 4 some more. I don't know if that's over-determining it from elsewhere but I'll give your suggestion serious thought.

      Have you read any of John MG Barclay's Paul and the Gift, by the way, or listened to him speak about it? It's been a while since I read parts of it, but I found it helpful at the time.