12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
There are a few things that really sank in tonight. First, Paul hadn't "arrived" as a Christian. I know in the past I've seen that and just mentally dismissed that as pious apostle speak. "Yeah, ok so you haven't arrived. Yeah, you're the chief off all sinners. Ok, so maybe you murdered a few people. Wait - murder? Oh, but you had that dramatic conversion thing where you were stricken blind and heard the voice of Jesus, so that really kind of offsets everything else you ever actually did wrong." And so I talk to myself and fail to pick up what Paul is actually saying. But here's what I got tonight. Paul, as a Christian, wasn't satisfied with himself. Maybe he struggled with patience or a quick temper or getting up in the morning for prayer. I don't know. We do know that Paul had some sort of "thorn in the flesh," and it's probably one of the reasons he knew he still had a ways to go in sanctification. It's just not something we (ok - I) think about. When you're an apostle/pastor/Christian author being humble about where you are in life is just one of those things you're supposed to do. However, during the sermon, I started to think a little more about a man with a past I'm sure he'd desperately like to forget and who probably had more than one reason to wish God would just fix things already so he could get on with his life. At the time I suppose it's possible that Paul didn't realize what a huge amazing role he played in establishing the Church. So what did Paul do with his broken past and his temptations and weaknesses? He tried harder. He pressed forward. He strained and stretched his sinews out towards the goal line. Now, I've heard it said and continue to maintain that "just try harder" makes really lousy theology. It can lead to legalism, hopelessness (or smug superiority), and complete burn-out. Christianity isn't about just trying harder. So what's the bridge here? Is Paul saying something impossible or out of character? No, Paul is saying press forward towards Christ. Our pastor pointed out that if we look to ourselves we tap out. We are shallow wells and soon emptied. If we look to others (that very popular tactic for taking one "out of oneself") we're liable to envy and discontent. However, if we look to Jesus we find both our goal and the strength to reach that goal. Jesus is "the author and finisher of our faith" - the one who "wills and works in us to to accomplish every good work." Our goal is heaven and the likeness of Christ who is the second Adam. Our strength is Christ's will working in us.
And even Paul was a ways from the goal! He still had to get up every morning and keep jogging down the road towards the New Jerusalem.
He had to (in Christ's strength) keep working out his salvation. So while I'd say that "just try harder" still makes lousy theology I'm beginning to wonder if maybe a few of us are entirely missing the point that we are supposed to be engaged in an actual, physical marathon. Running the race isn't just something you do in your head (although I've heard that if you don't have your mental game in place you're never going to make it). It's something you do by lacing up your shoes and putting your feet down one after the other for a really, really long time. This might be a spiritually conditioned race, but it requires more than having your head game in order. Theology works itself out. For a marriage to look like God's intention you have to physically do some things and refrain from doing others. Same for loving your kids, your neighbors, your country, etc. And we know we're running the race when we start every new stretch by running to where Jesus is. And, here's where the conviction comes for me, we know where Jesus is by knowing who He is. We go to church and pray and read the Bible. I've gone to health professionals and counselors chasing after wellness, but I've neglected to chase after God revealed in His Word.
Writing all this I have to say I feel a little "oooh, hey look I'm writing about the BIBLE aren't I all spiritual and adorable," but I really want to try and hang on to this one. I mean it. Just a week ago I was climbing a peak in Yosemite. There wasn't a trail, and I didn't have any signs telling me how close I was to the top. There were several times I thought about turning around 'cause it was taking too long, and I was getting weary climbing scree at 10k + elevation, but I kept going because I knew just based on the surrounding geography there would be something worth seeing at the top. Let me just say that was one of the most amazing views of the Sierra Nevada range I have ever experienced. I pressed forward, and I saw the prize. There, object lesson inserted.