Can We Identify Our Lack?
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. 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, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. - Philippians 3:12-14
As I continue this unofficial series through the book of Philippians I’ve decided to move quickly (perhaps only temporarily) to the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This chapter generates lots of scholarly attention about why Paul seemingly turns the letter on its head to address a (seemingly new) theological enemy in the church. The internal threat of Judaizers provokes a strong rebuke from Paul (Philippians 3:2-3) and even a rare account of Paul listing his Judaistic credentials (Philippians 3:4-8). At the conclusion of this platforming, Paul clarifies once more that perfection even in the apostle himself had not been reached.
While it is easy to respond to this teaching from Paul with a “duh,” I think there are reasons that perfectionism remains something the church must address. It is entirely possible that Paul’s emphasis on unity throughout the epistle is addressing a healthy church with a stressed focus on the most minor imperfections in the church. And so here, Paul gives a reassurance that any type of perfectionist doctrine is to be rejected. It seems to me that most Christians do not attest to being perfect—if anything we tend the other direction (i.e. Oates’ “The new hypocrisy of the twentieth century — appearing more irreligious than we really are“).
And so, Paul’s words are our words—”Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect”—and we easily quote them. But do we regularly and actually identify where this lack in perfection lies within us? Said another way, Paul is not here merely confessing a “sin of my house being unkempt.” He is acknowledging things not yet obtained—genuine lack. Paul concludes this brief rejection of perfectionism with a plea of application to the church in Philippi:
Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. - Philippians 3:15
The question for “those of us who are mature” is how do we think this way about ourselves? Where in our lives can we identify a lack that is awaiting the full return of Christ and the glorification of our bodies and souls? With our words we confess our need but sometimes with our actions we deny it. Yet, one of the reasons we need this type of introspection is that it becomes the source for which our brothers and sisters can serve us:
Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. - Galatians 6:2-3
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. - 1 Thessalonians 5:14
Being a maturing Christian in a church means serving one another. But it also means having the humility to be served—to know with deep intimacy which burdens others can share. As Wayne Oates wrote in his The Revelation of God in Human Suffering:
"Each of us tends to expect himself to be so clever that he does not need to receive another’s help. Sharing is a gift of the grace of God, disciplined through the skills of the Christian fellowship, and taught as a part of the culture of every growing family within the fellowship…The capacity to depend and be dependent upon often makes the difference between heaven and hell." (50)
Those words, which I read three years ago, have stuck with me. How am I participating in the fellowship of the body by letting people serve me? Not just in a superficial way (beer and mangos are delicious and good for my soul) but in a deeply dependent way. For that is precisely what it means to reject a theology of perfectionism—announcing a lack that can only, for now, be fulfilled by the church community. We can hear the echoing warning from Paul, “If anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. - Romans 12:3
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. - Philippians 2:3-4
Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. - 1 Corinthians 10:24
These instructions from Paul have an active and passive element. We actively serve one another. We are passively to let ourselves be served. While much can and has been said about the active elements of these instructions, a denouncement of perfectionism requires us to develop the passive sides of these instructions as well.
How do we as people, churches, and denominations recognize our lack? How do we bring these weaknesses to the church so that we can be admonished, encouraged, and helped? What elements of our person or life experiences can keep us from being open about the needs we have? How can the church begin to model a community that welcomes instead of shuns the openly needy?
As a possible case study, we can look at a couple of Paul’s statements in Philippians:
Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. - Philippians 2:2
Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me. - Philippians 2:27-30
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity … Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. - Philippians 4:10, 14
These passages give us an interesting look at how Paul was “lacking” in something due to the Philippians disunity and lack of service. Paul acknowledges his need and petitions the church for help in a chapter largely consisting of pastoral pleas. These passages instruct us to identify opportunities for people to serve us and be grateful when they share our troubles. So the question remains, can we identify our lack?