“There is no greater burden than a great potential.” Every Christian knows how Charlie Brown felt when he spoke these words one day in a “Peanuts” comic strip. Much of the time we view the Christian life as a great potential, but one we can never live up to.
As a pastor I have heard many say, “I’m not a very good Christian.” As an individual struggling to grow, I have often felt this way. The standards seem too high. The goals seem so far away. We fall short so often.
It seems that people resort to several ways of dealing with this problem.
Some fake it. They just go ahead and pretend that they are on top of things and are quite successful in their Christian living. It becomes a game when we are together. Even preachers–or especially preachers–think they have to put on a good show so others will be encouraged.
Others force it. They throw themselves into prayer, Bible study, and church activities. They compulsively control their lives to keep everything neat and orderly. They do not dare let anything go wrong. By sheer will power and nervous energy, they do the best they can. These people usually burn out, however, after a period of time.
Many simply forget it. They long ago gave up the impossible job of living by the standards of Christ. They take comfort in the fact that they have a lot of company. Some turn to one last effort by relying on a false humility. “Maybe if I am so open and so hopeless about my failure, God and others will take pity on me and accept me after all.” They are like the young man who said to me sometime back, “I can’t call myself a Christian anymore; I’ve given up.”
As I have become more aware of these desperate struggles in myself and others, I have turned often to Philippians 3:12-16.
Paul wrote these words near the end of his life. Now about sixty, he had been striving for high ideals since youth, first as a Pharisee and then as a Christian. After all of this, he says, “I’m not perfect, I haven’t reached the goal. But since Christ has already reached me, I keep moving forward. The important thing to do is to affirm the present, reach for the future, and keep growing.”
This is hopeful living. It is what we need instead of the hopeless gimmicks of faking it, forcing it, or forgetting it. As we look more closely at Paul’s words, we find three keys that will open the door to hopeful living for us.
The first key to healthy living is humility
Twice in vs. 12 and 13 he affirms that he has not reached his goals. The fact that he held high standards did not mean he required himself to reach those standards right away or even in this life. He did not punish himself for the discrepancy between where he was and where he wanted to be.
We often think of humility as a negative view of oneself. It is really just the opposite. It is the ability to accept yourself and affirm yourself as you actually are right now. It is a realistic view of yourself that rejects grandiose illusions of being perfect. Without humility we torture ourselves with fantasies of imagined greatness. Humility is the ability to see yourself as God sees you and still love yourself as God loves you. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Something in us fears that kind of humility. We think that if we accept ourselves as we actually are that we are giving up and we will lose something. This is really a lack of faith in the power of God’s grace. If he did not fear to accept us while we are still sinners because he knew this acceptance would change us, then we need not fear that self-acceptance will be the end of hope. This is the way of redemption. First comes love and reconciliation. This love has power to do what law and effort and self-criticism could never do.
Paul did not fake it. He knew who he was. He knew God accepted him as he was.
The second key to healthy living is grace
The basis of Paul’s hope is found in v. 12b: “Because Christ Jesus has made me His own, He has laid hold of me.” He could accept his own imperfection because God had already acted to overcome it. Paul could admit that his hold on Christ was not perfect, because he knew that Christ’s hold on him was perfect. He could gaze on the goal of complete Christlikeness without being devastated by his shortcomings, because Christ, who is the goal, was already present in his life. He was saying, “I don’t possess the goal, but the goal possesses me.”
Grace means that God gives to us as a gift that which he expects of us. Grace means that God has taken the initiative and nothing else is required to make us acceptable to him. Grace is unconditional acceptance. When we put conditions on our own acceptability, we are treating ourselves as God never would. For some reason, deep down in our hearts, we still feel we must prove ourselves. We must succeed on the world’s terms, we must do better than others around us, before we can believe God would accept us, before we can feel good about ourselves.
The good news of Christ is you don’t have to play football, or make straight A’s, or be the best looking girl in the class, or make a million dollars in order to feel good about yourself. It might be nice to do some of those things. But, long before you do them, you can feel good about yourself because God loves you. Like Paul, you do not need to “force” victory. He will give you righteousness through Christ.
Grace, then, is the foundation of hopeful living. But isn’t there a need for some achievement on our part? Of course there is.
The third key to healthy living is growth
Because Paul was free from unrealistic expectations and because he had experienced the power of grace, he could focus his energies on a continuing process of growth. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on…” Such an attitude, he says, is characteristic of those who are “perfect.” This does not mean perfect in the sense of free from flaws. It means perfect in the sense of complete, mature, serving the intended purpose. It also has the idea of something that is still at a distance. It means, then, “in the process of being perfected.”
A part of “being perfected” is learning to forget that which lies behind.
Some things are surely worth remembering–the sacrifices of our forbearers, the value of freedom, the price of salvation, the blessings of love and friendship. But other things should just as surely be forgotten: past accomplishments which stand in the way of future achievements, past differences and disagreements which obstruct progress, past defeats and disappointments which stifle an adventurous spirit. Christians must detach themselves from a past which limits or destroys.
We must realize that the past is full of many victories and many defeats. Some things are best forgotten, left in the past. Many people seem to enjoy living in the past. Some dwell on the problems life has sent their way, constantly reviewing all the details of defeat. Others seem to enjoy living in the past while dwelling on how great things used to be, or on what they used to do.
In order to make every day count, yesterday’s failures, mistakes, and injuries must be left in the past. Give the past to the Lord. Remember that in Christ you are a new creature. The old ways—you can and must place them behind you.
We waste God’s precious time when we try to live in the past. Yes, we regret our failures, but we must not allow them to strangle our present. No one has the power to relive even one second. Every second that we live is gone never to be retrieved. As one writer said, “There is no distance on this earth as far away as yesterday.”
It is because of this that we must make every moment count. Many try to make every day count by living in a pleasure-filled environment. They are like the television commercial which admonishes us to “get all the gusto we can, for we only go around once.”
I also believe that every moment should count. Paul believed there were some things that Christians ought to do, and doing them would make every day count.
Paul is indicating what the rest of the Bible confirms. God is not a perfectionist in the sense of demanding perfection now. He is more interested in growth. The Christian life is a journey toward a destination. On a journey we do not demand that every step bring us to the destination. We simply expect that each step will lead in that direction. Impatient children, like my daughters, ask, “Daddy, when are we going to be there?” More mature adults learn to enjoy the stages of the journey. Paul did not “forget” it, nor should we.
The Christian life is a process in which each experience takes on some of the quality of the destination, since the host at the end of our journey also travels with us. Even though we are pressing forward toward the goal, we can appreciate each day’s experience and affirm, “This is the day that the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).
The Christian lives in a state of tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” We already have the blessings of salvation. But, at the same time, we have not yet fully obtained the blessings of salvation. The only way to embrace both of these facts is to live in a process of growth. A commitment to grow will enable you to handle both the negative and positive aspects of your life.
It is not easy to admit we need to grow. It is not easy to believe we can grow. Growth can be painful. It hurts a lot more to pretend you have already learned it all. We must realize that growth is not just for the deluxe model for the Christian, who is equipped as one writer said, for the fast lane on the straight and narrow way. Growth is for you. We must act to grow. Look at v. 16. It is not enough to decide. We must act.
We have seen the keys to a life of hope. Where there is humility, there is hope. Where there is grace, there is hope. Where there is growth, there is hope. In committing your life to Christ, you can have this type of life. It is available right now, for you. You do not have to fake it, force it, or forget it!
Frank S. Page is president and CEO of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.