“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
— PHILIPPIANS 3:12 (NRSV)
Spiritual perfection is the goal worthiest of pursuit, though, as Paul propounds, we won’t achieve that halcyon of states any time soon; not before glory.
We falsely think that this verse, or this passage (vv. 12-21), is about spiritual resilience, of its own, as if God would inspire us through despairing, etc. No, there is a context and that context is similar to what Paul found regarding his experience with the Corinthians—there was a tinge of pride in some of the people in the church at
They thought they had already become spiritually perfect—perhaps adhering to a
false gospel, that, upon salvation or a suitable number of years or ministries
of tenure, perfection is reached.
Paul was trying to correct this mistake of neo-Gnostic theology.
Contrast these two stories, one of an octogenarian with Stage 3 cancer and the other of a relatively young man who was leading a normal carnal-Christian lifestyle.
The 80-something gentleman was a builder and he built extensions on churches for free. He had a fiery temperament, but a work ethic second-to-none. He had led a difficult life, as a missionary overseas, was never financially secure and had had his share (and more) to deal with. Yet, in the midst of cancer, these previous problems were a breeze. This faithful servant of Christ was receiving his toughest tests at the end of his life, when he was least physically resourced—but then there was his spiritual stamina. Even still, he gloried in the fact that perfection was still far off.
The younger man, 32 years of age, was very different. He had lived an easy life. He came to faith and went from strength to strength; at least initially. People around him were impressed. And he was impressed with himself. He had it all. (But he also had a hidden gambling problem, which not even his closest family knew about.) He would say to people that he had much distance to go in attaining perfection—as part of his public persona, hatched in a false humility—but he had too much vision for the past, as he compared, and would say to himself, “Look how far I’ve come!”
The older man was counselled in humility, yet the younger man was cursed with enough pride to seriously contemplate the relative perfection he had achieved. The older man looked ahead. The younger man, behind. The older man had a healthy fear of the Lord; the younger man had a ‘healthy’ admiration for himself.
Which one reflected where Paul was at?
The Mirage of Spiritual Perfection
We do gain glimpses of, and are blessed by, mirages of spiritual perfection—times when God will say about our faith: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” But, quickly, God is looking for us to get on and look to the next thing; to “press on” and “make [spiritual progress] our own.”
Progress is what discipleship is about; not perfection.
Paul did not look behind himself for too long—for evidence of his perfection in the faith. No, he strived ahead, as if to be prepared for the next thing that God had purposed for him; usually suffering and persecution.
Paul knew that spiritual perfection—in this life—is a mirage at best; a cruel trick of pride at the worst. When we find ourselves believing, even unconsciously, that we’ve ‘made it’, the devil lies in wait to trip us up under the burden of our falsehood.
The worthiest ambition is to strive ever more on a journey of spiritual growth, acknowledging that, in this life, we never really make it. If we pursue such a goal we are blessed with the cherished virtue of humility that fuels our journey. We focus not on the victories of faith that are behind if we wish to be prepared for the challenges of faith ahead.
© 2013 S. J. Wickham.