One evening, I sat cross-legged on the roof of my five-story apartment building praying. Suddenly I became self-consciously aware of myself and my surroundings. At once, a series of crushing realizations came in rapid succession.
First, because I could hear dozens of conversations going on through the apartment windows below me, I realized that I wasn’t praying out loud as had long been my practice. If I can hear them, they can hear me.
Next came the realization that my best efforts to get away from the noise and bustle of Mexico City — even sitting on the top of a cement water tank on top of the roof of my apartment building — were futile.
Finally, I realized I couldn’t think of a single space within the 600 square miles around me where I could be out of earshot or eyesight of someone.
I was devastated. I broke down. Language and culture stress were already bearing down on me. And this mad city was just too much. It was the last straw. I prayed, almost frantically, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I’m supposed to be a missionary and church planter, and I can’t do it.” Over and over I repeated, “I can’t do this.”
The Untangling Began
This episode on the rooftop occurred over a decade ago, but the memory remains visceral because it was there that the knot of my heart’s disorder began to untangle. Why was I so crushed? How could something like culture or geography provoke me to despair? And what could be done about it?
What I experienced is not uncommon. My despair was the result of my misplaced identity, and a misplaced identity inevitably concludes with one of two options: despair or pride. Just as someone can experience despair when confronting circumstances over which they have no power (as I did on the Mexico City rooftop), someone can also experience pride in the midst of favorable circumstances.
The letter to the Philippians offers some excellent insight for anyone who finds himself disoriented in the face of either success or failure, and subsequent self-congratulation or self-flagellation.
Beyond Success or Failure
In Philippians 1, Paul famously (or infamously) celebrates the proclamation of the Christian message even if that proclamation is selfishly motivated (verses 15–18). So right away, the letter touches on people who are professionally successful, yet who are failing on an important personal level. Paul brings up this issue in another letter, when he says he doesn’t want to be one of those guys who preach the good news but is himself “disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). In Philippians, there are those who are preaching the Christian message, apparently well enough to merit praise for the proclamation itself, but they are doing so out of “selfish ambition,” “envy,” and “rivalry” — not praiseworthy motivations, to say the least.
Converse to these preachers’ success, Paul references his own circumstances: He is imprisoned (Philippians 1:7, 13), “troubled” and “brought low” (Philippians 4:12, 14), and under threat of death (Philippians 1:19–25). By virtually any traditional metric, these conditions could be called “failure.”
So in one brief letter, there are examples of vocational “success” and of vocational “failure,” but neither are precisely what they appear to be.
Then, in chapter 3, Paul unloads a personal résumé that would be sure to impress (Philippians 3:1–8). The apostle Paul, while imprisoned, cites his own august career. And then, just when the reader anticipates him to pine for the good ole days, or appeal to his pedigree, Paul calls it all “rubbish.”
Why? Because Paul’s identity isn’t founded in his own career success, career dreams, or career status.
The Rubbish of Three Important Words
A quick look at the language that Paul uses here helps to bring this reality home for us in America, in the twenty-first century. Most people don’t, outside of church or Bible contexts, use some of this language. Consequently, the full weight of this passage is a bit lost on the average present-day Western reader. Three terms in particular jump out: rejoice, law, and righteousness. For many of us, the common problem we deal with is “wanting to be awesome,” as I recently heard one church planter describe it. Everybody wants to be awesome. Everyone wants people to think they’re awesome, to perceive them as awesome, to talk about their awesomeness behind their backs.
Here in Philippians 3, if we think of the word righteousness as meaning that — as another way to say “being awesome” — it helps to strip out some of our churchy-ness we associate with the word. So when you read “righteousness” here, think “being awesome” — and notice, then, that Paul says all his striving for being awesome was ultimately futile. Is that because he tried and failed? No. Remember, Paul offers this critique even after unequivocal success. Why then? Because there was another standard of awesomeness by which Paul’s own (very good) standard paled in comparison. Paul’s “awesome” was, in fact, rubbish by comparison.
Another word to look at is “law.” Law in the Bible can mean the Scripture itself, the Mosaic covenant specifically, or more generally God’s ethical metric and instruction. But putting this idea of law into the present vernacular, the word “performance” may be more helpful. We have performance reviews in our organizations, businesses, and churches. And here we learn that the apostle who systematically aced all the performance reviews says he’s found someone so much better that by comparison, his performance is rubbish. Paul says, one of the very best human performances — his own — accomplished nothing compared to the finished performance of another.
Finally, the first verse of chapter 3 contains one of the most-repeated actions of the whole letter: “rejoice.” Although the meaning is clear (taking joy, delighting in), rejoice still suffers from the same only-used-in-church fate as “law” and “righteousness.” So rendering the New Testament idea to words commonly used now, let’s replace “rejoice” with “finding happiness.”
And then, putting it all together, let’s grasp what Paul is saying in a fresh way:
You will never find ultimate happiness in your own performance, because you can never be awesome enough.
Becoming Wonderfully Free
It’s an arresting statement in our contemporary your-own-boot-straps and self-actualization-at-any-cost environment. Paul leverages his own stellar résumé to apply the fundamentals of the Christian message in real-world, practical terms. Happiness is thrust out of the common cultural pipe dream of something I can achieve and into the reality that it only comes by what God has done.
“You will never find ultimate happiness in your own performance, because you can never be awesome enough.”
No longer, then, must I be personally destroyed by personal shortcoming. No longer, then, must I be subject to haughtiness or hubris by personal success. I am free of both consequences of misplaced identity.
Paul cites another résumé (of sorts) in the highly esteemed hymn of the preceding chapter. The résumé isn’t his own, however. It refers instead to Christ,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6–8)
Here is the résumé that changed the world — not Paul’s, not ours.
It is the man behind this résumé, the one who subjected himself to the most dire circumstances, who is infinitely able to transcend and overpower any of our circumstances. Paul’s conclusion is logical: Why find my identity on my own performance when I am freely offered the preeminent performance of God himself?
Such was the hard and wonderful reality that I was up against on that rooftop. And my desperate prayer — “I can’t do this” — was the doorway into trading away self-identification in my own successes for identity in the One who has succeeded in all things. Even my best efforts, in the best of circumstances, were rubbish compared to Christ’s resurrecting performance.
Of course, “me” as a measure of “awesome” came up short. Of course, I failed to find deepest happiness in my own performance. Of course, I was despairing — as a matter of fact, praying, “I can’t do this,” was the most deeply truthful thing that I had prayed in a very long time, because I couldn’t do it.
Why not rely, then, on the One who already has done it all?