... even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For Christ's sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 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. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this 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 heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
The Apostle Paul has a way with words. In the above passage he talks about confidence- what is confidence? So if it's a belief, or a strong belief, or something we put our trust in, Paul speaks of how he used to have confidence in the flesh- (by the flesh he means?) Yes, in himself, in the things he does, the way he acts. We do it many times, so we can relate to what Paul says here- when it comes to fighting our addiction we start off thinking, I can do it myself- all I have to do is stop____, right? We have confidence in ourselves, well, right up until the time we have that first chocolate dipped chocolate chip cookie from Wegman’s that looked just too good to pass up. Then we feel terrible, like we let ourselves down- our behavior didn't match our resolve, what happened- or are we really just that weak? And that happens with our human behavior, addictions or not, all the time.
Now, of course, that is us... not Paul, which always amazes me when I read this passage. Because Paul, according to Paul, didn't fall short in his acts- he didn’t break down and have the cookie, so to speak. According to what he believed about God and about himself, his resolve was firm- perfect, he says. "If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more- (and he goes through his reasons for believing in himself, his strength, his zeal, his heritage,)
But one day, he realized everything he knew to be true, and his perfect under the law confidence, was all for nothing. In Pauls case, an intervention by Christ, and a time of complete disorientation and blindness was enough to have him understand that the law he was following and the way he was living was in his words, rubbish- garbage.
When I think about that, and I go back to the ways that we think we are so very right in so many things, and the laws and rules we've put around our lives, around our behaviors, around family and relationships, resources, politics, religion, even God... we act the best way we know how, for the most part, and we act indeed based on what we believe; out of the things we've been taught we can count on- out of our own experience with what has worked for us in the past, and what we see others do that seems to be working for them.
But under all of that confidence in the flesh, and that's exactly what that is, my friends, there is something else lurking and churning in most of us... a vulnerability and helpless feeling... a sense of, no matter how many people are around, we are, in the end, alone. And some of that comes from the knowledge that we come into the world alone, we go out alone, we see friends and loved ones pass on, and so naturally, our angst about our own mortality skulks about in our subconscious and comes out to play when we least expect it. That angst is exacerbated, if not by the events in our own lives or living situations, by the headlines, hurricanes and earthquakes and mass shootings. I'll stop there because the list of stressors not only too long to list but too overwhelming for most of us in one sitting.
So when Paul was using the words, confidence in the flesh, he was perhaps talking about quieting that inner anxiety that we all feel with works. Much like you and I, Paul already believed in God, a person who knew what to do and how to do it better than anyone. But when he came face to face with his own vulnerability, and the truth that true confidence is only found in God, his world shifted.
No longer was he ashamed of that vulnerability and angst we all share. He was able to admit, hey, I am as susceptible and helpless as everyone else. But in admitting this, he was able to claim a different truth- that in losing confidence in himself and his works, he put his confidence in Christ.
The beauty of this, my friends, is that Paul, from that declaration on, never claimed again to have it all together. he never claimed that anything he was doing was out of his own strength, his own will, or his own ability. He no longer claimed he was perfect- but instead started saying things like "all of us fall short'" and "The very thing I don't want to do I do," and "I have this thorn right here..."
And because he was able to claim that, through his own awareness of human vulnerability, came the knowledge that putting our confidence in anyone, even Christ, is a lifelong call. Now I know that may go against some traditional teaching, that once you believe, once you've walked down the aisle and made a profession of faith and given your heart to Jesus, that you don't have to struggle with fear anymore- your angst goes away, your faith becomes so strong that you don't worry, through illness, or job loss, or homelessness, you have this unending faith that God has a plan in all this... no fear! Some of us have been taught that true faith means that when things go wrong, political upheaval, nuclear threats, civil unrest, that we take heart, God has a plan, we don't need to feel vulnerable. That through storms and hurricanes and earthquakes, we can hold our head up in faith, no fear! Perfect love casts out fear, right? If we really had faith, we wouldn't feel insecure- right?
But here's what Paul says, that putting ones confidence in Christ isn't and easy, one step process. It's why Paul uses the phrase "I press on."
And when I first learned about this text so many years ago, I was taught that "press on" means keep trying- keep trying to do the right thing, keep trying to overcome your stuff, keep on trying to make things right- do better, work harder, get stronger- God will be proud of you. But God is already proud of you... no matter what- and loves you more than you will ever know. So I have come to realize that press on, simply means "try to believe- try to have faith- try to put confidence in God..." Because when all is said and done, that's the hard part.
Life is difficult. Life has challenges, and stresses and heartbreaks and disasters- but we press on to believe that God is somehow still in control- somehow still has got our backs, even when it seems totally overwhelming.
Now the way we do this of course, is not by our own strength, and not just with the one on one relationship we have with Jesus Christ, though without that, we are truly at a loss. But making the assumption that we have that one on one relationship, we still need help from each other. Paul knew that, its why he went around starting communities all over the place and then preached about unifying those communities in every letter. Because when bad things happen, its not enough that "I press on" to try to keep believing, its that "WE press on." WE encourage faith in each other, WE call each other to confidence in Christ. WE, united stand hand in hand against anything that comes our way- WE press on...
So when illness come, or depression, or pain, we press on. Through the stress and struggles of addiction.... we press on. When one of us loses a job, or a home, or a spouse... "WE press on" when we see our political systems and powers oppressing the least of these.. we press on... through hurricanes and earthquakes and yes, even mass shootings... We press on. We press on- we follow the call to confidence in God through Christ our savior... We- We press toward the goal... of confidence in Christ. Amen