Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. (Philippians 3:4-7)
Paul continues in Philippians contrasting the demands of the false teachers who advocated keeping the Jewish Law with his own spiritual pedigree. His parents circumcised him at the prescribed time in Moses’ Law. He was a descendent of the Jewish tribe of Benjamin. He was a Pharisee by profession, one of the most stringent and well-regarded schools of thought among the Jewish people. Not to mention, Paul’s adherence to the Law and the secondary hedge around the Law that was being formed in his day was essentially faultless from a human perspective. All around, Paul was legally upstanding Jewish person. If anyone had a right to criticize this group of false teachers, it would be him.
But Paul’s pedigree doesn’t hold a candle to Christ himself. He gladly traded all the positive regard his earthly heritage and moral strivings availed in order to gain access to Jesus Christ himself. He’d rather have Jesus more than whatever “gain” his bloodline or his adherence to Jewish rules and regulations offered.
Nowadays, we probably have different standards of what “gain” might be. Occasionally, my wife tells of yoga practitioners who repeat an “intention” as a mantra that they hope to obtain through their exercise. Some of these are relatively harmless and make sense in light of their activity: greater confidence in their ability to do a particular pose, better balance, more sense of calm and peace after a rough day at work. But sometimes they cross a line: “make me a money magnet,” “give me the healing that’s already started in me,” and so on. It’s not too far afield from the Prosperity Gospel where you “name” what you want and “claim” it as yours in some fashion of self-affirmation as a so-called prayer. These presumptions are often self-centered and lack humility. It’s one thing to ask in prayer for healing, or provision, or success in a given endeavor. It’s quite another to assume you are owed them in some way, as though God were a cosmic Santa Claus. “I’ve been really good, Lord; give me what I want.”
What’s also probably different today from Paul’s day is the assumption that Christ is worth more than the gains we esteem and desire. Churches have fallen prey to consumerism as regular members shamelessly expect their preferences to be catered to instead of offering their lives as living sacrifices because Jesus is more than enough for them. The American Church especially seems to have lost a sense that to meet Jesus and introduce him to others is our primary life goal. We look to put on a good show (whether a concert and a TED talk in free churches, or a pageant that’s a feast for the senses in liturgical churches) instead of seeking what pleases the Lord. We look to “make a difference” in advocacy (whether anti-abortion on the right side of the political spectrum or pro-LGBT rights on the left) or social impact (food pantries, free clinics, etc.) as our primary goal over worship. We confuse the trappings of Christianity with its essence—to meet, know, love, and spread the message of the Triune God who makes, redeems, and keeps us.
As you think of where things stand today in your world, what do people esteem more than Jesus in your community? What trappings have gotten in the way (or are threatening to get in the way) of Jesus’ pre-eminent place in your church? What pet idols do you put ahead of our Savior in your own life?
God of grace, you have exalted Jesus above any earthly gain we may hold in high regard; by your Spirit help us not to make idols of worldly gain or even worthy goals you have stirred your Church to strive for, but to seek you and your righteousness first, that you might be glorified with your Son and the Holy Spirit in our hearts daily forevermore. Amen.