PHILIPPIANS AND STRESS: PERFORMANCE-BASED STRESS—Philippians 3:1-21
As we read Philippians, we have been focusing on how to handle stress.
One of the biggest sources of stress is pressure to perform.
It starts with children: “Be a good boy.” “Be a nice girl.” “Make Dad proud.” “Don’t make us look bad.”
As kids get older, the peer group becomes more important. Young people feel like they need to measure up to the standards of the group, to be worthy of being invited to the parties, or sitting with the cool kids at lunch. Social media creates even greater pressure to be recognized and affirmed, and many find it hard to compete.
By college age, the pressure to perform in school ramps up, along with everything else. Anxiety is the scourge of many college students, because future success seems to depend upon performance in school as well as social competency.
The pressure carries on into adulthood, aggravated by performance reviews at work, along with the same pressures as before: “Be nice.” “Be worthy of our company.” “Be a good parent.”
Some of that stress is unavoidable, but how does faith fit in?
Some faith actually adds to stress. Some of you may have come from a religious background with a lot of pressure to perform, or to measure up to certain standards. You felt like you had to be “a good Christian,” conforming to superficial expectations. If you ever failed to perform as expected, you were humiliated and ostracized.
Or maybe your religious experience was in a group where full acceptance was hard to come by. People who didn’t belong to the right families, or who weren’t “cool enough,” or didn’t grow up with others in the group could never really be admitted to the “in group.”
The Philippian church was dealing with some of those issues, and Paul felt compelled to confront the situation head-on.
Read Philippians 3:1-6.
Circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign of being included in God’s covenant promise. For the Jews, circumcision indicated a privileged position in the world. Jews WERE privileged, as God’s chosen people. Paul says of the people of Israel in Romans 9:4-5, “Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”
When Messiah—Jesus Messiah (Christ)—came, all believers, not just Jews, became children of God. Yet there was a lot of debate in the church about whether gentiles should be circumcised, as a sign of their inclusion in God’s original covenant with his people. After serious discussion, the apostles decided that gentiles did not need to be circumcised.
From what Paul says, it seems that there were some people in Philippi who were trying to convince gentiles to undergo circumcision. They were probably not saying that circumcision was necessary for salvation, but that it was a symbol of being “a better Christian.”
There might have been tinges of racism or cultural superiority in that as well. Some Jews looked down on gentiles, calling them “gentile dogs.” Paul turned that around, when he said in rather graphic language, “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators (lit. “cutters”) of the flesh.”
But circumcision was about more than status; a man who was circumcised was then obligated to religiously obey every command of the Jewish law. He could not eat pork, and he had to scrupulously keep hundreds of Jewish laws. He would be under tremendous pressure to perform, because only by keeping Jewish laws could he have confidence that he was living as “a good Christian.”
Paul had no tolerance for the toxic faith the circumcisers were bringing into the church. Their faith was based on cultural pride, superficial self-righteousness, and a performance mentality.
Paul could play the superiority game with the best of them, since he had superior status as a born-and-bred Jew, a scrupulous Pharisee, a legalistic moralist, and a zealous defender of Judaism. Yet his testimony was that none of that had any value at all. In fact, it was “rubbish.” What had once been a source of pride to him had drained his joy, made him less righteous, and left him without hope.
Read Philippians 3:7-11.
Paul had found a better faith, which revealed how toxic his self-righteous faith had been. Let’s look at it in detail:
-Paul’s righteousness was not based upon performance, but upon accepting the grace of God in Jesus Christ. In verse 9, he says it is to “be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”
Performance righteousness might be based upon being “a good church person,” who shows up for church, contributes as expected, and supports what the pastor or leadership wants.
***Every church has unwritten expectations. When we moved to a new community, we visited a lot of churches before settling in. It was interesting to see how each denomination or group “did church.” Some had long sermons, with “truly committed people” taking notes. Others had long worship times, with “passionate worshippers” raising hands.” (In other churches, dedicated worshippers sang in the choir.) Some constantly push the offering, while others don’t even pass the plate. Some emphasize welcoming newcomers and evangelism, while others emphasize service in the community. Some push patriotism, while others have a worldwide emphasis.**
Paul’s righteousness was not dependent on anything like that. His righteousness came from God, not his own efforts. He was made righteous through faith in Christ, and he was secure in his acceptance by God.
-Paul’s goal was to know Christ, not through a system of rules, but by “participation in his sufferings.”
In many American churches, there is not much talk of knowing Christ through suffering. There is a lot about how Christ can help people avoid suffering, experience prosperity, and be healthy and happy. Those are good things! Yet as Paul suffered in prison, he found himself closer to Christ.
We don’t seek suffering, of course, and hopefully we won’t have to suffer too much. What we should share with Christ is servanthood. As Philippians 2:7 says, Christ Jesus “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…” Jesus suffered for the sake of others. As we join him in giving ourselves for others, we draw closer to him.
*** I know people who work with the homeless, with convicts, with abused women and children, and with foster children. As they do the work of Christ, they know the heart of Christ more passionately.**
-Paul’s confidence was in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Philippians 3:10-11, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul had been a Pharisee, and Pharisees believed in the resurrection. But Paul’s confidence soared to a different level when he met the risen Lord Jesus. It gave him strength to face his current situation, and it gave him a sure hope of eternal life.
***There is an old hymn, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, that has a line, “Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow.” Paul would have agreed! The resurrection assured Paul of the power of God in his current situation, while it gave him assurance for a glorious future.**
How do we handle stress, when life seems out of control? Runaway thoughts, confusion, even rage.
Circumstances we can’t seem to change. Oppression by spiritual, political, economic, and social powers and authorities.
We need strength for today, and a sure hope for tomorrow. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is evidence that we can trust God for the present and the future.
Does that mean we have a stress-free life? No. Paul did not have a stress-free life.
SOME STRESS DESTROYS, WITH OTHER STRESS BUILDS UP.
Read Philippians 3:12-16.
***An athlete goes to the weight room, day after day. Every day, he pushes himself, almost beyond what he can bear. Every week is more weight, more reps, more stress. Why? The goal! Winning the race, gaining the medal, hitting perfection in gymnastics or on the ice. Maybe the team is there, together
For believers, the prize is assured.
***If you could be assured that if you worked hard enough you could win a gold medal in the Olympics, would you go for it? Maybe it would be worth incredible effort, or maybe you would have other goals. Our goal is even better; nothing beats the prize of hearing God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord.”**
WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE TO PERFORMANCE STRESS?
Is it to escape into a world without judgment, a life of indulging every whim?
Some people who feel the pressure of performance anxiety try to escape. They might abuse alcohol or drugs. They might try to ease anxiety in pornography or fantasies. They might go to wild parties, where anything goes. Some look to “tolerant” people for assurance, that whatever they do, good or evil, it is OK. Some try to redefine the standards of society and even the church, to remove the stress caused by disobeying God’s moral standards.
Many who do those things find that their stress increases. They suffer for the wrong reasons, and they find themselves in hopeless situations. Their guilt is resilient, and they live with stressful consequences of their actions.
The answer to performance stress is not more rules, OR no rules. It is living as Paul has described, living with Christ.
Read Philippians 3:17-21.
Paul has a vision of a life lived with Jesus.
It is not a stress-free life, for the life of Jesus was not stress free! Jesus embraced the stress of a righteous life, because he had a vision of the glory to come: Philippians 2:8-11, “…He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Paul shared in that vision of glory, and it made his stress totally worthwhile. Philippians 3:20-21 “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
Paul leaves us with that vision: Philippians 4:1, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!”