A tough question. Paul must be the unlikeliest, most radical Christian of all time. I suppose he has competition for the title (not that he ever gave it a second thought): folks like Mary the mother of Jesus; Peter; John; early Christian martyrs (there were many); and later ones like Bonhoeffer. But at least to me Paul stands out as a stunning example of what it means to live life radically as a follower of Jesus, a sold-out slave to his master. C.S. Lewis once wrote that no possible degree of heroism or holiness achieved by the greatest of saints is beyond the reach of any of us. Paul sets the bar high. Have we set it too low?
From prison, obviously less than comfortable quarters, Paul was writing to good friends in a city called Philippi. Knowing death under Roman rule could end his imprisonment, with strange confidence he said this:
“I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help you grow and experience the joy of your faith” (Philippians 1: 25 NLT, emphasis added).
Listen to what Paul is saying: spiritual growth, not life-enjoyed blessings, is key to experiencing the joy of our faith. Paul, you’re got it backwards. Shouldn’t strong faith in God’s loving goodness and the answered prayers that follow – good marriage, good kids, good friends, good health, and good job – together bring the joy we long for the most? No! Paul insists that the deeper the formation like Jesus, the richer the joy, the greatest joy a Christian can know this side of heaven. That’s radical, especially in our entitled culture where such things as pleasant circumstances, great vacations, important jobs, and two-way good relationships are regarded as essential for enjoying life. Was Paul enjoying a radical version of the good life in prison? I think so.
We hear the word radical bandied about these days in cultural, political and religious circles. Views once radical about gender issues are now the new narrative, in search of moving out further. Politically, far left ideologues angrily claim to be socially progressive radicals, wanting to make their radicalism commonplace.
In religious circles, including the mish-mash world of evangelicalism, folks have touted themselves as radical for holding positions outside conventional norms of long regarded conservative convictions. A focus on social action that trumps evangelism, worship styles that sizzle more than seduce, the strident defense of narrow doctrines that separate insiders from the outsiders: perhaps, in measure, good things to do. But it seems to me that I could do all these “good things” in the energy of self-congratulations: See me! I’m bold! I’m radical: Get with it! I moved into a tough neighborhood to reach the lost for Christ. What are you doing?
Paul had a quite different focus. He was convinced he would stay alive and not be martyred right then. Why? We’re told of no supernatural vision from the Lord telling him his death was not imminent. His passionate hope to stay alive rose from a radical cause. Listen!
“I’m torn between two desires. I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sake it is better that I continue to live” (Philippians 1: 23 NLT).
Self-centeredness is never radical. It’s common place, epidemic, staining everything we do and how we reliably relate. Other-centeredness is radical. It’s supernatural. It depends on divine resources without which it never reaches its dramatic heights. Paul, for the most part unfailingly humble, goes on in chapter 2 to wonder in awe at the supreme example of pure other-centeredness in Jesus. Take a moment to read Philippians 2: 5-11, the famous “emptying of self” passage, familiar words that express unfamiliar reality. I hear the following:
Paul saw an attitude in Jesus, a way of thinking that alone deserved to be called radical. And what he recognized in his master drew him to the Lord, warming his heart to living and relating, like Jesus. The pattern of Jesus aroused his deepest thirst. For what? For feeding the hungry? Planting another church? Becoming a missionary? Defending the faith? Of course, all of that and more. But the ruling passion driving all that he did was to imitate Jesus in other-centered relating. At any cost to himself, abandoning immediately felt self-interest, Paul existed for others for the pleasure of God and the well-being of people. That, may I say it again, is radical!
We can only look at Jesus for the ultimate radical way of living and loving. He did all things well; and we often do many things well. We love our families and friends, pick up mail for vacationing neighbors, carry fresh-baked muffins to shut-ins. But radical? Jesus did everything good from an attitude unstained by self-interest; He lived a life of self-denial: humiliation, emptying, sacrifice, suffering: all for the sake of another. The result? He was elevated “to the place of highest honor” (Philippians 2: 9 NLT). That, I submit, is the joy of our faith. And it is radical, as different from self-centeredness as love is from indifference.
But it doesn’t always feel that way. The path to true joy, the joy Jesus knew, is bumpy, long and hard, a journey fraught with struggles, heartache, betrayal, loneliness – all opportunities for great joy to the degree our trials arouse our longing to be there for another, even in our pain and disappointment. Consider a cliché that might carry truth:
Every blessing and trial is an opportunity to spiritually form, to seize opportunities that generate joy.
Think of it as CROSS-ROAD THEOLOGY. Only deep struggle reaches deep into the soul where life-altering choices can be made. A choice with little at stake changes little. Discover your husband’s infidelity and the choice to represent Jesus becomes real, requiring deep brokenness, true repentance, and passionate surrender to telling God’s Larger Story in the middle of a smaller story gone bad.
A brief shift in thought. If I were not a Christian, I would be an existentialist, an existential psychologist, wrestling less with symptom relief and integrating dissociative disorders and calming anxiety attacks. I’d be more interested in looking into the core issues that underlie and define human existence: big topics like the meaning of life, the point of suffering, the burden of freedom, and the challenge of love. It is these realties that our souls were designed to face. Dealing with life’s problems without exploring things that really matter at best generate superficial healing, a failure to become truly alive as humans. As a Christian, I’ve concluded that the Gospel of Christ, the LARGER STORY OF GOD offers the only adequate answers to these existential dilemmas. Who am I? Why am I here? What’s life really all about? I suppose I can make some claim to being a Christian existentialist, maybe leaning toward the hope of being a radical Christian existentialist.
Like Paul. He wanted to help believers grow in their understanding of Christian truth that spoke with dynamic life and satisfying purpose into the central issues lying beneath our everyday existence that we often neglect. I have no doubt that Paul was glad to see people’s lives going well. Jesus certainly entered into the wedding celebration at Cana of Galilee. But Paul, following Jesus, knew his deepest passion was not to arrange for better lives for people, but to produce better people who would live more other-centered spiritually forming lives.
He was radical! Do I really want to be formed like Jesus? Do I want to be as Paul? Holy Spirit, continue to guide me toward radical transformation, from newly recognized pits of self-centeredness to the holy ground of other-centeredness. That is where I will find the joy of my faith.
The point? Don’t live to enjoy a good marriage. Live to become a godly spouse. Don’t live to have a great ministry. Live to become a godly minister. And godliness, illustrated perfectly in Jesus and remarkably well in Paul, is the expression of love, a radical commitment to the well-being of another at any cost to ourselves. And it will show up most clearly in the little things, patience with someone who is impatient with you; accepting of someone who puts you down. The call is to new heights of joy.
Do I really want to be formed like Jesus, and follow in Paul’s pattern? O Lord, I do. Open my eyes to see where I fall short. I want to surrender to a life style of relational holiness. Help my resistance. I want to discover the joy of my faith.