Recently I finished another semester of work at Westminster, my most trying one yet. Yes, I have taken more units, and I have taken harder classes, but what made this one the most trying?
I have noticed that as I have gotten further into the course work at Seminary the easier it has become to fall back into my old struggle with perfectionism. Now many people (myself included) are very happy when their pastor strives to be the best that he can be. No one wants to hear a sermon that is half thought out. No pastor wants to be responsible for preaching a sermon that is half-baked. Well the same goes for schooling. If I am going to try to get my masters degree I want to do well, I want to get an A in every course. I want the freedom that comes with knowing I earned the highest grade I could. Herein lies the problem. What is going on in my heart at that moment? Very likely, it is one of two things. Either, I am trying to prove to everyone, myself included, that I belong, that I am just as smart as the others in my class. Or, I am trying to gain pleasure and satisfaction that I earned that grade, it was my hard work and the time that I put in that got that A. At the root this is an issue of self-justification.
Finals week for me is the perfect time for the seeds of self-reliance and self-justification to take root in my heart. I study my brains out, often I ignore my family, my health and my spiritual well being all in a futile attempt to be satisfied with myself and my performance. I can always tell this when I get a C and I feel the pangs of doubt; “Do I really belong?” “Has God called me to this high calling of a pastor?” “Or, am I just fooling myself?” This line of reasoning ultimately spirals down until I end up questioning God’s love and provision for me. “If God really loved me he would have given me a sharper mind that could understand what I am studying.” I then fall into the old trap of setting out to justify myself for the work that I feel the need to finish. Now don’t get me wrong I do need to study hard, and I do need to put in the work to try and earn a good grade. But, I must not confuse the hard work that I do with the extraordinarily difficult work that Christ has done on my behalf and is doing in me through the examination process.
In Philippians 1:6 the apostle Paul wrote these words, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” This is just coming off of the apostle’s commendation of the Philippian church for their good work in spreading the gospel. But here he gives thanks for the gospel’s work in them. This work is a sure work because it is based on God’s work. He is faithful to be at work in us bringing about the ultimate goal of our salvation. And it is a good work as it makes us more and more in to the image of Christ. Through the trials and testing of life, through the hard work of sanctification, through the difficult task of taking the good news of the gospel to those around us we God’s work is sure and He will finish it.
This is the hope that we have; we are not alone in our sanctification because God has secured for us our justification. What a beautiful hope, what a beautiful truth. This has implications to all of life. When I sit down to take my finals and I feel the fear and the doubts creeping up in my heart I can say with confidence that “He who began a good work in me will bring it to completion in the day of Christ. And since this final is another time where God is working in me to make me into the image of Christ, I can have freedom to do the best that I can do knowing that God is faithful to bring his work to completion in me.” I can fight against the sin of self-justification with the truth of Christ’s work in me. I can know that I belong because Christ has bought me and called me into his kingdom, not because I am a particularly good person, but merely by his grace. I can work hard to be the best student (husband, brother, father, Christian, etc.) because I find my satisfaction in the lasting pleasure of communion with Christ and not in the temporal fleeting pleasure of my grades. I can actually enjoy the process of being made into the image of Christ (go figure!) because I am free from the chains of guilt and shame.
Brothers and Sisters as we face our various callings in life let’s commit ourselves to living as we are called knowing that God is at work in us to make us the people He wants us to be. Just as Paul said later in Philippians 2, “ 12Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Php 1:6). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
 These two points are a restructuring of the comments by Roger Ellsworth in his little commentary Opening up Philippians.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Php 2:12–13). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.