November 11, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
For we are the circumcision who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.
Mary Eberstadt writes this month about the perils of today's college experience, which she terms “Toxic U.” Higher education has always been known as a season of experimentation by most of its matriculates. But Eberstadt documents levels of homage to Bacchus and Aphrodite that would make even the most indulgent of the 1960s sexual revolution blush.
Hers is no indictment of the idea of the university—she acclaims how those four years are as potentially magnificent as they are pivotal. Instead she warns parents who live somewhere between denial and nonchalance at their little baby's youthful indiscretions. She also warns university administrators whose policies seem to accommodate, in effect if not in intention, today's sins of the flesh—all to preserve an atmosphere of free and open inquiry.
Paul takes a similarly paternal tone when he warns the church at Philippi to “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.” Now, there are times in his various letters when his use of the word flesh parallels the kind of indulgence Eberstadt bemoans. But here in chapter three, Paul has in mind a sense of flesh even more insidious than pure debauchery. In fact, it's quite the opposite of debauchery. For in the sense he means, Paul acknowledges his own interest in the flesh, and yet by the resume he supplies later in this chapter, he'd be the least likely person to be found at a frat party. So what is this confidence in the flesh he had and now warns of?
His impressive resume supplies us his meaning of flesh. His bulleted list of pedigree and accomplishments all ring of Ivy-league aspiration. His record is spotless—his ticket written or so it might've seemed to him. But all that is now “rubbish” to him—the English translator's euphemism for Paul's reference to “excrement.” But why does he now find worthless what he once held in high esteem? Should he fault himself for the name he had, like some self-loathing Carnegie or Rockefeller? Should others ridicule him for having the fastidiousness of a Phi Beta Kappa and the piety of a monastic. It's not what's in his spiritual resume that presents the problem. It's what he concludes about what's in that resume—that it would, so to speak, get his foot in the Lord's heavenly door. That's putting confidence in the flesh—believing your efforts establish your acceptance with God, rather than evidence it.
While indulgence of the flesh seeks its bliss in excess, confidence in the flesh seeks its satisfaction in its own impressiveness before God. The two uses of flesh could not be further apart in meaning, but their respective outcomes are identical: neither obtains what it seeks.
Which may raise a question in all those who strive to do well—the collegian and graduate alike: if there's nothing inherently wrong with pursuing excellence, and yet at every turn we run the risk of allowing our excellence to confuse what establishes our acceptance with God, how do we avoid putting confidence in our attainments as Paul did with his? How do we keep from turning our work—whether on the trading floor, or the kitchen floor—from becoming a substitute for the sacrifice of Jesus? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Berlin, said we must expand our vision of what our work is for:
Work plunges men into the world of things. The Christian steps out of the world of brotherly encounter into the world of impersonal things, the “it”; and this new encounter frees him for objectivity; for the “it” world is only an instrument in the hand of God for the purification of Christians from all self-centeredness and self-seeking. The work of the world can be done only when a person forgets himself, where he loses himself in a cause, in a reality, the task, the “it.” In work the Christian learns to allow himself to be limited by the task, and thus for him the work becomes a remedy against the indolence and sloth of the flesh. . . .But this can happen only where the Christian breaks through the “it” to the “Thou,” which is God, who bids him work and makes that work a liberation from himself. (Life Together)
Those preparing for a vocation and those within their vocation must see their work as having an objective greater than fulfilling the job description. They must come to the tools of their trade seeing their trade as a tool in the hand of the Maker who works to fashion them more into His image. That sort of posture toward work keeps us from indulging the flesh and from putting our confidence in it.
Do you think of your work in that way? How might it change your approach to it if you did?