There is a kind of religiosity that is dangerous to us, that is destructive to our souls rather than constructive. Someone who was caught in such dangerous religiosity once said to Tim Hansel, “What confuses me is that I thought Christianity was supposed to set us free, instead of tying us up in new knots all the time with impossible expectations.”
In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul had harsh words to say about those who were purveyors of such destructive religiosity that ties us up in knots: “Beware of the dogs; beware of the evil workers; beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” (Philippians 2:3)
Dangerous and destructive religiosity comes from the message that we are responsible for making God happy with us. It puts the burden on us to please God by jumping over certain hurdles or by attaining deep enough piety. It might require circumcision or some other religious deeds, or it might demand that we reach some moral standard. It puts and keeps the pressure on us to live up to what is demanded of us. With the pressure on us to live up to such a standard, we end up feeling squashed under the weights of self-condemnation, worthlessness and despair, for we know that we are not actually good enough to earn God’s favor.
When we believe that it is up to us to earn God’s approval, we live with a deep-down conviction that we are not good enough which then drives us to try harder and harder or to give up. We think to ourselves that it is only a matter of time before we are discovered as useless. We expect to be rejected when the truth about us is found out. Therefore, we put on masks, pretending to be better than we are, only leaving us more and more disconnected from our true selves and from genuine connections with others.
No wonder Paul describes the purveyors of such religiosity as “dogs” and as “evil workers.”
Paul was once a purveyor of such dangerous and destructive religiosity. He thought that he could earn God’s favor through the combinations of his lineage (“a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews”), his fulfillment of religious requirements (“circumcised on the eighth day”), his religious accomplishments (“as to the law, a Pharisee”), his zeal (“a persecutor of the church”), or his piety (“as to righteousness under the law, blameless”).
But on his way to Damascus one day, Paul had an encounter with the God of grace, and with that encounter he was able to see destructive religiosity for what it truly is. In Philippians 2:8, Paul uses the Greek word skubala to describe religiosity. Many Bibles translate skubala politely as “rubbish,” but the most literal translation is “dung” or “excrement.” Paul is saying that the religiosity he once strained and stressed over actually only amounts to a pile of poop. Those who purvey such dangerous religiosity are trying to sell us a load of “crap.” When they try to get us to embrace such religiosity, they are essentially trying to get us to roll around in feces.
Paul makes a better choice than religious poop, and he offers us a better choice than destructive religiosity. He offers us grace: the unmeritable love of God!
Brennan Manning writes, “The same love yesterday on Calvary, today in our hearts, and forever in heaven. Jesus crucified is not merely a heroic example to the church. He is the power and wisdom of God, his love capable of transforming our cowardly, distrustful hearts into hearts strong in the trust that they are loved. We do not have to do anything except let our unworthy, ungrateful selves be loved as we are. Trust happens! You will trust him to the degree that you know you are loved by him.” (Ruthless Trust, p. 178)
Such grace is truly something worth rolling around in!
When reading through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, it becomes clear quickly that life is not going smoothly for Paul or for the believers in Philippi.
In Philippians 1:13, we discover that Paul is being held as a prisoner in the imperial jail. In Philippians 1:19-26, Paul discusses his uncertainty as to whether he will get out of jail alive. In Philippians 1:28, we find out that the Philippians are facing opponents who are trying to intimidate them. In Philippians 1:29, we learn that the Philippian Christian are suffering in similar ways to how Paul has been suffering. In Philippians 2:17, Paul alludes to the fact that his life may be sacrificed.
In the face of such troubles and dangers, where should the Philippian believers focus their attention?
On his television show, Mr. Fred Rogers offered a recommendation to preschoolers who were frightened by a calamity: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Paul seems to follow Mr. Rogers’ tactic in Philippians 2:19-30; he draws the readers’ attention to two helpers: Timothy and Epaphroditus.
Up to this point in his letter, Paul has been challenging the Philippians and us to be like-minded, to have the same love, to be one in spirit and purpose, to look out for one another’s interests, and to have the attitude of Jesus Christ who took the very nature of a servant for our sake. When we get to verse 19 of the second chapter, it is as if Paul declares, “Instead of just writing about these qualities, I am going to send you an example, so that you will not just be reading about these things but seeing them in action.” Paul sends Timothy to the Philippians with this description, “I hope in the lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel” (Philippians 2:19-22).
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is filled with many great spiritual gems, but the greatest spiritual truths are spelled out best not with ink on paper but in lived-out relationships. God did not just send us a book; he came to us as Jesus Christ. Paul did not just send a letter; he sent Timothy. And God does not just send us sheets of instructions on how we should live out the Christian life; God gives to us a church—a community of brothers and sisters–with whom we can learn and struggle, fail and forgive, love and be loved.
Edwin Hodder wrote about Sir George Burns, the founder of the Cunard Steamship Company, “If the Bible were blotted out of existence…and if there were no visible church at all, I could not fail to believe in the doctrines of Christianity while the living epistle of Sir George Burns’ life remained in my memory.”
We need people like that in our lives. May God help us to be people like that to others.
The second helper Paul points our attention to is more complicated. Paul was sending Timothy to Philippi to be a “living epistle” to the Philippians, but the reason Paul is sending Epaphroditus to Philippis is that Epaphroditus has been very sick and needs to go home.
The Philippians had sent Epaphroditus to Rome to care for Paul’s needs, but Epaphroditus had become sick, and Paul ended up taking care of him. Some in Philippi are upset with Epaphroditus for being a burden to Paul rather than a help to him, so Paul writes carefully to the Philippians, encouraging them to exercise mercy toward Epaphroditus: “Still, I think it necessary to send to you Ephaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me” (Philippians 2:25-30).
Up to this point in his letter, Paul has been writing about grace, mercy, kindness and goodness. But what good are great theological treatises on God’s grace and mercy, if we cannot live out God’s grace, mercy, kindness and goodness with one another? Paul doesn’t just write good theology, Paul demonstrates it in practice. Everything he says about Ephaphroditus flows out of Paul’s grace and mercy and compassion toward Epaphroditus. How great it would be if we would practice such mercy and compassion toward each other.