This was my Bible verse for today:
Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labour in vain.
Philippians 2:14-16, NIV
I’ll go along with this exhortation 99.9%. It’s the last sentence that jars: it sounds like a touch of emotional blackmail, the stereotypical Yiddishe Momma breathing down her kid’s neck: “Be good, dear – I’ll die if you disappoint me.”
Reading this, I feel all gung-ho and ready to do my best until I get to that last “I will be able to boast” and then my heart sinks. Are we to shine like stars for the sake of St Paul, as trophies on his wall?
What’s causing my resentment? There have been various occasions in my life where someone else has been rewarded for my hard work, for putting the cherry on the cake I baked and getting credit for the whole, so to speak. Is that where it comes from? It triggers the thought that I should want to stop my grumbling and arguing so that the Big Guy Upstairs will pat me on the head and say “Good girl!” not so that St Paul can add me to his collection like a special stamp.
Poor old Paul went through an amazing number of torments, trials and tribulations to get his message across, so I shouldn’t really begrudge him his wish. It’s like the popular team coach, giving his players the will to win. Doesn’t he only want the assurance that it wasn’t all in vain?
Nevertheless, this unease I feel on reading these verses makes me examine my motives. Yes, of course I want to shine like a star, one of the beautiful among all the bad and ugly. Huh. Is that for my own satisfaction, so I can boast about myself?
That’s even worse!
Sounds like a beauty competition now: is my ambition to be Miss Pure and Blameless? Look at me, all you warped and crooked ones! How gorgeous I am, shining like a star! I’m a child of God! Yah boo shucks!
That is surely not the intended message.
But on the other hand, there’s something not quite right about the doglike devotion that encourages me to be good so that I’ll get a pat on the head from God: that’s turning him into a Yiddishe Momma. Or Poppa.
Paul was a Pharisee by birth and education, and if there was anyone in the Bible who knew about the concept of behaving well in order to go to heaven, it was Paul. And he also knew it was a mistaken belief, because he of all people knew that nobody can be good enough to earn a place in Paradise by their works.
“Don’t complain” is often interpreted as “don’t rock the boat”, ie shut up and put up. That often leads to stomach ulcers (or worse) in people who are inwardly arguing and grumbling, so that can’t be what Paul is advising here, either.
The incentive then has to be a desire for purity and perfection for its own sake: not seeking approval, either by God or St Paul, but simply getting to the stage where we are incapable of anything less. And that means a change of attitude as a step towards that state.
What he is telling us here is that if we lose the habit of grumbling and arguing, we will become better people. It’s a statement of fact, like saying: “Be happy and you will smile, feel miserable and you will frown.” Some think the converse is also true: “Smile and you will feel happy, frown and you will be miserable.” Basically, get out of the grumpy habit, if you want to be content.
That you will then become children of God and shine like stars is incidental, and not your motivation. And Paul can heave a sigh of relief that his message has been understood.
PS: Along with this Bible verse came a request from a friend asking me for the YouTube URL of a particularly beautiful rendering of the song “Create in me a clean heart”. That took me through about a score of different versions of the same song – can’t think of a better way of driving home a message!
Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me …