If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
We’re in the fourth week of our five-week series Finding Light in the Darkness. This weekend’s topic is confidence. The Greek for confidence in today’s scripture reading is closely related to the word for faith, pistis. Our English word confidence comes from the Latin confido, to have full trust.
What does it mean to have confidence in something?
When you came in here this morning and sat down, you demonstrated enormous confidence in something. The pews! You mostly likely sat down without ever wondering if the seats would hold you up. I didn’t see any of you kneeling down and peering beneath the pews to make sure that everything was secure under there. You had full trust that when you sat down it would not collapse underneath you, sending you to the floor amid scraps of splintered wood.
This is a chair from my office. Until this morning, I’d actually never sat in this chair before. Other people have sat in it, but not me. It looks pretty solid, no nails sticking out. It feels secure, not wobbly or loose.
But if I’m not sure of this chair, I’m not going to put my whole weight down on it. I’ll put just a little bit of my weight down, just barely sitting on it, still holding most of my weight on my legs. It’s an awkward feeling, not easy to maintain. Maybe I’ll shuffle a little bit, put a bit more pressure on the chair, but I’m ready to spring back up at any moment if it gives any sign of weakness.
If I had to hold this position for any length of time, the strain would show. It’s rather exhausting. And ridiculous looking!
We all want to have confidence — full confidence — in the things that support us. We want to know that they can bear our full weight.
It was late January 2013, a gray and snowy day. The temperature outside was hovering in the high 20s. A few moments before, the sun had broken through a hole in the clouds, and a ray of bright light was shining into our apartment window. Rolled in a blanket, I had curled up on the carpet in the resulting patch of sunshine on the floor.
And I found myself asking, “How did I get here?”
Now, I don’t mean how did I physically get there: that would have been an easy answer. I had moved from South Florida to Alexandria, Virginia, just south of Washington DC, where my husband Chuck had a wonderful new job. That’s how I found myself there on that cold winter day.
What I meant, as I lay there with my arms wrapped around my knees, was how did I get to a place I had never been before, where I felt so empty, so surrounded by darkness.
Just a few weeks before, I had been a pastor at a large, healthy church, I had been a part of an exciting ministry, with a ton going on each day. My calendar was full, and I felt I was contributing in an effective way. I had family living just a few miles away, and good friends who I saw several times each week. I knew who I was.
Then, on Sunday, January 13th, I preached my last sermon at that church, and we had my farewell gathering. Early Monday morning, I boarded a plane to meet my husband in Washington DC.
Within the span of a few days that January, I went from moving at 95 miles per hour at my job to zero miles per hour. A screeching halt. From meetings, appointments, and events that lasted right up until my last night in Florida to a suddenly, gapingly, wide-open calendar. From interacting with dozens of interesting people every day to being alone in my apartment while my husband was at work. It was jarring and unsettling.
It was as if my chair had given way beneath me, and I fell to the floor with a great crash. As I lay there in that small pool of sunshine on a cold winter day, I started asking myself: who am I? All the things I counted on, that gave me confidence in my value as a human being… they were gone.
And I wondered:
Who am I?
If I’m not a pastor, then who am I? Who am I if I’m not a leader responsible for guiding small groups, for preaching, for counseling, for teaching, for running a church? Who am I?
Who am I when I live somewhere I don’t have family, don’t have friends, don’t have another person other than my husband who knows me? Who am I when I don’t have anything that I must do, must accomplish? No list of tasks for my job, no one counting on me?
My family connections meant nothing. I had no relatives close by, no pre-made community. My former friendships in other towns meant nothing. I had no extensive circle of friends in my new city. My ordination, my calling, my work resume, meant nothing. I had no church to serve there. My education, my degrees meant nothing. I had no job. My skills, my extroversion, my abilities: nothing. I had nowhere to be, nothing to do.
I felt unmoored.
The Apostle Paul understood losing confidence in things he once trusted deeply in.
In our reading for today, he outlines those things. Verses 4 through 6: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
In the eyes of Paul’s world, he had every right to be fully confident in his worth. He had a lot to brag about. Paul starts out with a recitation of the privileges into which he was born, then moves on to those he achieved. He was born into one of the twelve tribes of Israel. He could trace his ancestry all the way back to Benjamin, the youngest, beloved son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel.
He was born into a family that held firm to the Law of the Hebrews, as shown by having eight-day-old son Paul go through the circumcision rite that marked him forever as a child of Israel. He grew up to become a member of the ultra-rigorous religious group, the Pharisees, who worked hard to adhere perfectly to the Law. As a zealous member of that group, he sought to correct those who were in violation of the Law, bringing them to justice.
He had every reason to believe
that he was at the top of his game,
that he would receive honor and glory.
But his encounter on the road to Damascus
with Jesus Christ changed everything.
Paul writes in verses 7 and 8: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish…”
“Rubbish.” That just doesn’t get at how strong the word in the Greek is. It’s a gross word, a nasty one.
dung, muck, filth
waste thrown to dogs
That seems pretty harsh, doesn’t it? All our hard-won accomplishments, all our hard-earned achievements, they’re all no more than a bunch of leftover dregs, refuse, garbage good for nothing but throwing out?
Paul is trying to make a point here, and he wants to make sure we don’t miss it. So he states it as boldly, as brashly, as baldly as he can. All that we put confidence in in this life, all we can do, all we can know, all we can be… that’s not something worth our confidence. All those things can’t support the full weight of our need.
So far in this series, we’ve talked about how we can find light in the darkness, but, as of yet, we haven’t talked about exactly what darkness is. I’m sure that as we’ve been walking through this series, each of you have had an idea in your head of what this darkness means. Maybe that idea is something vague and not specific. Or perhaps you’ve been thinking of a very particular situation in your life or in the world. But so far we haven’t defined what darkness is.
So… what exactly is this darkness in which we are to find light? What causes the darkness, the uncertainty, the pain?
This is what I would argue: part of why we experience darkness in our lives is when those things in which we have placed confidence fail us.
Often we place confidence in is our own abilities. We trust in our skills, our training, our education, our expertise, our health. But when those abilities fail us, when our abilities aren’t enough, when we fall short or fall completely on our faces, when we aren’t given the opportunity to show our abilities and we’re pushed to the back of the line, when we become sick and unable to do things we previously took for granted… we experience darkness.
We rely on our relationships. Our friends, our family, our colleagues, our spouses and loves. But people can let us down, can hurt us, can abuse and neglect us. Beloved friends and family leave us, through moves or through death. We feel alone, and we experience darkness.
We rely on our jobs, our roles. When the mother who has worked so many years to raise her children drops the last one off at college and returns home to a very quiet house — who is she now? The truck driver who turns in the keys to his rig after retirement — who is he now? The lawyer who decides to leave her law practice, the teacher who loses his position due to budget cuts, the student who graduates, the retail worker whose store closes — who are they when the change comes? When we lose our identity, we experience darkness.
We rely on our religion, trusting that the church will always be a safe place where we can experience grace and hope. But… this pains me to say… even the church can fail us. When we feel that our church has let us down, we experience darkness.
Each of us here this morning has something — or many somethings — that we rely upon. But can those things support the full weight of our need in this life?
As I lay curled up on my apartment floor, stripped bare of all the things I had had formerly had confidence in, wrapped up in that blanket in the fleeting ray of sunshine, I finally got it.
At the foundation, at the base,
at the bare underlying structure of who I was,
there was just this:
I am a child of God.
Now, you might be thinking: “C’mon! You’re a pastor! You’re supposed to know that!” But I’m living proof of how easy it is for us to get distracted and to put our trust in places it shouldn’t be. And so, God used my circumstances to remind me.
If you take away my job, my calling, I’m a child of God. If you strip me of my degrees, I’m a child of God. If my relationships are torn from me — still a child of God. If my mind is taken and worn down, I am a child of God. If I lose my home, my possessions, my security, I am a child of God. If I have nothing in this life, I am a child of God.
Your true, real, authentic identity doesn’t reside in what you do, what you know, what you’ve accomplished but in whose you are.
You belong to a God who loves you beyond any love you can imagine. You are a tiny, little creature who belongs to the Creator of the universe. Your worth, your power, your identity are grounded in that reality. Your worth is defined by your relationship with God, not by any temporary earthly thing.
That is a truth that can bear your full weight. We may have different roles throughout our lives, but, you and I, we’re children of the King!
Paul calls rubbish all we place confidence in in this life.
But here’s the irony: when we place our full confidence in the love of God, then that transforms that “rubbish” into something beautiful, simply because we’re freed from the fear of losing it. When we know that our confidence is placed in the one sure thing in this life, something that can never be taken from us — God’s love — then we can engage in our work and play here on earth with greater joy, knowing that our confidence in God’s love deepens and enriches all that we do.
When our confidence is placed in God,
our abilities and skills can be used
in constructive, positive ways.
When our confidence is placed in God,
we can find healing in our relationships.
When our confidence is placed in God,
our identities become grounded
in the One who created us.
When our confidence is placed in God,
our churches can increasingly become
places of joy and transformation.
Obviously, I didn’t stay curled up in a ball on my apartment floor. Just a few months later, I was serving in a wonderful church in my new city. But something had changed for me, in me. Emboldened by my renewed confidence in God’s love, I could serve with enormous joy and freedom.
Because I knew that no matter what — no matter what happened, no matter where life took me, no matter what I was doing or not doing — no matter what, I could have full confidence in God’s love.
My prayer this day is that you would know how loved you are by God. That you would experience the love of God in all its beauty and power and majesty. And that confidence in God’s love would free you to serve in this world with great joy!
So, go ahead.
Put your whole weight down on the love of God.