When you’re life has gone off the rails, is it possible that it was partly because you decided to go it on your own? Were there authorities and rules that were supposed to keep you in check, that would have saved you, but you worked against because you thought you knew better or were strong enough?
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For the past 14 weeks or so we’ve been working out way through the Book of the Bible called Philippians – or more accurately – The Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Philippian Church. We’re taking it slow because there is a lot in the book to unpack and learn from.
The letter was actually written while Paul was under house arrest in Rome, waiting for a trial before Emperor Nero to see if he would be released, or if the false charges his enemies had brought against him would end in his execution. He’d already been there for about 2 years when the church in Philippi heard what had happened to him and sent some help in the form of some workers and some money to pay his rent – and along with all this came a letter from the church.
And it’s pretty clear from reading Paul’s letter that the Philippians were pretty freaked out about having their pastor and friend in the predicament he’s in. Their letter must have been filled with worry, because a lot of what we read here is Paul comforting these people, telling them that God has a plan, that things aren’t as bad as they look, and a lot of good things have happened too.
But, he’s not in denial. He knows he could die any day, so, as a good spiritual father, he tries to prepare them for it. And his message so far has been pretty simple.
First, they should remember that they weren’t saved by Paul, they were saved by Jesus, and even if Paul dies, Jesus will always be with them.
Second, that if he’s not around, they need to work hard to stick together. Don’t let the oppression from the government, their spiritual enemies, and all their cultural differences, drive them apart – but do everything possible to take care of each other. We’ve been talking a lot about that lately, actually. How a diverse group of people, under a lot of stress, can possibly stay together. And the short answer is: be humble and serve one another.
And Paul’s third message to the church has been this: be careful to attend to your spiritual health!
That brings us to our passage today, Philippians 2:12–13, “Therefore, 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, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Paul gives them a pat on the back and says, “You are a really good group of people. You are obedient to God, take care of each other, and you are working hard to make sure you stay connected to Jesus. But, he knows that if worse comes to worse and he dies, that there’s a really good chance that it’s going to send a shockwave that could fracture the church. So he tells them to make sure that, “in his absence”, to keep doing all the things that build their spiritual health and keep them connected to God. Or to, “work out their salvation”.
Why say this? Because, when people are left alone, when the person in charge leaves, when an individual – or a group of people – are left unattended for too long, things tend to descend into chaos pretty quickly.
If you’ve been in a classroom you know this is true, right? The teacher is there and everyone is fairly well behaved – but what happens the moment the teacher walks out the door. Immediate anarchy.
Same thing at work, right? When the boss is there looking over people’s shoulders, things are done according to the manual, the tasks nobody wants to do still get done, and people tend to just do their work. What happens when the boss isn’t there for a couple days? Quality slips, the garbage or whatever work no one wants to do starts to pile up, and the jerks come out of the woodwork to make people miserable.
Same thing at home, right? When mom and dad, or whoever took care of you is there, things are very different than when they leave, right? Suddenly all the dumbest ideas come into your head. You start to wonder about what happens when you put various things in the microwave. Your homework or chores suddenly disappear from your mind. Shows and websites you’d never be allowed to look at are suddenly the only thing you want to look at.
Same thing at church too. Or in the military. Or, literally anywhere else. It’s why we have the saying, “When the cat’s away, the mouse will play.”
Why? Why is this true?
Well, that’s my point today: The reason is because humans need rules, authorities, and accountability, — and without them, our lives fall apart fairly quickly.
Now, while everyone agrees with what I’m saying when it comes to family, work, church, and culture – the hard part is getting people to agree on an individual level.
It’s one thing to say, “My work needs a good boss or the place falls apart.” Or “My classroom needs the teacher there or all heck breaks loose.” But it’s totally another thing to say, “I need a good boss or I won’t do my work.”
“I need a teacher, or I won’t learn.”
“I need people in authority over me, telling me what to do, keeping me in line, and forcing me to do certain things, or I’ll hurt myself and others.”
“I need rules in my life, and I need people to make me follow the rules, or I’ll break them all and blow myself up.”
“I need other people around me, holding me accountable, asking me hard questions, making me feel a little guilty, a little ashamed, pressuring me to stay on the straight and narrow, or I’ll veer off in no time.”
My simple point today is this: Everyone in the world – every single person – needs rules, authorities, and accountability in order to flourish in this life. Every group, every organization, every community group, every family, needs to have a set of rules and standards that everyone lives by, someone with the power and authority to enforce those rules, and to have a culture of positive peer-pressure to follow those rules and authorities —- or the group will be ineffective, the job won’t get done, and we as individuals will be worse off.
Now, of course this can be corrupted. I’m well aware that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s why I’m saying that everyone – including the authorities and rule makers – need to have this too. And I’m well aware that we have seen some really terrible, abusive, evil leadership in our time. That’s not who I’m talking about. I’m not saying we should be thankful for the way North Korea is run, or the abuses Amazon employees face, the corruption among politicians and police officers we’ve seen, or the peer pressure that causes people to do dangerous things. That’s all bad, and we shouldn’t be ok with it.
What I am talking about is the human need for good and helpful authority structures to exist – the human need for strong and beneficial rules to exist – the human need for our communities to band together to protect each other from the entropy of sin and raise each other up to a higher standard.
But, it requires quite a dose of humility and self-awareness to agree with this – and it takes courage to seek these things out. It takes character to accept those rules, obey the authorities, and pursue accountability as a gift from God.
My encouragement to you today is to reflect on this in your own life. When you’re life has gone off the rails, is it possible that it was partly because you decided to go it on your own. Were there authorities and rules that were supposed to keep you in check, that would have saved you, but you worked against because you thought you knew better or were strong enough? And, in what ways, right now, are you rebelling against good rules, good authorities, and good accountability – and what can you do to get back on the right track? Who do you need to talk to? What do you need to admit to? And do you have the courage and humility and wisdom to accept that authority, and those rules, in your life? You may just save yourself a whole lot of misery if you do.