In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he passes over the intellectual difficulty of human and divine agency in spiritual growth with no effort to resolve the apparent contradiction contained in his statement:
…with fear and trembling, work to acquire your own salvation; for God is the one working in you both to will and to work his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12b-13)
Paul speaks of both elements of salvation in his letters, both God working and us working. My theory is that one cannot claim that God is working in them unless they’re working and that one cannot also claim that their work is effective unless they acknowledge God’s work in them. It’s a back and forth. But all of that aside, what does Paul say about the human side of spiritual growth in Philippians? There is one passage in particular that says a whole lot:
12 Not that I have already received it [the resurrection] or have been made perfect, but I seek to make it [perfection] my own because Christ has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself to have made it [perfection] my own. But I do one thing: forgetting what lies before me I strain forward 14 in accordance with the goal I seek the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Therefore, if anybody has been made perfect, let us think this way; and if anybody differs in thought, God will reveal even this. 16 Only, let us hold firm to what we’ve already attained. (Philippians 3:12-16)
Paul outlines a paradigm for personal growth in Christ-likeness:
- Admit your imperfection.
- [Implied] Have a vision for your life as perfectly Christlike.
- Seek to make that perfection your own.
- Leave your imperfections behind you rather than dwelling upon the. (Paul struggled with this, he mentions his persecution of the nascent just earlier in the letter)
- Strain for the perfection of Christian character. In 3:11, Paul says “if somehow” or “if by any means.” In other words, do what it takes to be like Christ. And since the metaphor is of running, think of “any means” like the any means of running away from danger and toward safety.*
- Not only should the appeal of the good life in Christ motivate us, but also the ‘prize’ or the rewards God offers to Christians should motivate us as well.
- Don’t get resentful of people who don’t get it.
- Hold fast to what you’ve attained. Don’t go backwards…but with step one in mind, don’t insist that where you are is perfect either. Anybody can be wrong. Sometimes your understanding of life in Christ is what needs to change before you can change.
Paul says more about the human side of things, but the passage above is a good summary of his point of view. If you grab a Bible and read the rest of Philippians, you’ll see that he also recommends meditation on good examples, pursuing assistance from other Christians, avoiding obsession over food, seeing the Christian church as your tribe/nation, and prayer for help.
*Note: When I was a senior in high school, I went for a job one night after karate practice. In our neighborhood, late jogs weren’t that uncommon. But a rottweiler escaped somebody’s front door and started chasing me and I climbed up on a stranger’s car and jumped onto the other side waiting to climb back over if the dog ran around. I was willing to do whatever it took not to die.