There is a passage from Scripture that I simply could not understand as a child: “Do your salvation with fear and trembling.” This is from the second chapter of Philippians. When the apostle Paul wrote the letter, the church in Philippi was young. The pain increased when a new religion, Christianity, was formed and people gathered together to worship and learn about Jesus of Nazareth. As a child, I didn’t understand how I. had to work out his own salvation. But now I appreciate this poem more than I could have imagined. And it’s not because he tells me a simple truth that I can pocket the doctrine and pull out in the middle of a controversy. It’s not because it tells me something about the afterlife or about esoteric and unusual things.
I like this verse because its simplicity is the key to understanding the human experience: life is not easy, and the only way we can grow (in salvation, holiness, even just basic decency) is to commit to self-sacrifice. the appeal of stagnation and inaction. Part of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians was to teach them not to stop at their newly found religious identity, as if all they needed to do was become Christians, and everything else was over! On the one hand, it would be great for life to turn out that way. On the other hand, it could also be our hell if we always got everything we wanted and had no hardships in life. I’m not sure I would want to be that kind of person if God would just satisfy my every desire and whim!
Whether you are a Christian or not, wisdom is universal here. By the way, if you’re not a Christian, I don’t blame you. The Church does not have the best experience when it comes to an attractive institution of which one can be a part. Perhaps you are part of another religious tradition, such as Buddhism, or you are as secular as they are. According to Paul, there is universality that works regardless of the context. The idea that we are continuous unfinished business should not come as a shock to us, as we all already have contact with the worst parts of ourselves. That’s it to do it is hard, actual work on ourselves that helps us thrive and grow. But in the long run it’s worth it. Whatever you decide to grow and change, let it be at the expense of something that builds you, reminds you of your worth and dignity and shows you the infinite limit of possibilities right before your eyes. And never forget that you should invest in yourself, because you deserve love! So love yourself, wanting to grow. Let’s hope that there will be no unnecessary fear and trembling on the way.
Chris Adams is pastor of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington.