“Faith Passages – From Success to Significance”
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Philippians 3: 7-14
the book of Philippians, writing in prison late in life, the Apostle Paul
reflects on his life and writes about his successes and accomplishments. He
came from the right family. (He seems to take credit for this, as though he’d
made a good decision on who his parents would be.) He had the best of possible
educations – studied under Rabbi Gamaliel, the Harvard of his day. Politically,
he was a Roman citizen, an elite status. Only a small percentage of the
residents of the
don’t know where Paul’s career began but we know he was eventually promoted
to become a protector of the faith – a district superintendent. His job was
to correct false teaching and improper practices and keep the synagogues in
line. At some point in his career he was given the important assignment of
serving as district superintendent of
It was here that Paul encountered a new movement within Judaism, people who followed Christ. Paul attempted to shut down this new false teaching with great zeal and passion.
But something about this encounter changed Paul, and he himself became a follower of Christ.
In prison writing to the Philippians, reflecting on his life, Paul lists his educational and professional and religious accomplishments. “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more,” he says. (Philippians 3: 4) If anyone has reason to be secure in their educational, professional, religious and civic accomplishments, I have more. If anyone has reason to be confident of their success, I have more, he says.
But, he adds, I came to a point in my life when I came to regard all my accomplishment and success as “loss.” I came to see them as “rubbish,” he says. Rubbish! They became meaningless to me, he says. They became more than meaningless – they became liabilities because they distracted me from the one thing that has come to have all meaning in my life – which, he says, is Christ.
A number of good people have written books on a life passage that they say tends to happen in midlife. They call it the transition from success to significance. Lloyd Reeb’s book is entitled From Success to Significance: When the Pursuit of Success Isn't Enough.[i] Bob Buford wrote a popular book Halftime: Changing Your Game Plan from Success to Significance.[ii] John Maxwell wrote the book The Journey from Success to Significance.[iii]
Of course, more than a half century ago Carl Jung made an often quoted statement about midlife. “I have treated many hundreds of patients,” he said. “Among those in the second half of life – that is to say, over 35 – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.”[iv]
Eric Erickson taught that in the stage of life he called Middle Adulthood we become concerned with what he called “generativity.”
“Strength comes through [the] production of something that contributes to the betterment of society,” Erickson taught, “so when we're in this stage we often fear inactivity and meaninglessness.”
“If we don't get through this stage successfully,” he said, “we can become self-absorbed and stagnate.”[v]
We don’t know how old Paul was when the big change in his life happened. I suspect he was no kid. By the time he wrote I Corinthians during his second missionary journey, he was already a widower. He was already speaking of himself as weak, a theme that would come to almost dominate the rest of his writings – his physical weakness and illness.
But I am less concerned here about what age it happens in our lives. I find it hard to judge the meaning of age anymore anyway. Whenever she hears me refer to myself as middle-aged, Jane asks me how many 122 year old men I know.
I am not even sure that Reeb and Buford and Maxwell and Jung and Erickson are talking about exactly the same thing that Paul is talking about. I think it can happen at different times in our lives. And I think it can happen more than once.
What Paul is talking about is reaching a point in life when we stop needing to prove ourselves…when earthly accomplishments and successes aren’t enough anymore…when no matter what we have we need something else.
superficial stereotype of the transition from success to significance is that
you spend the first half of your life earning money and achieving status and
then the send half giving back. This is not the point, really. Those of us in
professions where making lots of money isn’t the way we get rewarded can be
just as driven by the need to prove ourselves as anybody. Watch what happens
every four years in the
No, what Paul is talking about in his own life is when accomplishment and status and achievement and pay grade and resume and the opinion of others and financial security and power and all the rest just begins to seem pointless and transitory.
And the stereotypical way we deal with this is to want to change the circumstances of our lives…a new job…a new career…a new partner…a move to another coast…a new hobby…a new car.
Paul is saying that what he needed was a new savior, a new relationship with God – that he needed to become a new creation.
This summer there was a meeting of pastors of United Methodist mega-churches. I heard one of the participants talk about it.[vi] There were lots of profound lectures and workshops. During a coffee break a group of mega-church pastors got to talking about their real problems.
The problem that they all shared was the temperature in the sanctuary. They all have large drafty auditoriums. Every Sunday when they are trying to get to their seats they are stopped by one person after another who asks them to do something about the temperature in the sanctuary. The problem is half think it is too hot and half thought it is too cold.
One pastor told them he’d found the solution. The other pastors were all ears. He told them that he had installed a thermostat at every entrance to his sanctuary. He has six thermostats spaced throughout the sanctuary. And above every thermostat was a sign that said: “Please adjust this thermostat.”
The other pastors looked at him as though he was crazy. “How can that work?” they asked. “How do you keep from blowing out your HVAC system?”
“No. No.” The pastor said. “You don’t understand. The thermostats aren’t connected to anything. The thermostat that controls the temperature is locked away in a room where nobody can get to it. It just seems to make people feel better to be able to turn the dial.”
That’s what a lot of the changes we try to make in our lives are like…we turn dials but they aren’t really connected to anything. The change is merely cosmetic.
Changing our job or vocation or weight or partner or city is like turning the dial on a thermostat not connected to anything. To really find significance and meaning in our lives we’ve got to go down deep to the room where the real thermostat is hidden.
Paul never met Jesus. He never knew Jesus when Jesus was on earth…never laid his eyes on him. But he was there when a follower of Christ named Stephen was stoned to death by a group of fundamentalists whom Paul had helped to incite.
He was there when Stephen died and he heard Stephen say about those who were stoning him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7: 60)
After that, all Paul’s accomplishments and achievements and successes tasted bitter in his mouth. He knew he had to become the kind of person who could forgive his enemies even when they were stoning him to death. And he knew he could never accomplish that by working harder, or being more religious, or more successful. He could only do it by letting Christ into the room deep inside himself where the real thermostat is.
It may happen when we are younger or older or in between but many of us will feel a need for more. We’ll think about changing the externals of our lives, but the only really important change is what happens inside us where Christ is. May we meet him there.
[iv] C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (Routledge, 1961), 264.
[v] Arlene F. Harder, “The Developmental Stages of Erik Erikson” at http://www.learningplaceonline.com/stages/organize/Erikson.htm.
[vi] Marl Craig, “It’s Time for a Change,” Sept. 21, 2008 at http://www.hpumc.org/pages/sermons.