“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12 NIV).
At one of the seminars I held in South Asia, a preacher told me of the money his congregation was saving for a modest church building. They needed about $1,500 and had accumulated almost half of that over two to three years of effort. He knew it would still take considerable time to complete the task, yet his joy and enthusiasm at their progress so far was palpable.
We live in a culture of immediate gratification. People are overwhelmed with debt because they are unwilling to wait for what they want. Why watch an old-style television when one may charge a big flat screen HD set to his credit card and begin watching immediately? It is only after struggling to pay out of control bills that we learn that waiting may have been better after all.
There are blessings available to those who place their trust in Jesus which may be enjoyed as soon as they become obedient to his word. Freedom from guilt and shame, the fellowship of loving Christians, access to God through prayer – these are but a few of the “Every spiritual blessing[s] [which are] in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). These, and others, are bestowed without delay.
Much of the Christian’s reward, however, is not immediate. Jesus exhorted his followers to “store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20). To store up suggests investments or deposits which will produce dividends in the future. Faith, obedience, and righteousness now will be rewarded by eternal salvation in the end (Romans 2:5-10).
Paul spoke of such delayed gratification in Philippians 3:1-16. He gave up much from his former achievements as a Jew and Pharisee in order that he might gain more in Christ. But he insisted that he was not yet finished in his quest and had by no means attained his full reward. He was still diligent in his efforts in order to finally “win the prize.”
There are important rewards to such diligence. First, there is the reward of hope. Life is always enhanced by the expectation of progress. When we see no promise of better things ahead we become discouraged, depressed, and convicted of failure. That is fatal physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Only when we live with confidence in the future, based not on ourselves but on God’s promises, can we continue to face difficulties with confidence.
Secondly, continued efforts to achieve take our attention off of past failures. Try, try and try again is not just a platitude. Thomas Edison famously said of his many failed experiments to produce a light bulb, “I now know 10,000 ways it cannot be done.” To him, an effort without positive results was not a failure. There was always something to be learned.
Thirdly, when we join others in similar efforts we benefit from shared strengths and experiences. After Paul first described his search for perfection he then said, “Join with others in following my example and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you” (Philippians 3:17). We are not the only ones who face strong challenges. We are not the only ones with problems. Many others have faced similar difficulties and have succeeded. We are comforted and made stronger by their companionship.
It is humbling to face the reality that we are not perfect. It is encouraging to realize that others also have faults but continue to try to improve. As the little boy was said to have pleaded, “Be patient, God is not finished with me yet.”