Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now 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 do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12, 13)
There are some things others simply cannot do for us. Some things are a rite of passage that we must achieve or complete on our own: passing our driver’s test, attending one’s first job interview, and, according to Paul, working out our own salvation. As Paul said, these things are often accompanied by fear and trembling. This is not necessarily how we like life to be. We would always prefer comfort and safety if possible, but that is not how life is in reality, nor would it be to our benefit if it were.
Paul writes this admonition to the Philippians to “work out their own salvation” while he is away, and he tells them this is something he expects them to do on their own; in his absence. Just as our own parents let us figure some things out for ourselves (if they were good parents and not the “helicopter parents” we sometimes see today), Paul, their spiritual father, was letting them know that this was something that they could not expect him to do for them.
We are supposed to grow and mature, which means we will outgrow certain stages of life. This is true both naturally and spiritually. I distinctly remember looking at one of my toys as a child and feeling a profound sadness, knowing that one day I would not be interested in playing with such toys. It was as if I knew the younger me would have to give way to an older version that would not be able to remain there, and I was mourning the loss. Sure enough, “when I became a man, I put away childish things,” at least on some levels. I’m still working on others. Childish toys are easier to dispense with than childish attitudes.
As children, we do not all mature at the same rate. This can make for some awkward and lonely moments, when our friends leave behind the things we once enjoyed together, or when we ourselves leave the playhouse for new pursuits, leaving behind friends who have not yet cut the chords with their childhood. If we are earnest in our desire to grow spiritually, we will find that there are some things we outgrow there as well. Beloved people who once helped us on our journey as young believers may choose to stay within familiar boundaries that we find restricting. Things that once fed us spiritually, and even teachers who once served as a mainstay of our spiritual diet, do not satisfy us as fully. It’s not that they have regressed so much as we have progressed, while others coming through behind us are as spellbound by their insights as we once were. It is not unlike visiting in adulthood the classroom of a beloved elementary school teacher who once filled our hearts with wonder but whose lessons now only make us smile with nostalgia and appreciation.
This is all as it should be. There is a verse that has always spoke volumes to me, though it is not one we’re usually taught to memorize in Sunday School. Regarding the raising of Isaac we read, “So the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Isaac was weaned” (Genesis 21:8). It should always be a time of celebration when we have outgrown one phase of life and are prepared to enter another, just as we should celebrate those who leave our tutelage to pursue life beyond our instruction. It is to our credit, both when we grow and also when we are outgrown, for it demonstrates that we did our job well and have prepared those in our care for a richer, deeper, more meaningful life. Whether it’s watching our children leave the house to pursue life at college or to begin their own families, it is both bittersweet and healthy. From time to time they will come back to ask our advice when the idyllic version of their lives crashes hard into reality. This to them will be a signal that something went wrong. We, on the other hand, who have learned that life does not come in neat packages, will smile and tell them it’s one of those things they just have to “work out.”
Again, spiritually, it’s the same way. It’s good to have a vision for the future. I’m just not sure any of them ever actually play out the way we planned. If they did, there’s a good chance we were the one calling the shots rather than God. The experience of most believers I know, is that while God will “show us things to come” (John 16:13), He will often deal with us on a “need to know” basis, and there will be a lot we evidently don’t need to know until He determines we do. In the meantime, there is not always a clear set of instructions on what we’re to do in every moment or in every situation. Having given us the general instructions in His word, He will very often leave it to us to work it out. That’s what grown-ups do.
We probably had the idea as children that our parents were brilliant, but as we became grownups ourselves, we realized that very often they were just making it up as they went along. Even more amazingly, things very often worked out just fine. That is part of maturity. If there was a special map that guided us every step of the way on this journey, we would never need to develop your own discretion, discernment, or problem-solving skills. God did not make us to be automatons, nor did He intend that we should stay children forever. Sometimes He expects us to do the best we know, to apply what we’ve learned, and to work it out. Sometimes that involves patience as we wait on Him for His timing and direction. Patience is the province of the mature, empowering us to defer momentary gratification for fuller future fulfillment.
No, life is not always neat and tidy. Answers are not always obvious, despite the objective nature of truth. They key is learning how to apply what we’ve learned to the circumstances we face so that God is glorified in our choices. We’re leaning as we go, on the move, and in the thick of it. As we learn to navigate life’s challenges, negotiating the ups and downs and learning to weather the storms, we realize we have grown, and in some cases, outgrown the things that once held us back. This is what overcomers do.
When we were children, we lifted out hands and our parents lifted us out of the confines of the cradle and the crib. As we mature, we step out of the confines ourselves. This, again, is as it should be. Easier is not always better, for in reality, the things we overcome today are teaching us lessons, sharpening our senses, and strengthening our resolve to overcome and achieve even greater things tomorrow.
Dr. Randy Bunch is the pastor of West Kern Christian Center, located at 1000 6th Street in Taft, California, as well as a graduate advisor and adjunct professor at Summit Bible College in Bakersfield, California. He is the author of several books, including his new devotional, Immutable: Changeless Truth for a Changing World. For more information, or to purchase your copy, go to randylanebunch.org. For more information on the ministries of WKCC, you can go the ministry’s website at wkcconnect.org.