Think of the godliest person you know. What does he or she look like? Many people are drawn to the religious devotion in Islam, as Muslims are required to pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and give alms to the poor. In Roman Catholic circles many are drawn to the monastic lifestyle, taking vows of chastity, vows of poverty, praying for hours on end, singing the Psalms, etc. Still, in Protestant circles, we have our own criteria of godliness. It may be the pastor’s kid who knows the right things to say in Bible study, who can quote Scripture on demand, who goes on all the mission trips is the one we consider most godly.
In the 1st Century Jewish world, Paul was that super godly kid growing up. He was the ideal Jew, born in the right family, following the right rules, possessing the right zeal. One might say he was a Jedi master of the Jewish religion at that time. However, Paul was missing one thing…one very important thing, that without it made all his religious deeds utterly worthless – a relationship with Christ. Once Paul finally encountered Jesus, however, his life turned upside down. In Philippians 3 Paul boldly says that knowing Jesus is so much more valuable to him that he considers all his previous deeds and hard-earned reputation “a pile of shit” (my translation of σκύβαλον – “skubalon”) compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus. If it were to go between choosing his praised reputation or looking like a fool in order to know Jesus, Paul says he’d gladly choose the latter. This is one time where Paul uses strong language to emphasize the shear worthlessness of religion apart from knowing Christ. The very things most religious people spend their entire lives striving after, Paul calls “rubbish, refuse, or dung.” What is more, he calls those false Christians who entice others into this empty religion “dogs and evildoers” who place their confidence in the flesh, rather than in knowing Christ. He cautions us not to fall for this counterfeit religion which is like a beautifully decorated cake coated in icing, but inside is filled with a steaming pile of dung. You are what you eat after all. And this is often why religious people can turn out to be the most hypocritical, arrogant, and cruelest of people. They’re feeding on this “dung cake”, which breeds only pride, self-righteousness, and the praise of man. Knowing Jesus, however, changes a person from the inside out and breeds true godliness as we’re transformed into the image of Christ.
Fasting, praying five times a day and other practices can be very good things to do, but if your relationship with Jesus is missing, all these “godly deeds” become rubbish, like filthy rags before God. At the end of the day, true religion before God is not about rules but about relationship; a relationship with Christ, himself. This relationship has the power to produce a true righteousness from God far superior to the man-made righteousness that we create in religion. It is a righteousness by faith in Christ and not by works of the law.
To know and be known by Christ is meant to be the fuel that drives all our good works. Paul goes so far to say that in this relationship, he even wants to know Christ in his sufferings. But why would he say this? Who in their right mind would want to suffer the way Jesus suffered? Think for a moment about some of your closest friendships. What do you notice about these compared to your other ones? It is your true friends who will be there for you when you hit rock bottom, who will cry with you and carry your burdens alongside you. There is something about suffering alongside others that brings friends closer together. If you have a deep and loving relationship, someone, you probably haven’t gotten there except through suffering alongside him or her. Sharing each other’s suffering deepens the relationship, and Paul is saying now, “I’ve tasted the surpassing glory and worth of knowing Jesus, and now I want to go even deeper! I want to share in his sufferings- to be reviled, mocked and beaten alongside him, and even to be crucified with him. I love him so much I want to share in his sufferings!”
This is what Jesus calls us to. He is saying, “Don’t just be content with getting saved and then living your life as comfortably as you can, but join me in my sufferings.” A shallow friend is always up for hanging out when you’re throwing a party, but runs away when you’ve lost your job, have no money and nothing to offer. The way a friend responds to your suffering shows where their true affections lie. Do they love you or simply the benefits of your relationship? Paul’s desire to walk through suffering with Jesus proves his deepest yearning is to know Christ more. The ironic thing is that this desire to know Christ inevitably led Paul to do many godly religious deeds. However, he didn’t get there by chasing religion, but by chasing Jesus. What is more, he probably didn’t even notice most of his good deeds because he was so focused on seeking Jesus. He wasn’t keeping score; he was just doing whatever it took to go deeper into this relationship, obeying Jesus and walking with him no matter the cost.
A good self-test is to ask yourself, “Am I keeping score of myself and others right now?” If so, then you’re missing the point and falling back into this trap of religion that the old Paul and much of the world still walk in. But if your heart’s deepest longing is, “Jesus, I want to know you, I want to walk with you, even into suffering no matter the cost” – this is what it’s all about. The life of a Christian is an extremely painful road if you really want to follow Jesus but it is also the path to the deepest joy. You will look back on the things you suffered and say, it was hardly a sacrifice. The religious person is miserable because he strives and strives after religion and gains nothing but the empty praise of man. The Christian strives and strives after Jesus to know him more and gains 1000 times more than what he sacrificed; for knowing Jesus is sweeter than honey and better than life itself.