Not Yet Perfect, but Growing

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (Philippians 3:12-16)

Spiritual growth is something we talk a lot about around here. It’s a great subject for us, for all of us, because we all have room to grow in Christ. If we talk about spiritual growth among any set of Christians, in Christian homes, in Christian leadership meetings, in pastors’ conference or laymen’s gathering, whatever group of Christians we find ourselves with we can have a very inclusive discussion on spiritual growth; no one gets left out.

One way to embrace our need for spiritual growth is to admit that none of us, not one of us, no one here or out there, none of us are perfect, we all are in need of growth. Now, I’m not going to spend much time trying to convince you that the person to your right or left is not perfect – you know they aren’t, right? That’s not generally a problem. Okay, maybe if you are a newlywed or something you may be delusional for a time, but trust me it won’t last long, you will see, they too lack perfection. I’m sorry to be the one to break that to you!

We don’t have to work, I’m saying, at finding fault with people around us. Most of us are very skilled at picking up on other people’s imperfections. It is apparent that people around us are not perfect. But here is where we may struggle. We may have tendencies to, in little ways, from time to time, carry with us an attitude of, “You know what? I’m really okay. I mean, perfect? Maybe that’s a stretch, but generally I’m doing pretty good as far as being a good person.” 

You may say, “Come on now, no one thinks that way, who really thinks they are perfect?” Well again, I’m not saying that we admit that. What I am saying is that we may convey an attitude, at times, that we really have it all together. How might this happen? How might we convey to people around us that we are, maybe not perfect, but certainly closer than they are to perfection?

Let me give you some ways we may communicate our superiority regarding perfection. We can talk only about our spiritual successes and never our failures. We may only tell of how God is blessing us and never about how we may have offended Him. We may only speak of our victories but not how we feel defeated. Our words may be very much bent toward what looks, well, more perfect in our lives, and we can gloss over ways in which we desperately need to grow.

Another common way I think we may communicate some kind of false perfection is by attitudes of superiority through sinful anger. What does anger have to do with an attitude of superiority or perfection? Think about this with me. When we become angry with people, what are we doing? We are making a judgment against them. We are judging what they are doing or not doing. Someone is not doing what I want or think they should do, and I may get angry. I am saying, “I have judged the way you have acted toward me and I don’t like it, so I get angry.”

Sometimes we even become angry from a perceived wrong. You ignore me at church by leaving quickly and not speaking, so I become angry thinking you have acted rudely and disrespected me. I have judged your motives and actions and found fault with you. This may be what I perceive, a judgment I have made, when the truth is you were not feeling well and left quickly for that reason. But sinful anger is always a personal offense or perceived personal offense.

The point is, if we are often angry, then what we are probably doing is making a lot of judgments about a lot of people, real or perceived, and responding to that as one who thinks they deserve better. A habitually angry person is a person who generally, then, will focus more on other people’s need for change more than their own need for change.

And as this goes we communicate to people around us that, “You better get your act together and live how I want you to live, be like me, adjust to my standard or way of thinking, and all will be well.” This communicates an attitude of, “I have it all together, you are the problem.” An attitude of perfection. “Be like me and all will be well, do what I want you to do and we will get along fine, conform to my standards and we are good.” And when our friends or family do not cooperate in this way we may get angry. And the more this happens, the less likely that we are really going to desire personal change, because we are so consumed with trying to force change on others.

I am certainly not immune from this. On Friday, two days ago, I had to make a decision that would affect my family. It was the kind of decision I don’t really enjoy making. It was of the type where no matter what I decide, some will like it and some will not. In a discussion about the upcoming decision, I became frustrated – you know what that is, don’t you? It’s a nice way of saying I got angry. In my anger I spoke rudely and harshly in a way that I think communicated that I got angry about how someone treated me, my perception was that I was not being treated the way I deserved to be treated at that moment. I didn’t process all that in the moment, but later understood it that way. My emotions revealed what I believed, that I deserved better. And the thinking may go something like this, “I am the head of the home, the loving father and husband, the one who always, always, always has my family’s best interests at heart.” Did I say always? No, I wish that were true.

The point is I was in essence saying, “In this matter I am perfect, it’s time therefore for everyone to fall in line with me. I am now the standard, my way is best, you need to think the way I think and all will be well.” I didn’t say all that, but I think that is what I was communicating.

Where does that come from? It comes from a heart of pride and arrogance, from a heart that has not attained perfection, but is desperately in need of change! But if I or if you don’t recognize our need for change, we will not move toward change. We need to see our need and sometimes we may even need people around us to lovingly help us see our need for change.

Paul communicates to his flock in Philippi a very important message, one that struggling sinners need to hear, and that is, “I have not attained perfection, far from it, but I will, in my human condition, I will go forward, press on toward needed change.”

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12)

Or we could say it this way, “I am not perfect, but I’ll press ahead to grow in Christ.” This is an admission that we are not what we should be.

As Christians there are many things that we will enjoy forever in Christ that wait for us, such as heaven.

4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:4-5)

This is ours, in our future as Christians, that will not change. Our ultimate future is secure, but right now we are in need of change. Are we all okay with that, can we all just be honest and agree with that statement?

It is interesting that with Paul, in his pre-salvation days he saw himself as righteous. Remember what he said back in Philippians 3:6 of himself: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” After he came to Christ and was saved, he was no longer under any delusion of perfection, of having reached spiritual perfection. We are like Paul here, the field is very level for us all. Not one of us is where we should be or could be spiritually. Have you ever been in a room and you felt like the only sinner there? It’s like everyone else looks too perfect, polished, all cleaned up, got it all together. Everyone, that is, except you. They all look and act perfect, but you know your own heart? Maybe even the conversation exacerbates your hunch. Maybe everyone is talking as if they have reached perfection. And you listen, and instead of being encouraged by spiritual conversation, you are discouraged thinking, “Wow, it’s just me, I’m the only sinner in the room!” Well, let me once again assure you that no matter what you see in that group or what you hear discussed in that group, you are not alone in your need for change. And I for one am glad that the person that I would call the most spiritual in the New Testament is saying clearly to us, “I have not arrived, I am not perfect.”

What else did this spiritual man confess? He confessed that he did not yet know everything about God or Christ, he was in the dark regarding some spiritual matters.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

He confessed that he was still polluted with sin in his body, that he would some day be holy but he wasn’t there yet, holiness was in his future, not something that was yet fully realized. 

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (2 Corinthians 7:1)

He confessed that he was still weak in his flesh and in desperate need of God’s grace to do anything good at all.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

I wonder in our day to day conversations with people around us – our kids, our spouse, our church friends, our work friends, our school friends, our siblings – I wonder if we are communicating that we are still sinners in need of change, or if we are communicating we have arrived, and you had better get there too!

What are some other ways we may communicate that we have arrived and are no longer in need of change? Well, I mentioned anger already. If we are constantly making judgments about other people and they aren’t meeting our standards then we may be saying we are near perfect and they aren’t. We may use other phrases to communicate that we’re above other people, like, “I can’t believe you did that,” or, “What in the world were you thinking?” “I would never do that,” or, “What is wrong with you?” Statements of shock that someone’s a sinner, or even over someone’s non-sinful choices that may be different than ours.

Paul just comes out with it, he’s very open and transparent – “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect.” He is just getting it out there, he wanted everyone to know, perfection is not obtained in this life, it is reserved for the next. After this confession, he goes on to say, “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Having communicated that his condition needed to be improved, and being transparent about the fact that he is not perfect, he has not yet arrived at what he will someday be, he could have said a variety of things. 

He could say, “Well I’m not perfect, so just get over it.” Have you ever wanted to say that to someone? Or maybe you have said that to someone. Maybe someone treats you harshly over a choice you made, a bad or even sinful choice, and you just want to say, “Yeah I know I’m a sinner, the solution is for you to just accept that.” Just put it on the other person, “I’m a sinner, so just get over it and don’t expect anything more. Just adjust your expectations for me and accept me in my sin, and don’t expect me to change.” We can in effect shut people out of our lives in this way, cutting ourselves off from those who may be able to help us change.

Paul could also have responded to his own understanding of his lack of perfection with an attitude of, “Well, I’m a hopeless sinner, I guess I’ll always be a hopeless sinner,” and he could have withdrawn from people and ministry. Like, “Because of my state I’m pretty useless to God and not very helpful to other people.” He could mope around, be depressed, and withdraw. Like, “Here I am, and I guess here is where I’ll always be.”

Paul also could have decided, “Well, I’m not perfect, I won’t be perfect, so I guess let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. If I can’t get completely over sin then I’ll just enjoy my sin. I will just continue to indulge in it until one day I die and will be like Christ.” That’s a dangerous place to be and a place where if we find ourselves there we need to seriously consider if we are even in Christ.

So there are three responses to being sinners: “Oh well, everyone should just understand and go with it,” “Woe is me, I’m a sinner and I’ll never change,” and “Yes I’m a sinner, so I might as well enjoy it.”

Of course, Paul did not respond in any of these ways to his state as an imperfect sinner. Instead he says, “but I press on.” Knowing he is not yet perfect, that he is in need of change, he moves forward, strives ahead to spiritual maturity in Christ. To press on means to run. It speaks of aggressiveness and energy. He knows he is not perfect, but desires to be more like his Savior, that is the heart of a Christian. He knows he will not achieve this until he dies, but that does not stop him from moving ever closer to the goal. He uses similar language in 1 Corinthians 9 to describe his new way of life.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Paul will not be satisfied with spiritual stagnation or apathy. He is on a mission, he is in pursuit of the prize, he reaches for it, he runs for it, he presses on. Knowing that we are not perfect should drive us to this as Christians, to spiritual growth and change, with intensity! Listen to other ways that he describes what should describe our pressing on to spiritual maturity.

For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Colossians 1:29)

Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6:12)

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:7)

All these words describing his effort: pressing on, running, exercising, boxing, disciplining his body, toil, struggle, with all energy, fighting, taking hold of. None of these are passive words. All are very active, the message is, “We are not perfect, we have not become yet what we will be, so in Christ press on, move forward, run, exercise, fight, toil and even struggle.” Let me ask you, does that describe, do these words of action describe your Christian life right now? Is this where we are? This is not where I always am, but it’s clear that I should be.

The last phrase is important. Lest we think these are our own efforts we have this last phrase. It’s not like all just totally up to us to work really hard on our own to be like Christ. Paul says, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

Christ Jesus had captured Paul. Paul belonged to Jesus Christ because Christ laid hold of him. Jesus had claimed Paul to be His, Paul belonged to Jesus. That happened first. And now, Paul is simply acting, even striving, in a way that is consistent with what is Jesus’ goal for him, that is being like Him. God saved Paul so that Paul would become like Christ. We know that from Romans 8:29. So all Paul is doing here is acting consistently with the purpose for which he was saved. And how does he get the strength and the power to reach toward this goal of being like Christ? From himself? No, from God. Remember Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

The great thing is that when we set our minds and our strength on walking toward Christ in obedience, we are doing that consistently with God’s will for us and in the very strength that He provides. Paul is simply walking rightly in this new life that was given to him, and by rightly I don’t mean perfectly, but rightly in pressing on toward that goal. We too have been given new life, this is true for all Christians. And so what Paul describes as his pursuit should be exactly what we are doing as well.

I want to come back around to my example, personal example from last Friday when I got angry during a discussion about a decision I needed to make concerning my family. What I said was I got angry, sinfully so, and in becoming angry I was communicating that I was in a sense, in my anger, sort of saying, “I am right here, you are wrong in how you are thinking and how you are responding to me, because I am right.” All this when I was the one being sinfully angry. So in my anger I was passing judgments on another, lifting up myself, and putting another in their place, so to speak.

After this happened and I walked away, it didn’t take long before by God’s grace I realized that I had acted sinfully, sinfully toward someone I love. It wasn’t long after, then, that I felt shameful over my actions, conviction from God. I was wrong and I now knew I was wrong. So what then? I admitted my sin to God and to the one I sinned against, asking for forgiveness for what I had specifically done. I was granted forgiveness from both. But you know what? I still felt badly, really rotten. 

It’s at this point where it would be my tendency in the flesh to just mope around a while. Just wallow in my sin and feel really badly, beat myself up, rehearse what I did over and again, and just lament over it. I can feel defeated, and even feel depressed. I’m just being transparent here. But then I go to places like Philippians 3:12, Colossians 1:29, 1 Timothy 6:12, 2 Timothy 4:7, all these places that teach me, “No, you can’t stay here, it’s time to press on, to move forward, to fight the good fight, to strive toward the goal of the upward call, to believe God, and in His power to believe that in His strength I can move forward in sync with God’s goal for me.” In that moment to realize, “Now it’s time to press on. You’re not perfect, far from it, but you can continue to grow.” That is the great hope for every sinful Christian in this passage this morning! We don’t have to get stuck, we press on. You are not perfect, but God expects you to be growing.

No matter what you are dealing with as a Christian, no matter what you have done that you know offends God, the message is the same: God knows you’re not perfect – and by the way so do the rest of us – you are not perfect, but in Christ you some day will be, but until then press on.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12)