Jana started by talking about the propensity we have to name drop. I'm sure you've been around this sort of behavior. People sharing, in a seemingly casual but transparently calculated way, how they know so-and-so or how they spent time with so-and-so. And these so-and-sos aren't bums on the street. Doesn't work that way. These so-and-sos are luminaries, celebrities, and big shots. Names. Big names. And the bigger the name the better.
Commenting on this, I noted how this sort of behavior functions as a form of self-justification, a form of works based righteousness. That is, by attaching my name to a bigger name some of the glow of celebrity rubs off on me leading to a heightened sense of self-esteem, the feeling that I somehow matter more compared to others. My existence is somehow justified by establishing this connection with a bigger name. If I know someone the culture deems significant then I must be a bit more significant if I know such people. So we name drop.
There's a biblical term for this sort of behavior. Idolatry. Idolatry is grasping at significance by attaching your life's meaning to another created thing--something that, despite its luster, is as subject to death as you are. Saint Paul would describe name dropping as "worshiping the creature instead of the Creator."
Jana and I went on to talk about an acquaintance of ours who had recently lost a high-status position (though not their job). We were talking about the existential vertigo and vacuum this person was experiencing. Who are we in the eyes of others if they cannot see us through this high-status role/title/position? Such roles, positions and titles give our life meaning and significance. These things seem to justify our existence.
It's the same thing, Jana and I noted, with the name dropping. Attaching your life's significance to a created thing--a position, a title. Again, it's a form of self-justification and works based righteousness. I matter because of the stuff that I do, the stuff that I accomplish, or the people who I know.
I think this is the deep issue the Apostle Paul was speaking to in his letters. We tend to think of works based righteousness in moral terms. That we could be "good enough" to earn our way into heaven. No doubt moral performance can be a part of this. But few of us feel that we are saints enough to make such a claim. Despite what the "faith alone" preachers say, moral forms of works based righteousness aren't all that common, if they exist at all. I've never encountered a soul who felt they were good enough to merit heaven.
But we do name drop. We do attach ourselves to titles and positions. And in each of these cases we are trying to justify our existence, to prove that we matter, to give evidence that we are significant. This is the sickness I think Paul was really after.
Philippians 3.4b-8We tend to read Paul's list through a moral lens. But I think that is missing the point. True, Paul was proud of being moral. But his morality wasn't really about morality. It was about feeling superior to fellow Jews who weren't as righteous and zealous as he was. Let alone how he morally compared to debauched Gentiles. Being a Jew and a Pharisee was a status symbol, a way to feel significant, a way to matter, a way to feel good about oneself in relation to others. Paul could name drop with the best of us.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ...
But he came to consider it all garbage. Paul exited the self-justification game. He gave up giving reasons as to why his life mattered. It became okay for Paul for you to think him a loser. Paul no longer had to name drop. Or feel ashamed in the face of a job demotion.
Where did this freedom come from? How did Paul leave the neurotic rat race behind?
Paul gave up trying to justify himself. Paul only claimed Christ.
That is justification enough.