Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
What could motivate Paul to count everything he had once valued as loss? The image he employs isn’t far from that of an accountant’s ledger – all that he once would have placed in the assets column is now considered a debit, a loss. Paul, that is, would trade everything he once valued for what he now has.
Except that this isn’t hypothetical for Paul, as he says he actually has lost all the things he once considered important for the sake of the gospel. Paul doesn’t fill in the details, but it’s not hard to imagine that his conversion – language Paul, we should be clear, wouldn’t have used – would have created enormous difficulties for him personally and professionally. Old friends, colleagues, and even family members may well have thought he had abandoned, if not betrayed them. Whatever advantages his position created for him are now gone. Similarly, whatever stability he might have known was traded in for the life of an itinerant preacher and tent-maker (the profession by which Paul supported himself). And now his is in prison. Indeed he has lost it all.
Yet he doesn’t mourn or grieve or wallow in sadness. Rather, he rejoices, counting his earlier trophies not just as items on the debit side of the ledger but as “rubbish,” a word that would more likely have been translated “excrement” (and probably a more everyday word than that!).
Why? Because in his encounter with God he discovered an invitation to relationship that depended not on ethnicity or training or achievement or obedience, but rather on grace alone. He discovered, that is, abundant life here in the meantime and the promise of life in the world to come.
This is not a rejection of the covenant God made with Israel, we should be clear. At numerous other places Paul points to his heritage as something of which he is proud and to the law and covenant as valid signs of God’s relationship with Israel. Rather, this is Paul bearing testimony to his own experience of just how priceless is the knowledge that God accepts him as he is.
Martin Luther, whose birthday was just two days ago, gives similar testimony to his confidence in the gospel when he writes in the third verse of “A Mighty Fortress”:
Were they to take our house,
Goods, honor, child, or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away,
They cannot win the day.
The Kingdom is ours forever.
That is God’s promise, and nothing, for Paul, compares.
Prayer: Dear God, may we know the riches of your mercy and grace in and through Jesus, that we may keep in perspective all the things we value in this world and give you thanks for all good things here and in the life to come. In Jesus’ name, Amen.