A work in progress

Since our wedding over 40 years ago, my wife and I have called six places “home.” The first four were rentals. Taking on a mortgage was a stretch in the early years, as it often is for young couples. There were always things that needed to be done to the house, but we couldn’t afford to hire others to do the work. I had to learn to do a little bit of everything, especially when we needed to build an addition onto the back of the house. And I do mean everything. We sometimes joke that there isn’t a surface in the house that I haven’t worked on in some way.

Some projects, of course, took longer than others, and we had to learn to live with a certain amount of disorder and dust. The progress was often encouraging but slow, and we couldn’t wait to have the work finished.

“A work in progress.” The phrase applies to any active but unfinished project, from buildings to book manuscripts. But it’s a useful image for the Christian life as well, for that is what we are: works of God, in progress and incomplete.

. . .

We’ve seen in previous posts how Paul prays for the Philippians, and does so with joy. He praises God less for how their generosity has helped him personally, and more for the way their generosity shows God’s grace at work in them — the work that is making them more and more a reflection of Christ. It’s a bit like Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper fame: somehow, in a dump of a house, even amidst the rubble of demolition and renovation, they are able to envision a family’s dream home, the home that it will be when the work is done.

Indeed, Paul is able to imagine the blessed future so vividly that he tells the Philippians,

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ. (Phil 1:6)

This is what theologians would call taking an eschatological perspective: interpreting the present in light of God’s future. Put differently, history in general and the Christian life in particular are stories in progress, and our individual stories are embedded in God’s larger story. By God’s sovereign grace, the larger tale ends in glory; because of this, we have hope.

This is why Paul rejoices. In the lives and conduct of the Philippians, he sees the tangible reminders that God is still at work in their lives, in the world. He rejoices because their lives are living testimonies to the continued progress of the gospel for which he gives his all.

That’s not to say, of course, that all is well in Philippi. Writing from prison as an absentee pastor, Paul is concerned about the challenges the church is facing inside and out. Still, the presence of interpersonal problems (Hey, Euodia and Syntyche, can you two please get along?) doesn’t dim his confidence in God’s faithfulness or the presence of the Holy Spirit.

. . .

That’s a good lesson for all of us. When there is conflict or disagreement in the church, we often default to one-sided blaming: He just doesn’t get it. If only she would change. They’re always causing problems. And with that mindset comes the temptation to think that the rest of us would be better off without them.

Don’t get me wrong: it is indeed possible that removing a particular person from a congregation can calm things down. That is, after all, a possible implication of the statement in Acts 9:31 that when the believers in Jerusalem shipped the young firebrand Paul back to Tarsus, there was peace and the church grew.

But before we resort to such measures, we need to develop the habit of seeing each other as works in progress. Paul himself was just such an unfinished masterpiece of grace, a fixer-upper with a future filled with glory. You are too. So am I. And so is every believer, even the ones with whom there’s some friction.

Please be patient, the saying goes; God is not finished with me yet. If we could see in each other — even see in ourselves — the future that God sees, the completed project, we might indeed have more grace and compassion.

We are not yet what we will be. Knowing that, we can help each other get there.