“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” –Philippians 2:12-13
"Do the hard thing," Dr. John Stott said to his assistant before he died in 2011. “Do the hard thing.”
As David Brooks, the acclaimed writer and journalist observes, “Dr. Stott believed that choosing the easy trail, the road most taken, and the path of least resistance can only end in mediocrity—even if it comes with praise.”
I’d like to invite you to do something hard. I’d like for you to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
I know what you’re thinking because I’ve thought it myself. “Why should we work out our salvation when our salvation in Christ Jesus has already been assured?” We work out our salvation with “fear and trembling” because salvation is more than eternal life. Salvation happens when our lives are converted from who we were to who God wants us to become in this life. Because of God’s love and grace in the person of Jesus Christ, how can we not be willing to change—that is, to be redeemed; to be sanctified?
For long stretches of my life, I have resisted the hard thing. I have chosen the path of least resistance and been content to react to life rather than to do the hard work of self-reflection. In short, I have not wanted to ask the hard questions that might nudge me to grow spiritually. I have been hesitant to consider who I am and what I am here for. I’ve been content to acknowledge my gifts while quick to ignore my gifts’ shadow sides.
Let me try and explain.
When I was 24 years old I naively took a difficult summer internship. I was in my ‘middler’ year—seminary-speak for my second of the three-year master’s program—and decided to spend three months in Winston-Salem serving as a chaplain at Wake Forest’s Baptist Hospital. The program was called Clinical Pastoral Education. The experience was two-fold. One half of my summer was spent serving as a pastor to patients. The other half was spent in one-on-one supervision and group work.
Yea. It was the ‘other half’ that tripped me up. The one-on-one supervision and group work was intended to provide me a greater sense of self-awareness. My supervisor asked me difficult questions about myself—my hopes, my fears, my gifts, my liabilities, my sense of call—and my group challenged me personally, giving me a mirror to see myself through their eyes.
This was hard work. In truth, it’s some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. I was defensive in my group work. I was combative with my supervisor. I did not like how self-discovery felt. And yet, I learned how important it is to go through life with my eyes wide open.
As I discovered, we have been shaped by many forces in the world—genetically, from our family of origin, from our earliest experiences with threats and challenges, from the unique cultural context we were born into… you get the idea. The hard work that I experienced that summer as a seminarian revolved around the task of peeling back these layers to see the person God had created, which happens to be the person God loves and the person God has called me to become.
Discovering who you are is difficult work, and it’s not for the faint of heart. And yet, it is precisely what the Apostle Paul is calling the church at Philippi to do when he says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Jesus implores his disciples to open their eyes. Jesus begs the curious to be born again. Jesus tells us that he came to bring us abundant life. We wake up to God’s work in us when we learn about our gifts and our shadows and the power that they have on us.
So, I’d like for you to do the hard thing and join me on a journey of self-discovery. In the church world we call this ‘spiritual growth.’ Make no mistake; it is hard work. But it is deeply rewarding and fulfilling to have an ‘a-ha!’ moment of epiphany when we see how the building blocks of our lives fit together for the good that God has created in us.
The tool that I would like to use to guide our journey is called the Enneagram. Personally, I have come to this tool rather late. In truth, I wish it had been available when I began my own work years ago. I have found the Enneagram to be a gentle and effective way to see God’s truth and to become more gracious with myself and others. Many Christian traditions have been using the Enneagram in retreat settings and pastoral care for years and years.
The Enneagram is an ancient Christian philosophy that was developed by wise, ascetic believers in the fourth century. The Enneagram, which means nine-sided figure, is represented as a circle. Its purpose is to provide a way for us to better understand ourselves and to recognize the root sin that we retreat to when threatened. As Richard Rohr describes it, “[The Enneagram] is concerned with change and making a turnaround, with what the religious traditions call conversion and repentance. It confronts us with compulsions and laws under which we live—usually without being aware of it—and it aims us to go beyond them, to take steps into the domain of freedom.”
The Enneagram is but one of many tools to help us see the un-seeable in ourselves. But, it is the one that has provided me with the most significant ‘breakthrough’ moments in my spiritual life.
So, I would like to invite you to journey with me in learning about ourselves. We’ll use the Enneagram as a tool for self-discovery, and I will provide the resources and the tools we’ll need to do this important work. I’ve purposely placed this invitation at the end of my article because I suspect some readers didn’t make it this far. And that’s okay. Although I believe Paul’s command for us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling is of critical importance for us all, the timing may not be right for everyone now. Thus, I am not making this compulsory. We will not make this process mandatory in worship, or on a Wednesday night. Instead, I’d like to provide the space to invite you to join me on this journey.
And this is how you can: Tell me you want to come along as a fellow sojourner on this path of self-discovery. Call me at the church and let me know you want to know more (828-226-9308). Text me and tell me that you’re in. Send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let me know that you want to learn alongside me. I will then notify you about how a small group will emerge this summer to begin this most important work.
Are you still reading? If so, you may be curious enough to take the next step. Do the hard thing. Learn more about the person God has called you to be.
I’m looking forward to beginning that journey with you this summer.