When I was 15 I was given an assignment in school to set the three goals I wanted to achieve by the time I left school at 18. I thought long and hard about what the three things were I wanted to achieve and came up with goals I thought were eminently achievable: the first was to duet with Barbra Streisand, the second was to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and the third – and most important – was to marry Hollywood heartthrob, Zac Efron. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t achieve these by the time I was 18. I am now 26 and still haven’t achieved them. And, call me a pessimist, but I just have a slight hunch that I may not ever achieve any of these goals as my life might be going down a slightly different direction.
We all make plans, from our days to our whole lives. In movies and by advertisers, we are sold a particular narrative of what life is meant to look like, mainly successful, with a moment of character-building heartbreak, and then a glorious happy ever after. Life is presented as an upwards trajectory, something neat and defined.
The thing is, life doesn’t always seem to pan out like that. To quote that famous philosophical treatise from the 1990s, ‘so no-one told you life was gonna be this way, your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA, it’s like you’re always stuck in second gear, when it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year.’
There’s more to life than the tidy path to a happy ending, there’s more to life than just life. It’s often far more messy and complex than that. There is brokenness, there is pain, there is sin, and there is death. We all experience things which wound us deeply. What are we to make of those experiences? If we call ourselves Christians, followers of and believers in the God who is the source of all life and joy, how do wounds and sin and death fit in to life lived in Christ?
On first reading, Paul’s message to the Philippians offers a relatively simple solution: ‘forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’ Paul’s response to the messiness of life seems to be just forget about it. Makes sense, really, if you’re Paul. This is the guy who is responsible for killing Christians, he’s been imprisoned, he’s been shipwrecked, he’s got an unrelenting thorn in his flesh causing him some kind of difficulty, and he’s facing the ire of officials because of his conversion to Christianity and passionate proclaiming of the Gospel. So forgetting all the rubbish and just focusing on Jesus seems like a pretty sensible option. Selective amnesia makes pursuing the upwards trajectory of life far easier.
Except, that’s just not how life works. Try as we might, we can’t forget our wounds. We can try and ignore them, we can try and fill the gaps with other things, and we can leave them to scab over or stick on a plaster and hope for the best, but they’re still there. So is Paul being naïve when he advocates forgetting as key to pressing on with life? Or is that not what he’s saying at all?
There’s more to life than life and pain, because there is resurrection. ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection’ says Paul, and this is the goal to which he is striving for, ‘the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’ And this is a literal, historically proven resurrection. This is not simply a comforting metaphor, but an absolute reality. After all, a metaphorical resurrection is of very little hope to beings whose death is no metaphor.
But you don’t get resurrection without wounds. When Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, his wounds were still visible, his followers were able to touch them. Resurrection hadn’t erased them, but it had transformed them. From the wounds of crucifixion and death and sin and darkness, resurrection transformed them into wounds of hope, of triumph, of salvation, of new life.
In resurrection, God makes our wounds his dwelling place. He cleans out our wounds, rids them of the rubbish and pain and sin and instead makes them places where he is alive and where we can encounter him and be empowered. Our wounds no longer become painful and debilitating, but a place where Jesus brings perfect comfort and begins to heal us.
This is what Paul forgets in pressing on: he forgets the guilt and sin of his past and remembers he has total forgiveness; he forgets what he had tried to fill his wounds with to try in his own strength to make himself whole. But he doesn’t forget his wounds, only he is now able to press on because his wounds are a source of Christ in his life, a foretaste of resurrection power today to be fully revealed on that future day, Jesus has promised will come. So we can, as Paul encourages us, ‘hold fast to what we have already attained.’ We get to live as resurrection people, wounded, yes, but in those wounded places being transformed by the God we encounter there and on the path to healing.
And in that place we discover what the goal really is, what the thing is we should be striving to achieve: and it’s sharing in Christ’s resurrection. Good news: Jesus did the hard part! All we have to say is ‘yes’ to him as Lord, ‘yes’ to him as the source of forgiveness, ‘yes’ to him to come into our wounds and make them his dwelling place.
This should make us free. Life no longer becomes about striving for the upwards trajectory, we are not bound by worldly markers of success or happiness. Rather, in both joy and pain, we are in Christ Jesus, whose plan for our lives begins with us knowing absolutely and deeply how much he loves us.
My biggest wound is that I’m fatherless. One which I did well at filling. And then I let God in to do some healing. And that was that. Wound was inflicted upon me, I made it worse, God did some healing, nice metaphorical plaster I stuck on top, and now I don’t have to think about it. I can press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus blah blah blah, end of story, onto the next thing.
Except it wasn’t. We have an endlessly creative God and a really repetitive enemy and we don’t yet have the fullness of the resurrection promise. When we don’t let God continually tend to our wounds, it becomes so easy to try and fill them ourselves or have others hand more grit into them. And thinking that God had completely dealt with the fatherless wound made me careless. I thought it was over and so I didn’t notice how I and the enemy had tried doing our own hatchet job on my wound. It became re-filled with pushing people away before they could abandon me, doing things to make people like me, and forgetting God’s love for me and trying to earn it instead.
We still have pre-resurrection bodies. God’s healing is for these emotional hurts will always require the maintenance delivered by divine encounter. We need to be mindful of our wounds and let God continually work on them and make himself known to us in them. They are vulnerabilities which he does not abandon us to, but releases resurrection power in to. Our wounds will one day fully go away, but until then, they don’t become things we can completely forget. That’s why God comes into our wounds and makes them his dwelling place, transforming them into sources of resurrection life and transforming us in the process.
God’s encouragement to me was to peel back my own layer over my fatherlessness wound and let him back in there to keep working and keep on healing. It’s a bit costly. Because Jesus is in my wound but so are my fears. My fears noisily exclaim that I’m unlovable, that I’m not wanted, that I need to do everything I can to finally be good enough. Fear shouts, but Jesus whispers: he says I’m loved, he says he wants me so much he went to the cross to make a way for me, he says that grace is unconditional, I can’t earn it. Whispered truths are more powerful than shouted lies. In my woundedness I experience God’s resurrection power. In my woundedness, my pain is taken seriously and my sin is forgiven. In my woundedness, I daily encounter the living God who has made real to me the goal to which I now strive towards.
Our wounds are no longer a source of weakness or of pain, but of Christ’s empowerment as he transforms the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory. We press on towards the goal of continued transformation by Christ’s resurrection power, that our life is redefined by his, that ultimately, new life awaits us. But that in the brokenness of life right now, he is here with us, wounded with us, but also transforming us and healing us. There is more to life than life, there is woundedness, but there is resurrection.
‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection… Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own… I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus… Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way.’ Amen.