He had been sitting motionless at the kitchen table for about fifteen minutes. I could see his eyes darting back and forth across the numbers on the page of his math book. His pencil lay on the table next to a blank piece of paper. I walked through the room and placed my hands on his shoulders. "Sweetheart, is this a tough section of your math homework?" I asked. He didn't look up at me but nodded his head up and down. "Do you want for me to sit with you so that we can go through the section together?" His head nodded up and down again. "Taylor? Are you okay, son?" He turned his head to look up at me and I could see that his eyes were full of frustration and hopelessness. "I hate math," he said. "It's so hard for me to understand. I read the problem and then go to the back of the book to see the answer and I can't figure out how they got the answer." I'm just like any other mother - I hate to see my kids upset - especially when it's over something that's frustrating. Reasoning and working through something that hasn't yet made sense is hard. It's difficult not to just give up and pretend that you understand but it's even tougher to hang in there until a light begins to dawn. It's those moments in time when the "why" and "how" of the "answer" can drive a person absolutely mad. And that includes a fourteen-year-old boy dealing with an elusive math problem.
"Taylor, I have an idea," I suggested. "Why don't we go back to the chapter, re-read the section, look at the examples and see if we can work it out together?" A smile began to cross his lips. "Son, math wasn't my strongest subject either but I'll work through it with you until we both understand how they got the answer." I guess my last comment hit close to home because he jumped up and put those strong fourteen-year-old arms around me in a big hug.
We sat down and began to work out the problem. There were some frustrating moments as we read the problem over and over again, trying to scrutinize and analyze each section. But things really began to click as we broke the problem down even further; number by number and symbol by symbol. It was then that the answer became clear. Taylor began to smile that smile that meant only one thing - "I get it!"
"Working through" a seemingly difficult problem can be frustrating. Whether it's a math problem, a pistachio soufflé recipe, or directions to a downtown restaurant; there are some things that just don't make sense unless you take them number by number, ingredient by ingredient or street by street. And even then there's no guarantee.
But when I think about the process of working through any of those examples, I can't help but think about the verse of scripture in Philippians that talks about working out our salvation. To be quite honest, it had always bothered me that the word "work" seemed to be a part of my salvation. Why did it bother me? Well, I know that I can't earn or keep anything that Christ has done on my behalf, which includes my salvation. Salvation is a favor, a gift and because that is true, I can't "buy" it through my efforts. How can I possibly "buy" something that has already been purchased on my behalf by Christ? I can't . . . and neither can you.
"Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness." Romans 4:4-5
So, what do we do with Philippians 2:12? What is the Word of God telling you and me? Do we need to pitch in where the cross left off? Is it up to you and me to not only complete the unfinished work of Jesus Christ but to maintain it as well? That would be absolutely preposterous!
Philippians 2:12b clearly says this, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." But what does that mean? Well, I believe that Paul is exhorting us to work through, to work out our salvation just like Taylor and I worked through his math problem. Piece by piece, number by number, verse by verse so that we can understand more and more about our salvation. Don't you want to know more about the depth and height of this wonderful gift that we have been given? Doesn't the "inner wo-man" in you want to rest in what Christ has already accomplished on your behalf? Then, take heart, dear one. We have the privilege of a lifetime of working out our understanding of our salvation - it's that enormous!
Let me explain a bit further about "working out". Don't worry; it doesn't include heavy weights or a leotard! Let's take these two verses from Ephesians:
"But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ."
When you first read those verses of scripture, you can tell that they're full of Good News. But as you work out the meaning of each word and each phrase you begin to see some tremendous truths about your salvation.
1) God is the One in charge and He does all things.
2) He is rich in mercy because He's God.
3) He has great love for you even though you were dead in sin.
4) He chose to make you alive because He's rich in mercy and love.
5) He accomplished all of these things through the cross of Jesus Christ.
Has your understanding of your salvation just broadened? Are you more confident in what He has done on your behalf in Christ? Absolutely! You were just working out your understanding of what your salvation means, what it includes, how it benefits you and why you can rest in it. And as if that isn't enough, all this "working out" is really done by the Holy Spirit in you! Pretty amazing, isn't it?
But hold on. Let's not forget that "fear and trembling" business. I've addressed this before in another teaching* but as a reminder, the phrase "fear and trembling" is defined as "the anxiety of a person who distrusts in his or her ability to completely meet all requirements." And, isn't that exactly how you'd feel if you knew that (1) it was up to you to keep your salvation in place, (2) it was up to you to make yourself understand every detail of your salvation, or (3) it was up to you to help finish or maintain the cross of Christ? I don't know about you but if I were responsible for just one of those - I would be in big trouble! I would be completely without hope and totally frustrated . . .much like Taylor with his math problem.
He was certainly frustrated when his understanding of the math problem and the answer didn't line up. Poor kid. He knew the answer; he just couldn't work out how to get there. And everyone knows that math equations and math answers have to equal. But it's funny when you think about it. No matter how much we work out our understanding of our salvation, it will never balance. Unlike math, it will never equal. How could it? It's God alone Who has done it all in Christ!
"Are you so foolish, after beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" Galatians 3:3
I love you,