A few things collided for me this morning. First, I read Philippians 3, as part of my scheduled Bible reading plan. Second, I saw a yellow Ferrari. Third, I read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Then it all made sense.
My “epiphany” was this: We travel to manhood on a road paved with our own failures.
Let me start by saying that I have a very keen sense of my own failure. I’ve always been this way. From the time I was a boy, I’ve beat myself up. And the beating hasn’t stopped to this day. It’s safe to say that my soul is black-and-blue. I hate failing and am so aware of when it happens. Walking by the yellow Ferrari parked at Starbucks this morning, I felt that familiar feeling of failure once again. I peeked into the glass-covered engine compartment. I looked at the plush interior. I traced the immaculate fenders with my finger. Whoever owns this Ferrari, I thought, is a success. Oh yeah, and since I don’t own one, then that makes me a failure. The car didn’t say anything. It just sat there, condemning me.
When you look into a mirror, what do you see? You see two things at once: both a failure and someone who has had some successes. You see a person who has been built up by his share of victories, supporters, encouragers; and you see someone who knows it’s all a sham. On the surface of the mirror, you see all the things that make you a man. Maybe someone told you that you were a man. Maybe you’ve had some accomplishments. Maybe you’re tough, own a Ferrari, or have no trouble getting a girlfriend. Maybe you fit all the cultural stereotypes of what it means to be a man.
However, below the surface, you see something else, which scares the giblets out of you. You see flesh and bones. You see blood and organs. You see a tragedy waiting to happen. You see your sick soul, your tormented heart, and your imminent destiny. Soon you will die. Soon you will become food for worms. In fact, as Ernest Becker wrote in 1974, humans are just “fancy worm food.” Becker should know, for he died later that year. The Pulitzer Prize he won for that book could not save him. As we stare into the mirror, we have to come to grips with reality that we’re just fancy, complicated, and rich worm food.
Nothing we do and nothing we own can stop us from dying. They guy with the yellow Ferrari will die. The tough guy will die, so will the traitor. So will I—so will you. The mirror reveals the secret that we’ve been trying to stuff down: we’re not as manly as we thought.
The Apostle Paul understood this, having had the same glance in the mirror. He was able to see below the surface, at the worms beneath. But he didn’t stop there. He was also able to see the way out. He was able to travel to manhood on a road paved with his own failures.
He realized that success is actually a trap, and failure is actually a catapult.
First, we learn that success is a trap. More vividly, success leads to mutilation. Philippians 3:2 says, “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.” Those who mutilate the flesh are those who take pride in performing religious rituals, like circumcision. They believe that their sense of worth comes from success, appearance, doing the right thing, being better than others. But Paul knows the truth: putting confidence in the flesh is just another form of mutilation. He calls it for what it is. “We…put no confidence in the flesh” (3). No matter what you do, you’ll still end up as worm food. Neither our actions nor our flesh can save us.
He goes on to tell us about what he saw on the surface when he looked into the mirror. “Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (3:4-6).
In those days and in that crowd, the things that Paul had accomplished were to be envied. That’s what it took to be somebody. Paul had it all and he knew it.
But he came to realize that none of that could save him from the stupid, mute, defecating worms. None of his “righteousness” was real. It couldn’t save him; it couldn’t justify his existence. He soon saw that he was a failure. And that’s a huge step.
On the road to becoming a man, we can either progress on the pavement of our own failure, or we can stall in the prison of our own success. Here’s what I mean. When we’re growing up, we’re constantly looking for affirmation. We’re afraid of being nobody, so we search for the things that make us somebody. People will come in and out of our lives who affirm us. We’ll have some accomplishments. We’ll do good things. We’ll begin to think that we’re getting somewhere. After all, so long as people are saying nice things about me and so long as I’m distracted by my good accomplishments, then I don’t have to face the fact that I’m fancy worm food.
I learn to live on borrowed power, as Becker puts it. I am powerful because you say I’m powerful. I think I’m a man because society says I’m a man. After all, I own a Ferrari, have a girlfriend, do sports, and have a good job. Or, in Paul’s language, “I am from the right people, have done the right rituals, have a spotless moral record, I fight against evil…” But remember, none of these things can save us from our mortality.
They end up trapping us, so that we stay stalled in self-deception. While we think we’re okay, we’re not. Death will come and take us in an instant, and we’ll be left without the only thing that can save us. You and I both know that there are grown men who have not matured past this stage. They still think that being a man is about owning stuff, doing stuff, and avoiding stuff. They are trapped, immature, and have stunted masculine growth.
I should know. After all, I get hypnotized by Ferraris.
But Paul was not trapped like we are. He saw through the shiny paint of self-righteousness. “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss” (3:7). Paul learned to look differently at his successes. He learned to see them not as successes, but as losses. That’s the true math of masculinity. Gain is counted as loss. The road to success is paved by our own failure.
He counted every accomplishment as a loss, for he knew that none of his accomplishments could rescue him. They would get him nowhere. If he held onto them, they would only trap him in immaturity and stunted growth. He needed to throw them down, count them as loss, and find something that really mattered—that was real. Once he found it, his failures would catapult him forward to manhood.
What did he find? “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” (3:8). He found Jesus Christ, the infinite Creator of all life, the One who has power over the worms. In the light of Jesus Christ, he was able to see his successes for what they really were: rubbish. In the Greek language, the word “rubbish” is much stronger, meaning something like a pile of crap. The Ferrari was crap. His religious career was crap. His morality was crap. (Sorry to be so blunt with my words—but the Greek is really quite blunt! Paul was trying to get a point across.)
Paul was more than willing to calculate all of his successes as loss, so he could get out from under the pile of crap. That was the only way that he could gain Christ. He threw everything down, trampled on it, turned it into pavement, and walked out of immaturity, to maturity, toward Jesus Christ.
Paul was man enough to do this. Are you?
He was man enough not to depend on the affirmation of others. He did not need to be a leech and live off of their power, thinking he was somebody because someone told him so. In order to become a man, he admitted that he was a failure, that nothing he did could change that fact, and latched on to a true source of power.
Where did he get this power? “Faith in Christ” (3:9). Here’s Paul’s desire, “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection” (10). True power is found in Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Paul let go of his immature, imposter power in order to grasp this true power.
How was he connected to this true source of power? By faith! Faith is what connects us to this true source of power. How does it work? The first step of faith is to unlink yourself from the false power sources—the things you see on the surface in the mirror. Let go of them. Admit that you’re a failure. Confess that you’re a sinner who’s going to die, be fed to the worms, and forgotten. Then, after unlinking, you must relink. Relink to Jesus Christ and the true power he offers. To have faith is to unlink from self and relink to Savior.
In order to make faith possible, for it was not before, God had to become worm food. He had to enter our world and find us in the rubbish heap. He did this in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ went down into death and met us at our greatest need. He became sin for us. But he did not stay in death, for he rose on the third day. That’s the power of the resurrection—that’s the offer of the resurrection. To relink to the power source of Jesus, we allow him to grab hold of us, so that we can grab hold of him, and then we are pulled out of death by the power of the resurrection. His life pulls us out of death, out of the grave, away from the worms.
Failure is a catapult, because by failing in our faith in ourselves, we relink to Jesus and allow the force of the resurrection to pull us out.
The road to manhood is paved by our own failures. Don’t be trapped forever in immaturity, in the pursuit of only success. Being successful is not the road to manhood. Neither power, nor possessions, nor pleasure makes you a man, in fact the opposite is true. Living for these things keeps you stuck in childhood. We become men when we do two things: admit that we’re failures and hold onto Jesus Christ in faith.
Jesus is our righteousness; Jesus is our reason for living; Jesus is our true source of power and life. Jesus is our freedom and passageway to manhood.
© Samuel Kee, 2013