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Of Bellybuttons and Cross-Faders

July 24, 2011
Disappearing Cross

The Text

19Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:19).

A Closer Look at the Text

The best way to read this verse in Philippians, is to read it in reverse order. When a person’s mind is set on earthly things, instead of Christ and His Gospel and His Kingdom, it is easy to mix up glory and shame. Glory points to God. Shame points to, well, not-God. Not-God usually means that instead of looking upward toward God, we look at ourselves. We take into account ourselves.

The Bible places great emphasis on separating out the profane from the sacred. That which glorifies God is not to be profaned, just as an altar built to God in the Old Testament was not to be profaned even by a priest with loose fitting clothing (Exodus 20:26; Exodus 28: 40-43). This careful concern and regard for propriety toward that which glorifies God, even with clothing, continues to be important today (Revelation 3:18).

Both figuratively and literally, we find ourselves looking at our own bellybutton when we focus on not-God. We seek that which pleases us, comforts us, reduces our pain, and increases our pleasure. When we do this, we ultimately become slaves to our quest for pleasure. Sometimes this is reflected in obvious addiction and bondage to pleasure-seeking (or pain avoidance); this becomes most obvious for folks who find themselves bound to alcohol or sex or drugs (prescription or otherwise) or gambling or pornography or political power or fame or whatever. Less obviously enslaved, are those whose quest for meaning “under the sun” (that is, at bellybutton-level) is reflected in their zeal for and commitment to hobbies, sports, civic activities, political causes, and yes, even church activities. Even less obviously enslaved are those whose quest is to be liked, to be well though of, to be respected; theirs is a lifestyle dedicated to being nice, being respectable, and being pleasant company.

The conclusion of any quest for not-God is destruction. Pathological addictions enslave us and ruin our lives. In some ways, that’s a less painful form of destruction than the existential vacuum within which we find ourselves when we are actually adept at our quests for not-God. In those cases, we wake up at some point and find ourselves asking, “is that it?” A live spent dressing up (and painting up) in team colors, to cheer a favorite team. Or, pursuing the ultimate golf score. Or promoting a political cause. Or decorating and redecorating a house. Or being good company at parties. Is that it? Where is the meaning? Where is the real purpose? As the Teacher points out, it’s all vanity. It’s all a puff of air. It’s all destruction, because it all just fades away to nothingness.

Some Observations about the Text

This text is not an indictment of folks who honestly and genuinely dismiss or despise Christ and His church. Such non-believers can be expected to set their minds on earthly things, and therefore confuse glory and shame, and therefore find themselves focused on themselves, and therefore experience the inevitable destruction that results from this pathway. Paul is not accusing these honest nonbelievers or rebuking them. Quite the opposite. Paul cares for such nonbelievers. He loves them and has compassion for them. He wants them to be able to “see the cross” in the lives of others, that is, see Christ through the lives of those whose minds are set on Christ.

And that’s Paul’s problem here. Nonbelievers who are doomed to destruction deserve better than to be exposed to would-be semi-Christianish church attenders. These lost souls deserve better because the Father loved them to the point of allowing His Son to die for them. And that Gospel is diluted to the point of emptiness when nonbelievers are unable to distinguish followers of Christ from non-believers. When believers (or those who appear to be believers) dilute the Gospel by setting their minds on earthly things and living out the same worldly lifestyle as non-believers, the cross fades and fades and ultimately disappears. These folks are cross-faders. They are enemies of the cross.

Disappearing Cross

And so this verse is actually an indictment of such “false walkers” and cross-faders. Those who blend God with not-God. They camouflage the cross. They turn it into jewelry and bumper stickers and church attendance (or even leadership). They reduce it to just another brand, mixing it in with their sports team brand, their clothing brand, their car manufacturer brand, and their smart phone brand. “Christian. Just do it. Have it your way. Because you’re worth it.”

Gospel Apologetics

Sometimes a person who does not have the hope and the peace of Christ in his or her life (Philippians 4:7) is actually aware of his or her own doom. They have a sense of meaninglessness in their life, an existential vacuum. They are aware that there is no glory in shame, that their belly (or bellybutton) doesn’t make for a very reliable god, and that their future is one of an imminent, yawning, dreadful darkness of uncertainty and eventual despair.

I once knew a person in this state of mind. Let’s call that person Kim. Kim was living a good life. A comfortable life. A life with lots of friends and admirers and adventure. A life that was long on perks, and short on purpose. Eventually Kim began to figure it out: it’s all meaningless vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11).

If there are followers of Christ — those who have their minds set on Christ — in the life of such a person as Kim, that person (that Kim) ought to be able to see a reflection of Christ and His Gospel and His hope in the life and the lifestyle of such Christ-followers. Sometimes that reflection of Christ is magnified when Christians joyfully endure sickness or oppression or financial disaster or other losses and tribulations … all the while truly praising God and being buoyed by gratitude for His grace and mercy.

It’s then when “1 Peter 3:15 questions” are most likely to be asked by Kim. That’s the when Christ can be seen most clearly, and that’s when the cross and the Gospel can make the most sense.

On the other hand, if that person — that Kim — only happens to know so-called Christians whose minds are set on worldly things (or, who are double-minded, being divided between God and this world), Kim will miss the whole point of the cross. That’s why Paul refers to such so-called Christians, such cross-faders, as enemies of the cross (Philippians 3:18-19).

Audio MP3 Discussion of this post is available here.

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