In light of Good Friday and Easter coming up, I thought it would be good for us to revisit one of the most familiar passages in the Bible, in Philippians 2 (verses 1 to 18 in particular). It's a passage which reminds us of Jesus being exalted by His heavenly Father, stemming from His obedience in humility that was met with ridicule. And for us to look at this passage anew from our Asian cultural lens.
An Asian society like in Singapore is honour-shame based, a collective culture with some hierarchy. The cultural contexts in the Bible are more similar to our Asian culture, compared to Western culture. It is helpful to think critically how the Gospel speaks to our culture, for greater relevance. For example, using the honour and shame cultural angle from which to look at the biblical text.
Here's a quick recap of the 3 main sections in the passage:
1) Our call to be united in Christ's love (v1-4), stemming from
2) Christ's example of humility, being exalted over all (v5-11),
3) To bring honour to God (v12-18)
1) Our call to be united in Christ's love (v1-4)
Paul urged the Philippians (and God to us indirectly) to be united in Christ - of one spirit, mind, love, and accord. This is shown by looking out for the interests of others and counting others more significant than ourselves, stemming from the posture of humility. Unity, selflessness, and love in a nutshell. This is quite counter to Singapore's societal norm of kiasu-ism and meritocracy that has helped elevate Singapore onto the world stage, but needing a relook/re-tweak as cracks have appeared in our societal fabric. Intrinsically, kiasu-ism and meritocracy are more individualistic/self-seeking endeavours in the broken world that we live in. One must push ahead to survive, often at the cost of others being pushed down in a competitive society. Those with access to resources fare better than those with less. An example is Singapore's school streaming system, where students who excel academically are honoured/celebrated, but those who fall behind feel ashamed. Instead of going with the flow, may we instead strive to excel not for selfish gain, but to help others and society, and bring glory to God.
But let us return to the implications for Christian community. The honour and shame culture, or our propensity to 'save face' in some ways prevents people, including believers, from being more authentic, and being willing to be vulnerable in sharing deeper things in life with one another. We're afraid to reveal our weaknesses, for fear of being judged, or lack trust in others, in that they will gossip with privileged info we share. However, authentic communities are necessary to have real growth, supported by accountability and encouragement.
Trust is the key ingredient for there to be authenticity and even vulnerability in sharing. We care quite a bit about our own face/honour, thus avoid being shamed as much as possible. Conversely, we sometimes subconsciously judge others by looking down on them, so we feel better than the other. Pride creeps in. Here are some questions to consider in how we can be part of shaping kingdom values within the Christian community and beyond:
Q: How can I help in building more trust in the Christian communities that I'm in?
Q: Am I willing to speak the truth in love and gentleness to another believer, rather than holding judgment and gossiping?
Q: In what ways in my work or family context have I been more concerned about saving my own face, rather than showing kingdom values in the face of sticky issues?
Q: Am I willing to bear shame in standing up for kingdom values, living out my faith, recognising that Jesus will be pleased, and God glorified? Am I willing to count the cost, perhaps putting my job at risk, or be deemed as crazy or weird by close ones?
Collectively as the local church, may we take care not to lose our fellow brother's and sister's face, so that the world can see love and humility demonstrated by Christ's family, bringing honour to Christ's name and saving His face.
2) Christ example of humility, being exalted over all (v5-11)
Our Lord endured shame and ridicule like no other, the very Son of God. He was shamed and ridiculed on His way to the cross and while He hung on the cross, taking on the shame and judgment that we deserve. Christ is the epitome of humility. He was resolute in His love and obedience to His Father, so that He would bring His Father honour and glory. As a result, He was exalted over all, to the glory of His Father. The last shall be first. In God's economy, the proud will be humbled, and the humble will be exalted (Matt 23:12, James 4:6, 10, Prov 29:23, 1 Peter 5:5-6).
Here are some questions for self-reflection:
Q: Would I be willing to act and serve as if I'm in a lower position, be it in my work, school, home, church, or organisations I'm involved in?
Q: How might that have a positive impact in the particular context, even as there might be a cost to my 'face' value?
Q: Is it possible to be in a certain hierarchical culture and play my role, yet inject kingdom values that might challenge some prevalent practices or behaviours that go against biblical principles?
3) To bring honour to God (v12-18):
In verses 12 to 13, Paul urged the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. This call applies to us also, to please and glorify God with attitudes and good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 4:10). Even as Paul was facing persecution, he encouraged the Philippians in practical ways to keep the peace (without grumbling or disputing, to be blameless and innocent), so that they shine (bring honour to God) as lights in a dark world. There is deep spiritual joy that those in Christ can experience, despite ridicule, persecution, and suffering (v17-18), as we await with expectant hope of Christ's return.
Keeping or losing 'face'
Instead of being preoccupied with losing our own face, may we be more concerned with losing God's face. May we sin less and love more so that God will be honoured. May we even be willing to lose our face in living out kingdom values, so that God's face is kept. Like Christ, may we be willing to endure shame, so that God would be honoured. We're encouraged that our shame is redeemable by the Gospel. May we be keenly aware that both our individual and collective witness matter much to a watching world, so that we might glorify our Lord.
Prayer: Our heavenly Father, this Easter season, we praise Your Son for trading His beauty for our ashes. Holy Spirit, help us to seriously consider being willing to face shame in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus, so that He would be honoured. May we be full of gratitude for what our Lord Jesus has done, which empowers us to live in humility to glorify Him. In Jesus' name we pray, amen.
Blessings in Christ,