I learned a long time ago not to obsess over investment returns. For starters, I don't have a lot in a portfolio to worry about. Also, since retirement is 30+ years away, I'm not too worried about whether I'm down 5% or up 5% at this point. I'm no finance guru, but I sense that someone with my horizon needs to worry less about today's returns and more about staying invested for the long term. Still, there's that fascinating feature on my online accounts that lets me see in an instant what my unrealized gains or losses are. Is this particular position up or down? If I sold that holding today, would I have made money or lost money? If I liquidated my whole account, would I owe money to the government in taxes, or would the IRS not even care? It's that unrealized gains or losses that allows an investor to see a snapshot of how things are going at a particular moment in time.
In Philippians 3:4b-14, we hear what the apostle Paul had to say about the unrealized losses he had accumulated in his life's account and why he went ahead and liquidated that account anyway:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. (3:4b-7)This is Paul's Jewish CV. It's who he was and what he'd done as a faithful child of God. All the requirements of high-standing and the entire pedigree of an admirable Jew were his. He had done everything he was supposed to and then some. Imagine how anyone could describe himself as "blameless" under the law. Yet, for Paul, that is who he was--as accomplished as any religious figure of his day.
But then he met Christ, or, more specifically, Christ came to Paul on the road to Damascus. This interruption--both physical and spiritual--forced Paul to consider what had been accumulating in his life's account. He had worked tirelessly for God, and now God's son was breaking through to him and calling into question the value of that work. In fact, this change in perspective not only caused Paul to rethink his investment strategy but to count all that he had gained as loss. In an instant, the credits became debits. His life's work actually stood in the way. All that he had gained was to his own detriment. That's the power of Paul's conversion.
Paul didn't wake up one morning and think that something was missing. Paul didn't just decide to add Jesus to his life in order to find true fulfillment. His entire perspective changed. It reversed completely. Everything that had been stored up a gain was now considered a loss. Theologically speaking, his conversion to the gospel of grace hinged upon his recognition that any attempt to justify oneself before God is actually counterproductive. The harder he tried the farther he fell. Isn't that what the world needs to hear today?
I'm not preaching this week, and the story of Mary of Bethany and her costly Nard (John 12:1-8) is an attractive focus for the week before Palm Sunday, but I know what I need to hear. I need a preacher to remind me that all my efforts to be a good father, a good husband, a good clergyperson, a good preacher, a good pastor, a good Christian are all getting in the way. In this life, effort is a realized loss--always. It gets in the way. It is the chain that binds us to the law and from which grace seeks to set us free. Will we discover that our unrealized gains are actually realized losses before we even know it? Will the good news of Jesus set us free?