"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God's good pleasure." — Philippians 2:12-13
This passage reminds me of those jokes in which someone asks, "I've got some good news and some bad news. Which do you want to hear first?"
I'm inclined by temperament to want the bad news at once, so the bad news from Paul comes first: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." Uh oh! This sounds to me like a counsel of despair, for who among us has the power to save ourselves? Is this the ultimate bad self-help advice? And that "fear and trembling" part is scary.
So what's the good news? The good news is that Paul knows this salvation process is a collaboration with God "who is at work in you."
That's sounds much better, because only with God at work in us can we ever choose and accomplish the things that please God.
And what pleases God? Today's passage follows directly after a beautiful hymn that describes how Jesus, in humble obedience to God, emptied himself of privilege and power to become a servant. Apparently that is the sort of thing that contributes to God's "good pleasure."
O Jesus, before your name every knee should bend on heaven and earth, help us day by day to follow in your way, that both our will and our works may please God.
Richard L. Floyd is Pastor Emeritus of First Church of Christ (UCC) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and author of A Course In Basic Christianity and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement. He blogs at richardlfloyd.com.