TGC’s “Thorns & Thistles” column seeks to apply wisdom with practical advice about faith, work, and economics. If you have a question on how to think about and practice your work in a way that honors God, let us know at [email protected].
What’s the difference between pouring yourself out (Phil. 2:17) and wearing yourself out?
This question has gripped me for a while now. But as I considered the ways I should approach answering it, I realized that none of the issues on my mind were on Paul’s mind in Philippians 2.
Paul is describing the possibility of his death at the hands of the Romans as persecution for his faith. That means at least three things:
First, to state the obvious, Paul will have nothing left to give. This isn’t a question of whether his ministry or work is sustainable. After his death, Paul is completely poured out.
Second, Paul isn’t the one doing the pouring here. His fate is in the hands of the legal authorities and Paul has no say in the manner. This isn’t a question of how much agency Paul has in his work.
Third, Paul’s death would be completely unjust, to put it mildly.
If you had asked me in a vacuum for three issues to consider when evaluating a work environment, I would have asked, “Is it sustainable? Are you giving so much because you want to or because you’re being forced to? Is your environment healthy or toxic?” Paul’s situation in jail “fails” all three questions! And yet Paul can look at this situation—the possibility of being unjustly murdered by the state—and see it as an offering to God.
The secret is perspective. Paul can describe this situation as being “poured out as a drink offering” rather than any number of negative ways (like being “worn out”) because he trusts God. He can see his death as a pleasing offering to God. Why? Because ultimately God is the one in control. Paul can take comfort in God’s sovereignty, trusting that God would bring good fruit even out of his death.
It shouldn’t surprise us that Paul would view “being poured out” as a matter of perspective. In Philippians 4:11–13, Paul tells us that he has learned the secret to contentment in every situation, whether objectively good or objectively bad. Christ strengthens him in every situation he faces.
So, the first answer to the difference between pouring yourself out and wearing yourself out is your perspective. Who is ultimately doing the pouring? Who ultimately determines the fruit of what happens?
If Paul can describe his potential death as being poured out, and if Paul can say he’s learned contentment in every situation, then so can we.
If Paul can describe his potential death as being poured out, and if Paul can say he’s learned contentment in every situation, then so can we. Whatever uncomfortable, unsustainable, unjust situation we find ourselves in, we can have the same perspective as Paul—God is in control, God will bear fruit, and our “pouring out” is a gift that pleases God. As Paul exhorts us in Philippians 4:4, we can rejoice in the Lord always!
Pouring Out and Filling Up
Paul tells us the secret to bearing whatever situation we find ourselves in, but that doesn’t mean we should endeavor to remain in whatever situation we are in. After all, he advises bondservants to get their freedom if possible (1 Cor. 7:21). If we’re in a situation that is akin to being unjustly killed by the Romans, it might be wise to shift gears.
We see this dynamic in Paul’s reasoning in Philippians 1:19–26. Paul isn’t in control of whether or not he dies, but he is weighing the outcomes that would be gained by the two possibilities. He could die and be with Jesus, and that’s the best for Paul. But to remain alive would mean fruitful labor.
Like Paul, we don’t always get to choose. Sometimes the situations we’re in, whether that’s a demanding season at work or a new baby at home or a family emergency, mean we pour out and pour out and pour out.
But often we do get to choose. We may be able to take a vacation, a day off, or a nap. We may be able to adjust our schedules or hire more help. Use this as your litmus test: if you’re unable to find time to fill yourself up on God’s Word or with God’s people, something has to change. A person who is filled up can pour out. A person who is dry can only wear out.
Like Paul, let’s choose, if we can, to bear more fruit—not in our own strength, but with with help of the Spirit for the glory of God. Then we, like Paul, can be “glad and rejoice with you all” (Phil. 2:17).