In the epistle for the Second Sunday of Lent (Phil. 3:17-4:1), St. Paul laments those whom he calls enemies of the cross of Christ: For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil 3:18).
What does it mean to be an enemy of the cross? And how do people end up in this condition of being inimical to the very thing and the very One who alone can save them? St. Paul not only laments the situation, but shows how they get into this condition. He does so in a very succinct way, in one verse, as we shall see below.
But first, let’s rescue the word enemy from too narrow an understanding. In modern (American) English the word “enemy” tends to be associated with a distant foe, perhaps one with missiles aimed at us or armies ready to conquer us. It is often reserved for those who threaten our life or are opposed to us in the most extreme ways. In practice it is considered almost impolite to refer to difficult people who oppose us in some way as enemies.
Enemy comes from the Latin inimici. And while inimici is best translated “enemies,” its roots are in (not) + amicus (friend). So our enemies are those who are not our friends, who oppose our values, who do not wish us well or stand ready to assist us.
This understanding helps us to grasp that enemies may be very close to home, not merely on distant shores. Enemies are not just those who plot the most serious hostilities against us. Thus, when Jesus tells us to love our enemies He has more in mind than just a distant group in some foreign land. He is also referring to those who are near—even within our own families—who are not friendly, who oppose us or the things and people we value.
So when St. Paul speaks of those who are enemies of the cross of Christ, he is not just referring to those who go around tearing crucifixes off walls or demanding that crosses be removed from public property. In his very brief description, St. Paul emphasizes an opposition that escalates from mere worldliness to the outright idolatry of comfort and pleasure. Indeed, if we take St. Paul seriously and are honest with ourselves, some of us who have crucifixes in our homes and march in processions with the crucifix before us as we sing “Lift High the Cross” might find that we are in some opposition to the cross.
So let’s take a deeper look at St. Paul’s description of the enemies of the cross of Christ. St. Paul describes the inimical stance of some in a fourfold way: Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Phil 3:19).
St. Paul, like many ancient authors, states the result first, followed by the causes. Because that is not the usual way to present a point of view, in the reflection that follows I am going to reverse St. Paul’s order. By reversing his order, I will try to show how things can escalate so that one can become an enemy of the cross.
The text says, For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Phil 3:18-19).
St. Paul describes the escalation that can make a person more and more an enemy of the cross of Christ.
I. Foolish Preoccupations – The text says that the enemies of the cross are characterized by having minds set on earthly things.
Of the threefold origin of temptation (the world, the flesh, and the devil), the world is understood not so much as a physical place in which we live, but as a mindset, a collection of thoughts, priorities, premises, values, and goals that are opposed to God and His Word. The fundamental values and priorities of this world include the amassing of possessions, power, prestige, and pleasure. Goals such as autonomy and instant gratification, and views rooted in materialism, secularism, anthropocentrism, secular humanism, utilitarianism, and utopianism are emphasized.
There are many in this world who not only accept these flawed premises and values, but also advance them. They do this because when one follows the world’s agenda, one is frequently rewarded with wealth, access, popularity, and approval.
But we were not made for these things. The finite world cannot satisfy the infinite desires that are within us. The world may well grant us temporary comforts and benefits, but in the end it takes everything back and assigns us to a stone-cold tomb.
For this reason, having our minds set on earthly things is a foolish preoccupation. Scripture says,
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:15-17).
In a world that tells us to “scratch where it itches,” there is going to be a cross of self-denial and of trusting God, who teaches us that we are made for more than mere trinkets. The world and devil promise pleasure now and then send you the bill later. The Lord speaks to sacrifice and discipline now and points to the fruits and blessings that come later.
To refuse this and insist exclusively on pleasure now is to become an enemy of the cross of Christ, who warns us to refuse to give our hearts over to the false promises and passing pleasures of this world. We are to crucify our excessive passions and desires (Gal 5:24). We are not to conform to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, so that we may be able to test and approve what God’s will is (Rom 12:2).
Historically, this has meant the cross and suffering for Christians who live this way. The world and the consensus it desires (and often demands) does not take lightly the rejection inherent in true Christianity. The long legacy of persecution and hatred of Christians demonstrates this. It is one thing to choose to live our values in a personal way, but it is quite another to stand opposed (as we must) to the excesses and errors of the world and to seek to snatch others from its illusions and false promises. Marketers, industrialists, politicians, advocacy groups, ideologues, and the like all depend on a widespread “buy-in” in order for their products, projects, and schemes to advance. If we are not easily manipulated by the fears, anxieties, and guilt that the world uses to separate us from our love and loyalty to God, and our basic sense of truth, we are “off-message.” We must, therefore, be silenced, either by pressure to conform or through shame. And if these do not work, then persecution: the cross.
But Scripture warns us that such crosses must be endured. Jesus says, If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you (John 15:19-20). And St. James adds, You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4).
Many Christians find resisting the world and its errant demands a cross too difficult to bear. It is easier to cave in to the world’s demands, to “go along to get along.” This can be done in a thousand little ways through small and growing compromises, or in larger, clearer ways in which one denies truths of the faith in order to receive the praise of men and the blessings that come with conformity to the ways of the world.
To the degree that this happens in our life, we subtly and increasingly become enemies of the cross of Christ. We refuse the self-denial that is necessary and foolishly set our mind on worldly things, which can neither save nor satisfy.
II Festive Perversions – The text says of the enemies of the cross that they glory in their shame.
As people deepen their alliance with the ways of the world, their initial compunction is gradually and steadily eroded by rationalization and by surrounding themselves with teachers who tickle their ears (2 Tim 4:3). St. Paul speaks of those who, on account of their sinfulness, suppress the truth. Claiming to be wise, they become fools as their senseless minds are darkened (Rom 1:18, 21).
And as the darkness deepens, not only do they move further away from repentance, but they actually glory in their shame. Of their lack of shame over sinful acts. St. Paul says, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them (Rom 1:32).
And thus today we live in times of “gay pride” parades and the celebration of “gender diversity.” Further, there are movies that glorify mob violence and political corruption and glamorize all sorts of evil. Some forms of music celebrate rebellion, hatred of authority, and misogyny. “Greed is good” was the theme of a movie about Wall Street in the late 1980s.
Being an enemy of the cross of Christ deepens in this stage. Not only are the crosses of self-control, self-discipline, and living within limits set aside due to human weakness, but now there is a prideful “doubling-down” in which one declares that what God calls sin ought instead to be celebrated.
This gradually becomes an outright mockery of the cross of Christ because it would seem to say that Jesus died for nothing, that the sins He died to save us from are not only not sins but are actually things worth celebrating.
These enemies of the cross see any limits as unreasonable. And if this weren’t bad enough, as their inimical stance to the cross deepens they celebrate their rejection as a virtue of which to be proud. Their glory in their shame is a twisted and deformed version of tolerance; anyone who does not join in their celebration is guilty of one of the few sins left in their worldview: intolerance. Traditional biblical morality now becomes a form of hate, of intolerant bigotry.
This leads to a de facto rejection of God, at least the true God of Scripture:
III. Fallen Passions – The texts says of the enemies of the cross, their god is their belly.
At some point the enmity toward the cross grows deep enough that the passions and pleasures of the world reach a godlike status, and indulging them becomes in effect a form of idolatry. All human beings struggle at some level with unruly passions and desires. But as long as we struggle and engage in the battle we are still clinging to the cross. Having rejected the cross by outright glorying in their shame, enemies of the Cross now begin to imbue their sins with a kind of godlike quality.
We know how easily money can become like a god to some; they give their whole life over to its acquisition. For them it is the most worthy and valuable thing they have. It is at the center, where God properly belongs.
In the sexual arena the idolatry is more subtle, but it is still evident in the way some talk. Consider that many today attribute their sexually irregular state to God Himself. They say, “God made me this way” and speak of sins and sinful desires as a gift from God. Some equate their desire with the very voice of God; the simple fact that they have a desire must mean that God put it there, and if God put it there it must be good.
In this way a fallen and disordered desire is thought to come from the very voice and will of God, and should therefore be accorded the reverence and obedience due to God Himself.
In this third stage, those who entertain such notions have entered idolatry’s clutches. In effect, they reinvent God and ignore His actual revelation in Scripture and Sacred Tradition. But a reinvented god is not the one, true God, and to worship and obey such a false god is idolatrous.
IV. Final Place – The text says of these enemies of the Cross: their end is destruction.
Only the true Christ and His true cross can save. Those who stand opposed to the cross embrace a poor destiny indeed. An old litany says, “Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.” And so we see how our stances deepen within us, either for or against God.
It is therefore a serious matter to permit enmity for the cross to grow within us in any way. It begins with simple weakness and aversion to the more difficult and narrow way of the cross. Then we begin to surround ourselves with teachers who assure us that our sins aren’t all that important or even that we can outright celebrate our sins. This then leads to a growing form of idolatry in which we reinvent and reimagine God, going so far as to call our sinful desires godly. The final stage is destruction, for a fake god, an idol, cannot save us. Only the One true God, who told us to take up our cross daily, can save us.
Beware the tendency to become an enemy of the cross of Christ. Spare us, O Lord, from our foolish tendency to substitute false religion. With St. Paul and all the saints may I be determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).