“That is a first world problem.” Have you heard that expression used lately? It is a phrase that has grown with social media over the last twenty years of so. The expression is commonly used to describe what may be irritants for those of us living in developed countries, but for those that are in developing parts of the world are not relevant.
In plain English, the underlying message of the expression “that is a first world problem” is: “suck it up, you are speaking from a place of privilege.” The phrase “that is a first world problem” is an attempt to place our trivial or minor problems or frustrations in context; that they are coming from a relatively affluent or privileged circumstance especially as contrasted with problems of greater social significance facing people in poor and underdeveloped parts of the world.
Now let’s be clear, getting socked by a hurricane or flood, is not a first world problem. Rather let me give you a taste of some examples of such “first world” irritations found on various social media: “I dislike having to drive four hours to our vacation home.” “The Wi-Fi at the resort was out for four hours.” “There was no almond milk at the breakfast buffet at the Hilton.” “Just had my praline spread confiscated by TSA at Dallas. As far as I'm concerned, the terrorists have now won.” “I really hate having to fly commercial with both ski boots and golf clubs.” “The TV show wasn't in HD.” “I tried to spread cold butter on my toast and the bread ripped.” “My Apple Watch didn't register the correct distance on my 10k run around the park.” “I asked for strawberry Chantilly in my Açai palm nuts and received chocolate instead.” “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
Oops! That last one “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain, doesn't belong in that list, or does it? It's something the apostle Paul had written found in today’s Scripture reading from Philippians. As we will come to discover that sentence from the Apostle Paul does not fit the First-World-problem definition. The Apostle Paul is not writing from minor irritation to the small church in Phillipi.
Now for me, the only proper response to those minor irritations on that list that I shared is “So Sad, So Bad, you are speaking from privilege!” But, this comment from the Apostle Paul, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” however, deserves a different response, like “WOW!” Now, we don’t know how the church in Phillipi reacted, but for us it is a punch into our faith gut level. We are to contemplate deeply what the Apostle Paul is suggesting because he sets the bar high for how we should think about living in faith.
To review why Paul may have written these words, let us remember that the Apostle Paul and his co-workers had founded the church in Philippi some years before this letter was written. Now several years later, when Paul wrote this letter, he was in prison in Rome, and the Philippian Christians were worried about him, knowing that he might be executed for preaching Christ. In fact, they had sent one of their members, Epaphroditus, to Paul with a gift and possibly a letter. As Epaphroditus was preparing to return home, Paul wrote this letter in response to the concerns expressed, so Epaphroditus could carry it to the believers in Philippi.
In that context, Paul's comment that living was all about Christ and dying was “gain” makes some sense. Essentially, Paul was saying something to the effect of, “Don't worry about me. My life is devoted to Christ, so if being faithful means I must be in chains, so be it. And if they should kill me, well I will receive eternal life and be with Christ forever.” The Message version written by Eugene Peterson paraphrases this text like this: “Everything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn't shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, I'm Christ's messenger; dead, I'm his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can't lose.”
But think about what Paul’s words might mean in our context here in 21st century United States, in this cacophony of words from political and cultural pundits of what constitutes irritations, what constitutes what is important. Of course, we are not in anything like the Apostle Paul's situation, but his words still challenge us to think about what matters when we discuss living in faith. In fact, that's the implied lesson of anything branded as a First World problem.
It's not really that those irritations like “I had too much food for lunch so now I am tired” do not have some impact, but that, in the larger perspective of life, not only do countless people go hungry every day, those irritations matter less and sometimes hardly at all. That's true whether we live in our culture or in what is termed the “developing world.” For example, Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole reminds us, “All the silly stuff of life doesn't disappear just because you're black and live in a poorer country.”
Instead when we hear the Apostle Paul’s words, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain,” there's spiritual value to applying that perspective to how we deal with the challenges and opportunities of life, and how we help or don't help those who are suffering because of the shortages or absences of life's necessities.
The Apostle Paul, in effect, urges us to remember that there's a future review of our lives before God, and there are also crucial days of decision and change in our current existence. The difficulty in choosing between the mocha or Frappuccino, or Bud light vs Miller lite is barely a level-one problem, if a problem at all. Deciding what to do about the needs of a suffering neighbor and the call of Christ are level-10 issues.
It is interesting that these words come up shortly after the devastation of several natural events, with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Now not to diminish that suffering but, sooner or later, we all face personal tragedies --- the bone-crushing depression that follows a marital breakup, the death of a loved one, the self-destructive behavior of one of our children, the terror of life-threatening illness or something else equally weighty. We get to know words like sickness, accident, misfortune, injury, setback, troubles, catastrophe, pain and hurt up close and personally. These are not just problems for those who live in the First World, but the human condition.
The Apostle Paul's words suggest that not only do we review what are truly irritations, but that we also are to take a faith view, a long-term view in life. For example, in an interview for Clarity magazine, writer Anne Lamott tells of an incident that helped her take a different faith perspective on her life. Also found in her book Traveling Mercies Link) She writes that she was raised to keep all her family secrets and present herself in such a way that people would be either envious or approving. But, she admitted that keeping up a façade like that takes a lot of energy. But one day, Anne visited her friend Pammy who was going through chemotherapy. Anne pointed to the dress she herself was wearing and asked Pammy if it made her look fat. Pammy looked at her and said, “Annie, you just don't have that kind of time.”
Anne wrote that Pammy's response was so profound, that “it was like I was in a cartoon and somebody conked me over the head. I got it.” Anne goes on to say that Pammy has since died, but Anne says that she still lives by what Pammy said to her that day. Ms. Lamott sums it up this way: “You don't have time to live a lie. You don't have time to get the world to approve of you. You only have the time to become the person you dream of being. You only have the time to clean out your mean and ugly spots, areas that drag you down and hurt other people. You only have the time to accept yourself as you are and start getting a little bit healthier so you can be who God needs you to be. In a way, it's exhilarating to say, ‘This is really who I am, and I'm not going to pretend just because I have the sneaking suspicion I'm not good enough.’ God meets you where you are.”
Perhaps this is what First World irritations can do for us. Not only can we recognize them for what they are, “most people do not have vacation homes so the fact that it takes you 4 hours to get to yours is not a big deal.” So not only can we put into context First World irritations in ourselves and other people, but in faith we can look at what really matters. That can even help us to see when something we're doing doesn't work. It is then that this fresh perspective of Paul's words can jog us in the right direction. So, when we are tempted to write on Facebook or in note to a friend as someone did that “slow internet is my generation’s Vietnam,” we can put it in perspective. We can say, “The death and sufferings of millions during the Vietnam war does not compare to your inability to see a picture on Instagram. Rather in faith, I can identify where people are suffering today and respond.”
It may be ironic that we are here assigning to First World problems the ability to help us keep things in perspective, because usually, it's problems at the other end of the scale that help us decide what's important. For example, after the hurricanes hit, invariably the media will find someone who have lost everything they owned, but whose loved ones have all survived, who say, “All that other stuff can be replaced. Our family members are okay. That's all that matters.”
Doesn’t that alone speak to where our lives are, why does it take massive destruction to reorient our lives?
T he late Ellsworth Kalas, a noted preacher, told of being a guest in Wichita Falls, Texas, about a year after that community had been brutally hit by a tornado in 1979. He was hosted in a new home, where the owner invited him to stand in a certain spot in the front hallway. The man said, “Our old home was on this same location. The storm leveled it to the ground. Everything. I came to see what was left. There in the rubble, at this very spot, was a football. I don't know whose it was or where it came from. I picked it up, looked at it, then kicked it as far as I could. It seemed the right thing to do.” After telling this story, Kalas said,
“It was a wonderfully symbolic act, after life's values had been so mercilessly put to the test.”
After being brought up short by Paul’s letter to the church in Phillipi, let us pause, wonder what complaints deserve the same kind of “kicking away.” What do we need to release into the ether for what they truly might be, “first world problems?” And in faith kick them away to focus. In the church, by the way we call this “kicking away” --- repentance. That word does not just refer to turning from sin but turning from stuff that really doesn't matter and turning instead to God that does.
The Apostle Paul's words can help us clarify our priorities. His words call us to ground our experiences in trust in God as well as to build upon our faith given by grace --- toward what God calls us to be. Paul while sitting in prison is expanding the vision of where God is and who God loves. In his lifetime, he has seen his own people dispersed, the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed, problems in the faith communities he had established, shipwrecks and now sitting in prison.
As people seeking to be renewed in our faith, we are to live within faith not necessarily to add more layers but in trust live faithfully. This involves taking risks that move us out of comfort not just through our minor irritations, but into exploring its dusty corners. The Apostle Paul’s words remind us that it may be “irritating to have a cut on our finger making it difficult to use our cell phones.” For we must deal with some small stuff simply to function in the world, but let us not confuse the small stuff with what other people face around this world, and let us not experience hurricanes to remind us that each day we can devote some of our time and energy towards the things that matter most, both in this life and later in God’s hands. Rather, for we are all alive in faith, like Paul at the limit, curling our toes over the edge, feeling the mist in our throats and fog in our throats. Let us live daily in Christ with the assurance that whether we are alive or dead we belong to Christ. Amen.