Often I have heard Christians speak of what we should do with the Word of God. They stress that we should study it, or we should memorize it, or we should recite it in worship, or we should teach it, or we should spread it, or we should obey it. Each of these suggestions is good, but as I read Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, I find myself wondering whether we have been putting the emphasis on the wrong side of the equation. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul speaks of the “word of God” being “at work in you who believe.” Rather than asking, “What should I do with the Word of God?” perhaps the more important question to ask is, “What is the Word of God doing in me?”
As I contemplate this question, other things the Bible says about itself come to mind:
Psalm 119:105 describes the Word of God as “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” Am I letting the Bible shed light into my ignorance, my prejudices, and my sinful attitudes and habits? Am I allowing the Bible to provide insight to my outlooks, understanding to my misconceptions, and direction to the way I live?
Jeremiah 23:29 suggests that God’s Word is like “like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.” Am I letting the Bible break down my pride, my arrogance, my stubbornness, my callousness toward others, my apathy, and my prejudices?
Ephesians 6:17 calls the Word of God “the sword of the Spirit.” Am I relying upon Scripture to defend me in my spiritual battles?
Hebrews 4:12 adds that the Word of God is “sharper than any double-edged sword” and that it “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit.” Am I letting the Bible do its needed surgery in my soul? Am I letting it cut into my heart so as to expose the falsehoods that lie there? Am I allowing the Bible to cut sin out of me?
And 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that Scripture is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness that the person of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Am I letting the Bible train me and correct me and equip me and challenge me to be a better person? Am I seeking for the Bible to help me to grow in the likeness of Christ, with His integrity, humility, kindness, compassion, and courage, so that I can do good works?
An unknown writer remarked, “I am the Bible, God’s wonderful library…. To the weary pilgrim, I am a strong staff. To the one who sits in darkness, I am glorious light. To those who stumble beneath heavy burdens, I am sweet rest. To those who have lost their way, I am a safe guard. To those who are sick in sin, I am healing strength and forgiveness. To the discouraged, I am a glad message of hope. To those who are distressed and tossed about by the storms of life, I am an anchor, sure and steadfast.”
What a great and terrifying thing it is when the Word of God is at work in a believer!
When I was in high school, some friends and I cut school a day early for a backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park over Memorial Weekend. We planned out a round trip which required us to cover a set distance each day, but from the beginning, everything seemed to go wrong. Our car broke down along the way, and we had to wait for one of the parents to switch vehicles with us. We had further car trouble along the way, so we got started hiking much later than we had planned. On top of that, we brought raw chicken to cook our first night, but as it sat in the hot, broken-down car, it went bad, so the next morning, one of our group woke up with food poisoning. We waited around for much of the day, but being foolish, self-centered high school students who were intent on completing our loop, we did what one should never do to a friend: We left him behind and hiked on without him. (Fortunately, he caught up with us the next day). Since we started late again, we felt driven to reach our planned camping spot even though the sun set before we got there. We pressed on in the dark with a couple of feeble flashlights until we completely lost the trail. We set down our sleeping bags and fell asleep. Early the next morning, I woke up, climbed out of my sleeping bag, took a few steps and looked down a sheer cliff that any one of us might have tripped over in the dark. We were so focused on reaching our destination (completing the loop) that we risked the life of our friend while leaving him behind, and we risked our own lives while hiking in the dark.
Since that time I have grown up a bit, and I have learned that the destination is never more important than the people who accompany us along the way. And I have learned that the most important goal to reach is not a point on the map but the kind of person I am becoming.
John Maxwell said, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”
As I read Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, it seems clear to me that Paul knew where he was going (he was intent on helping the Thessalonians to grow in the likeness of Christ). He was going that way himself (he was growing in the likeness of Christ). And he was showing them the way (he was demonstrating Christ-likeness in how he lived with them).
In verses 7-12 he writes, “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory.”
Quite some time ago, Pastor Mark Thompson of Faribault, Minnesota, suffered terrible knife wounds from an assailant in his home. One of consequences of his difficult recovery was being forced to miss watching his son Chris run in the state cross-country championship meet. Pastor Thompson asked his brother Merv to go in his place. According to an account in the St. Paul Pioneer Press & Dispatch, Mark told his brother, “I can’t be there to see Chris run, so I want you there at the beginning of the race. Holler a lot…. Then at the end, I want you to really cheer loudly. And I want you to make your voice sound like mine.” With his uncle’s encouragement, Chris ran a strong race, finishing in second place. Merv, also a pastor recognized the theological significance of what he did: “That’s what Jesus wants us to do,” he said. “Make your voice sound like mine.” (Leadership Journal, summer, 1989)
This is the task given to Christians: Cheer people on toward the goal of growing more and more like Christ, while making our voice sound like His.
A made-up story is told of Jesus’ return to heaven after His time on earth. The angel Gabriel approached Him and asked, “Master, do they know all about how You loved them and about what You did for them?”
“No,” Jesus replied, “not yet. Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know.”
Gabriel was perplexed. “Then what have You done to let everyone know about Your love for them?”
Jesus said, “I’ve asked Peter, James, John, and a few others to tell people about Me. Those who are told will tell others, and My story will spread throughout the earth. Ultimately, people all around the world will know about My love.”
Gabriel frowned, “But what if they fail? Do you have another plan?”
Jesus answered, “No. I’m counting on them.”
Though the conversation is fictional, the message it conveys is accurate: For some strange reason, God has chosen to spread His story throughout the world through fallible people like you and me.
In his book, Severe Mercy, Sheldon Van Auken writes a few sentences that should deeply challenge and humble every Christian. He writes, “The best argument for Christianity is Christians—their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians—when they’re self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration. When they’re narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.”
We have the capacity to attract people to Christ or to repulse people from Christ, depending on whether we reveal to others the love and joy and goodness Christ is growing in us, or whether hypocrisy, nasty attitudes, and self-interest flow out of us.
From what Paul shares in 1 Thessalonians 1:8, God’s strategy was working in Thessalonica: “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.”
People from northern to southern Greece and beyond were being drawn to Christ because of what they saw in the Thessalonian believers.
God’s strategy worked in my life, too—particularly through a woman named Fran Watron. She was my Sunday School teacher when I was a rowdy, obnoxious and rebellious Junior High School student, but I watched her conduct herself consistently with love and joy and goodness. Despite her struggles with debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, she exhibited peace, patience, endurance and joy. I watched the compassionate and caring way she interacted with a friend of hers who lived with severe Cerebral Palsy. I experienced her incredible patience toward me and her caring interest in me. Through her I was drawn to Christ.
God’s strategy is both risky and wonderful. Tragically, many people have run away from Christ because of the hypocrisy, nasty attitudes and selfishness they have encountered in Christians. But others, like myself, have been drawn to Christ through the love and joy and goodness of Christians we have known.
I pray for God to prune from my life those attributes in me that drive others away from Christ, and I pray for God to grow in me the fruit of the Spirit that will draw others to Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
David Brooks, an editorialist with The New York Times observes, “It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral—whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love? We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our education systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.” (April 11, 2015)
God is far more concerned with building eulogy virtues in us than résumé qualities. God is far more concerned about our inner character than our career success.
In the opening of his letter to the Christians in Thessaloniki, the apostle Paul affirms the eulogy virtues that God was growing in the lives of the believers there. In 1 Thessalonians 1:3 he writes, “We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I am struck by Paul’s choice of wording here. He focuses his attention not on virtues as philosophical concepts but on the fruit (the living out of) the virtues in the lives of the Thessalonians.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated, “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” Paul “hears” the virtues of the Thessalonians through what they were doing.
He “hears” their faith by the work it produced. Faith is not merely a matter of the heart or mind but of one’s life and one’s body. James 1:22 warns, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” In his book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Dr. Paul Brand writes, “A certain bridge in South America consists of interlocking vines supporting a precariously swinging platform hundreds of feet above a river. I know the bridge has supported hundreds of people over many years, and as I stand at the edge of the chasm I can see people confidently crossing the bridge. The engineer in me wants to weigh all the factors—measure the stress tolerances of the vines, test the wood for termites, survey all the bridges in the area for one that might be stronger. I could spend a lifetime determining whether the bridge is fully trustworthy. But eventually, if I really want to cross, I must take a step. When I put my weight on that bridge and walk across, even though my heart is pounding and my knees are shaking, I am declaring my position.”
Paul affirmed the faith of the Thessalonians not because they had good thoughts, but because they stepped out; they did the kind of “work” that was in keeping with their faith.
He also “hears” their love, not on the basis of their sentiment but on the basis of their “labor.” Love is recognized not by what one feels but by what one does. Brennan Manning stresses, “The etymology of the word compassion lies in two Latin words cum and patior, meaning ‘to suffer with,’ to endure with, to struggle with, and to partake of the hunger, nakedness, loneliness, pain, and broken dreams of our brothers and sisters in the human family. Commitment to Jesus Christ without compassion for His people is a lie.” (A Glimpse of Jesus, p. 124)
And Paul “hears” the hope of the Thessalonians through the endurance they exhibited. While covering news during World War II, the Army transport plane Eric Sevareid was riding in over Burma developed engine trouble. He and others parachuted out. Victor Parachin records what happened: “They parachuted deep into the mountainous jungles of the Burma-India border. Once on the ground, they had to begin a painful, plodding march out of the jungle to meet up with friendly forces. ‘We were faced with a 140-mile trek, over mountains, in August heat and monsoon rains,’ Sevareid recalls. During the first hour of the march, he accidentally stepped on a nail that punctured deeply into one foot. By evening he had bleeding blisters the size of 50-cent coins on both feet. ‘Could I hobble 140 miles? Could the others, some in worse shape than I, complete such a distance? We were convinced we could not. But we could hobble to that rise, we could make the next friendly village for the night. And that, of course was all we had to do.’” (Reported in “Tending a Wounded Heart,” Positive Thinking, Dec. 2002, p. 28-29) Hope is recognized on the basis of endurance. That’s what Paul recognized in the Thessalonians: Despite persecution and obstacles, they kept plodding along in their commitment to Christ.
May God grow in me (and in you) the eulogy virtues of faith, love and hope.
The Gospel of Matthew records the story of Joseph and Mary and Jesus fleeing for their lives to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18). William Murray summarizes what happened: “Jesus, as a small boy, knew the pain of fleeing a bloody land where the innocent were slaughtered. He saw the terror in His mother’s eyes as His family fled at night, hurriedly and quietly under the cover of darkness for fear of discovery. A death sentence had been issued by Herod the Great for Him and every male child under the age of two.”
When you have a personal taste of the anguish of another, it is difficult not to care about those who are going through such anguish.
While working in Iraq with Samaritan’s Purse and ministering to people who have had to flee their homes and villages under threat of death from ISIS, Caryn Pederson has developed compassion for displaced persons, and she has noticed the connection to what Mary, Joseph, and Jesus endured. She writes, “After fleeing for their lives, displaced Iraqis now have to endure another threat: winter….
“‘These people are fleeing a depth of persecution and evil I can’t comprehend,’ said Ron Keegan, a Samaritan’s Purse staff member in Iraq.
“The same was true for Mary and Joseph. Meeting those who escaped ISIS’ beheadings—leaving homes, cars, and businesses behind—made Herod’s slaughter of all boys under two-years-old more real to me. I have a new appreciation for the sacrifices Jesus and His family made at the beginning of His life and not just at the end of it. After Mary had already endured scorn over her pregnancy and delivered her baby in a place designed for animals, she fled on a night’s notice to a place with strange customs, living as a refugee in order to save her son.
“As I remember the cold and the living conditions of displaced people in Iraq, I will pray for their protection and thank my Savior, once a refugee, for another layer of His love for the world.”
When you have a personal taste of the anguish of another, it is difficult not to care about those who are going through such anguish.
That’s the kind of God we meet in Jesus—a God who has experienced human anguish and who cares deeply for those facing such anguish themselves.
In his book In the Company of Jesus, Bill Donahue offers an insight about John’s report of Jesus crying at the tomb of Lazarus in John 11: “I think the Son of Man wept because he had no alternative. It was the full expression of His humanity. If Jesus couldn’t weep at the death of a close friend, surrounded by grieving family and neighbors, then He may have been God but He was no human. The assertion that ‘the Word became flesh’ would have been a cruel hoax.”
Fortunately, the claim that God became flesh is not a cruel hoax. God became one of us and endured human anguish, and He cares deeply enough to cry with us!
Where does that leave us now?
The God who became one of us endured human anguish and cares immensely for those who are facing human anguish of any form, and He calls us to be His expression of such care in the world today.
Pope Francis argues, “Just as He is merciful, so we are called to be merciful to each other…. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love.”
May we never turn a cold heart toward those who are in anguish!
Sometimes people miss out on a treasure by not recognizing its worth.
An elderly man in Sun City, Arizona, had been storing in his garage a Jackson Pollock painting that has been estimated to be worth up to $15 million. The painting was discovered when appraiser Josh Levine was asked to evaluate the man’s belongings.
When Debbie and I had the privilege of visiting Turkey several years ago, we toured the Topkopi Museum on the grounds of what had been the Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul. We saw an 82 carat diamond there—the fourth largest diamond in the world. When I walked to the opposite side of the room, I was still dazzled by the light shining from that diamond. According to legend, that diamond was found in a garbage heap by a poor man who traded it at the market for three spoons.
That gets me wondering about all the people in Bethlehem who missed out on the greatest treasure of all when Jesus was born.
But Magi from the east recognized the abounding worth of the One who was born on Christmas day. They brought to this child gifts that were in keeping with His worth. They brought gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Who gives such costly gifts?
Two kinds of people come to mind:
1: Lovers give great gifts for they choose gifts that match the height and depth and breadth of their love for the person.
Henry tells the story of a young couple, named Jim and Della, who wanted to buy for each other the best Christmas gift possible. The problem is that they were desperately poor. Della wanted to buy a platinum chain for Jim’s prized gold pocket watch, but she had only $1.87. Out of love for Him, she made the ultimate sacrifice: she cut and sold her beautiful, long, thick, brown hair for enough money to buy the chain. Meanwhile Jim set out to buy a lovely set of combs for Della’s beautiful hair. Not having enough money for the gift, Jim made the ultimate sacrifice for Della: he sold his prized pocket watch for the money to buy the combs. Both sacrificed their prized possession to give a gift of love to the other. You might think that what they did was a foolish waste of their resources and that everything turned out wrong. Indeed, in the final paragraph of the story, O. Henry concedes, “I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house.” Yet O. Henry concludes by affirming the worth of their gifts by the value of their love: “But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest…. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.”
Lovers give gifts that match the height and depth and breadth of their love. When I find myself being stingy about my gifts to God, it is time for me to come back to the basics and to ask myself, “How much (or how little) do I love God?”
2: Those who are grateful give great gifts for they give gifts that flow out of the depth of their gratitude.
Until his death from esophageal cancer in 2007, Larry Stewart gave away $100 bills to 500 people every year at Christmas time in Kansas City, Missouri. He did it anonymously and was known only as “Secret Santa” until the year before he died. Donna McGuire told his story in the Kansas City Star: “That story begins in 1971 in Houston, Mississippi…. The man-who-would-become-Santa was a young salesman then. His employer went out of business. After losing his job, Santa slept in the car eight nights. Out of gas and money, Santa turned to a local church for assistance. But the person who oversaw a fund to help poor people was gone the day he inquired. The next morning, Santa walked into the Dixie Diner, ordered a huge breakfast, slowly sipped coffee refills and planned how he could escape without paying. Finally, he feigned losing his wallet. The owner—who was the cook, the waiter and the cashier—lifted a counter top door, reached toward the floor and acted as if he had picked up something.
“‘You must have dropped this,’ the owner said, handing the young man $20.
“As he drove away, [Stewart] thought about how fortunate he was. Suddenly, it occurred to him that no one had dropped that money. ‘Cookie’ behind the counter helped in a way that allowed [Stewart] to keep his dignity. Later that year, [Stewart] found a sales job in Kansas City, and continued living from paycheck to paycheck. One cold day shortly before Christmas 1979, he pulled up to a little drive-in restaurant in Independence. The carhop looked so cold and miserable, Santa decided to give her the change from $20. Her face glowed. Santa smiled. He went to his bank and withdrew more money. He didn’t have a lot to give then, but his spree had begun. These days, Santa, who has become a successful Jackson County businessman, hands out $50,000 or more each Christmas. And he’s never forgotten the person who got him started.”
Those who are grateful give gifts that match their gratitude. When I find myself being stingy about my gifts to God, it is time for me to come back to the basics and to ask myself, “How grateful am I to God for all He has done for me?”
More often than a Christian likes to admit, faith is a challenge to us. We want to trust God, but things turn out differently than we anticipated or wanted, and we don’t know how to handle the disruption to our expectations.
Such seems to have been the case with Joseph when he was engaged to be married to Mary. The Bible tells us that Joseph was a “righteous” man; he wanted to trust God. But he received a severe blow to his expectations. He found out that Mary was pregnant…and he knew that the child she was carrying had not come from him! What was he to do?
The Bible reports that Joseph “considered this.” The English translation sounds so calm, but the original Greek paints a different picture. The Greek word translated into English as “considered” in Matthew 1:20 is enthumathentos. It comes from the combination of two Greek words, en, meaning “in” or “with,” and thumos, meaning “anger,” “fury,” “rage,” or “intense feeling.”
When Joseph heard that Mary was pregnant (not from him), he did not calmly and emotionlessly consider what to do next, he stormed internally. The emotions in him erupted with fury, rage, and anger.
Or consider the situation from Mary’s perspective. She is called upon to give birth to the Son of God, but nobody understands. Even the man she is engaged to doesn’t believe her and assumes the worst about her. Though she is trying to be faithful, she finds herself in a scandalous position. Matthew reports that Joseph could have exposed her “to public disgrace,” which could have included having her stoned to death. Even thirty years later, questions about the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth were raised. In the midst of an argument between Jesus and the Pharisees, recorded in John 8, the Pharisees stressed that they were “not illegitimate children,” leaving hanging in the air the insinuation that Jesus was illegitimate. A bit later in the conflict between the two, they replaced the insinuation with an outright accusation. In verse 48 they say, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” They accuse Mary not just of having sex outside of marriage, but of having it with a hated Samaritan! If such accusations were flying around 30 years after Jesus’ birth, we may wonder whether the reason Mary left Nazareth in the ninth month of her pregnancy to accompany Joseph when he had to go to Bethlehem for the census may have been because it was more uncomfortable to her to have stayed in Nazareth with people gossiping about her than it was to walk 70 miles on dusty roads to Bethlehem.
The Christmas story confronts us with the reality of the Christian faith that even when (or perhaps especially when) we are seeking to be “righteous” and trying to fulfill faithfully God’s call to us, things turn out differently than we anticipated or wanted.
But here’s the good news of the Christmas story: Even when our expectations are disrupted, leaving us in the midst of confusion, disappointment, or struggle, God is with us! That is the good news the angel shared with Joseph, telling him to wed Mary for the baby she would give birth to would be called Immanuel, “which means ‘God with us.’”
Ever since Christmas day, that’s the good news we live with (through all of the ups and downs of our lives): God is with us!
To say that things did not turn out the way Jerry Sittser anticipated or wanted would be to understate his grief by a thousand miles. In an instant, he lost his mother, his wife, and one of his daughters when a drunk driver slammed into his car. In the midst of deep pain and anger, he turned his heart to the miracle of God becoming one of us at Christmas. He writes, “God embraced human experience and lived with all the ambiguities and struggles that characterize life on earth…. His sovereignty did not protect him from loss. If anything, it led him to suffer loss for our sake…. The God I know has experienced pain and therefore understands my pain…. The incarnation means that God cares so much that he chose to become human and suffer loss, though he never had to…. He is not aloof from my suffering but draws near to me when I suffer. He is vulnerable to pain, quick to shed tears, and acquainted with grief. God is a suffering Sovereign who feels the sorrow of the world.
“The incarnation has left a permanent imprint on me. For three years now I have cried at every communion service I have attended. I have not only brought my pain to God but also felt as never before the pain God suffered for me. I have mourned before God because I know that God has mourned too. God understands suffering because God suffered.” (A Grace Disguised, p. 158-159)
The good news of Christmas is not that we will get what we want but that, even in the worst messes of this world, God is with us!