Before meeting Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was a rigid theologian. He was leading the way in prosecuting those whom he deemed to be heretics. Following his conversion, Paul continued to focus more intently on arguing the merits of our faith than on loving people toward God. So in Damascus he “baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 9:22). But it didn’t take long for the people in Damascus to conspire to kill him. Upon fleeing to Jerusalem, he went back to his custom of debating people (Acts 9:29), but when he was sent away, Luke reports that “the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace” (Acts 9:31). Eventually, Paul’s rigidity resulted in a division from his missionary partner who had been nicknamed Son-of-encouragement (Barnabas) by the Christian community (Acts 15:36-40).
Somewhere along the line, though, Paul matured in his faith, and as Christ’s character rubbed off on him, Paul learned the truth of what Madeleine L’Engle would write many centuries later, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Paul learned that the most important thing we can do is to love one another. In Colossians 2:1-2 he stressed, “For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for all who have never seen me face to face. I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love….”
I appreciate Paul’s choice of words here. Love (both that which is given and that which is received) encourages our souls and unites us (or binds us together).
Encouragement: In his book Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Album records an encounter he had with Morrie Schwartz while Morrie was dying of ALS. The encounter begins with advice from Morrie to Mitch: “‘Invest in the human family. Invest in people. Build a little community of those you love and who love you.’ He squeezed my hand gently. I squeezed back harder. And like that carnival contest where you bang a hammer and watch the disk rise up the pole, I could almost see my body heat rise up Morrie’s chest and neck into his cheeks and eyes. He smiled.” The love they shared together brought not only encouragement to their souls but even warmth to Morrie’s body.
Continuing on, “‘In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive, right? And at the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right?’ His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘But here’s the secret: in between, we need others as well.’” (p. 157)
Pearl Buck remarks, “The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.” For the health of our souls, we need to love and to be loved by one another.
Unity: An unknown writer shares, “My mother used to ask me, ‘What is the most important part of the body?’ When I was younger, I thought sound was very important, so I said, ‘My ears, Mommy.’
“She said, ‘No. Many people are deaf. But you keep thinking about it, and I will ask you another time.’ Several years passed before she asked me again. Since making my first attempt, I had contemplated the question. This time I told her, ‘Mommy, sight is very important to everybody, so it must be our eyes.’
“She looked at me and told me, ‘You are learning fast, but the answer is not correct because there are many people who are blind.’ Stumped again, I continued my quest for knowledge. Over the years, Mother asked me a couple more times and always her answer was, ‘No, but you are getting smarter every year, my child.’
“Last year, my grandpa died. Everybody was crying. Even my father cried. My mom looked at me when it was our turn to say our final good-bye to Grandpa. She asked me, ‘Do you know the most important body part yet, my dear?’ I was shocked when she asked me this now. I always thought this was a game between her and me. She saw the confusion on my face and told me, ‘This question is very important. It shows that you have really lived in your life. Every body part you guessed in the past, I have told you was wrong, and I have given you an example each time, but today you need to learn this important lesson.’ She looked at me as only a mother can. I saw her eyes well up with tears. She said, ‘My dear, the most important body part is your shoulder.’ I asked, ‘Is it because it holds up my head?’
“She replied, ‘No, it is because it can hold the head of a friend or a loved one when they cry. Everybody needs a shoulder to cry on sometime in life, my dear. I only hope that you have enough love and friends so that you will always have a shoulder to cry on when you need it.’ Then and there I knew the most important body part is not a selfish one but is one that is sympathetic to the pain of others.”
A Christian is a strange species of being. The very nature of faith and of a personal relationship with Almighty God fills our lives with a variety of paradoxes. A.W. Tozer points out, “A real Christian is an odd number anyway. He feels supreme love for One whom he has never seen, talks familiarly every day to Someone he cannot hear, expects to go to heaven on the virtue of Another, empties himself in order to be full, admits he is wrong so he can be declared right, stoops down in order to be lifted up, is strong when he is weakest, richest when he is poorest, and happiest when he feels worst. He dies so he can live, forsakes in order to have, gives away so he can keep, sees the invisible, hears the inaudible, and knows that which passes knowledge.” I would add to Tozer’s list that the Christian life is the strange mixture of the miraculous indwelling of God’s own Spirit in us and the believer’s deliberate, laborious plodding along toward spiritual growth. We are a mix of what God is doing in us and what we are pursuing toward God. Discard either side of the mix and the Christian faith becomes empty.
In his book Prayer, Philip Yancey shares a moving story about the first part of the mix, the miraculous indwelling of God’s Spirit:
“I have seen evidence of God’s presence in the most unexpected places. During our trip to Nepal, a physical therapist gave my wife and me a tour of the Green Pastures Hospital, which specializes in leprosy rehabilitation. As we walked along an outdoor corridor, I noticed in a courtyard one of the ugliest human beings I have ever seen. Her hands were bandaged in gauze, she had deformed stumps where most people have feet, and her face showed the worst ravages of that cruel disease. Her nose had shrunken away so that, looking at her, I could see into her sinus cavity. Her eyes, mottled and covered with callus, let in no light; she was totally blind. Scars covered patches of skin on her arms.
“We toured a unit of the hospital and returned along the same corridor. In the meantime this creature had crawled across the courtyard to the very edge of the walkway, pulling herself along the ground by planting her elbows and dragging her body like a wounded animal. I’m ashamed to say my first thought was, She’s a beggar and she wants money. My wife, who has worked among the down-and-out, had a much more holy reaction. Without hesitation she bent down to the woman and put her arm around her. The old woman rested her head against Janet’s shoulder and began singing a song in Nepali, a tune that we all instantly recognized: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’
“‘Dahnmaya is one of our most devoted church members,’ the physical therapist later told us…. ‘[W]e have a little Christian chapel here, and Dahnmaya comes every time the door opens. She’s a prayer warrior. She loves to greet and welcome every visitor who comes to Green Pastures, and no doubt she heard us talking as we walked along the corridor.’
“A few months later we heard that Dahnmaya had died. Close to my desk I keep a photo that I snapped just as she was singing to Janet. Whenever I feel polluted by the beauty-obsessed celebrity culture I live in—a culture in which people pay exorbitant sums to shorten their noses or plump up their breasts to achieve some impossible ideal of beauty while nine thousand people die each day from AIDS for lack of treatment and hospitals like Green Pastures scrape by on charity crumbs—I pull out that photo. I see two beautiful women: my wife, smiling sweetly, wearing a brightly colored Nepali outfit she had bought the day before, holding in her arms an old crone who would flunk any beauty test ever devised except the one that matters most. Out of that deformed, hollow shell of a body, the light of God’s presence shines out. The Holy Spirit found a home!” (p. 273-274)
The other side of the mix has to do with us deliberately and laboriously plodding along toward spiritual growth.
Chuck Swindoll comments, “I love babies…. I think it’s a delightful, enjoyable experience to watch babies grow up and to become little people, little men and women…. But you and I know that there are some things about little babies that are not very attractive. We humor them because they’re babies.
“Here’s a list of things: They are dependent and demanding. They are unable to feed themselves. They are unable to stay out of messes. They love to be the center of attention. They are driven by impulses, such as hunger, pain, sleep. They’re irritated when they’re dirty, even though they made the mess, and you’ve gotta clean it up. They have no manners, no control. They have little attention span, no concern for others, no abilities or skills.
“Now these are natural things that are a part of babyhood. But when you see adults with those characteristics, something tragic has happened, something terribly unfunny. The Christian who is not interested in growing wants to be entertained. He wants a diet of milk when he cries for it. He wants his way. And he’s gonna get it, no matter how many he will have to disrupt to get it.
“You see, in order for a Christian to handle solid food, he has to have a growing, mature digestive system. He needs teeth. He needs to have an appetite that is cultivated over a period of time for deep things, for the solid things of God. Spiritual babies must grow up. Some of the most difficult people to live with in the church of Jesus Christ are those who have grown old in the Lord but haven’t grown up in Him.”
We need the work of God in us, and we need to work at growth.
Who is Jesus? And what does it matter to us who He is?
In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Colossae, Paul describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (1:15). The Greek word Paul uses here is eikon. A diminutive form of that word is found in an ancient letter from a Greek soldier named Apion to his father Epimachus. Apion writes, “I send you a little portrait of myself painted by Euctemon.” The use of eikon here gives us a bit of an idea about who Jesus is: His is the visible portrait of the invisible God. As John 1:18 puts it, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made Him known.”
In his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Colossians, William Barclay adds a further explanation: “When a legal document was drawn up, such as a receipt or an IOU, it always included a description of the chief characteristics and distinguishing marks of the contracting parties, so that there could be no evasion and no mistake. The Greek word for such a description is eikon.” In today’s context, the distinguishing mark of a person would be the person’s signature, or fingerprints, or DNA. That’s who Jesus is. He is the signature of God. He is the fingerprint of God within this world. He bears the very DNA of God. If we want to know the character and nature of God, what we need to do is to look at Jesus.
Paul also describes Jesus as “the firstborn of all creation” (1:15) and as “the firstborn from the dead” (1:18). The wording here can be a bit confusing to us. We may think Paul is suggesting that when God got around to creating things, the first “thing” He created was Jesus. But in the writings of that time, the term “firstborn” was not as much a description of time or sequence as of stature and honor. Paul was not implying that Jesus was the first “thing” God created, but he was stressing that Jesus has the place of honor over all of creation and over the resurrection from the dead. Paul makes this clear in verses 16-17: “For in Him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He Himself is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Jesus is the One who has sovereignty over creation and over resurrection. If we want to be at peace with creation, and if we want to be at peace with death and resurrection, the way to do it is through the One who has authority over them.
Paul also describes Jesus as the One through whom God was pleased to reconcile all things to Himself (1:20-22). According to the Associated Press, on July 15, 1994, Victoria Hoffman accidentally drove into a rain-swollen lake. While holding her 7-year-old son up, she struggled to keep her own head above water enough to scream for help and gasp for air. When rescuers arrived, she used her last bit of strength to shove her son to the rescuer before she was pulled under water to her death. On the cross, Jesus gave us into the hands of our Rescuer while giving up His life to save us. Jesus is the One who reconciles us to God! As Paul put it in Colossians 1:21-22, “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His fleshly body through death, so as to present you hold and blameless and irreproachable before Him.”
Someone observed, “The disciples, upon whose shoulders rested the initial responsibility of Christianizing the world, came to Jesus with one supreme request. They did not say, ‘Lord, teach us to preach,’ or ‘Lord, teach us to do miracles,’ or ‘Lord, teach us to be wise.’ They said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’”
The disciples—probably because they beheld Jesus’ devotion to prayer—valued the importance of prayer. In the busyness of our hectic lives, though, we have forgotten the value of prayer. In an article entitled “Fatal Omission,” Ben Patterson points out, “Prayer is always getting nudged aside, neglected, or perfunctorily performed as more pressing concerns take center stage. Many of us feel we just have too much to do to have time to pray. That is the problem. At bottom, we don’t believe we are really doing anything when we pray—other than pray, that is.”
A significant portion of the problem comes when we fail to grasp that the more important aspect of prayer is not what we get but what we become. We easily get obsessed with the issue of receiving “answers” to our prayer requests, but God is more focused on what kind of people we are becoming.
Through the practice of prayer, we get the opportunity to become people of greater patience, and to become people of deeper compassion, and to become people of higher integrity. And as we pray for others, we get the privilege of standing beside them and of being part of the team that supports them in becoming more and more of what God would have them to be.
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he takes this privilege seriously. He comes alongside them and becomes part of their team of supporters as he prays to God over what they can become in Christ. He prays for their lives to be pleasing to God as they bear fruit in every good work (verse 10), for them to be strong (verse 11), and for them to be able to endure life’s challenges with patience and joy (verses 11-12). The first thing he prays for, though, is that they will “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will” (verse 9).
The way Paul expresses it here suggests that being “filled with the knowledge of God’s will” leads to the other matters Paul prays about on their behalf. For the will of God has less to do with taking a predetermined turn in the road as with becoming the kind of people God would have us to be.
The prophet Micah addresses this when he states, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) What God wants for us (what He wills for us) is to become people of integrity, justice, compassion, mercy, kindness, and humility. “In the end,” Mark Labberton argues, God’s will for us—His call upon our lives—“is about continuous formation into the likeness of Jesus Christ far more than it is about finding direction or getting a job.” (Called, p. 135).
Prayer has to do with trusting God, and it has to do with us becoming more and more of what God would have us to be. Brennan Manning pulls these two matters together well in a story he shares: “When the brilliant ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at ‘the house of the dying’ in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life. On the first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked, ‘And what can I do for you?’ Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. ‘What do you want me to pray for?’ she asked. He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: ‘Pray that I have clarity.’
“She said firmly, ‘No, I will not do that.’ When he asked her why, she said, ‘Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.’ When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, ‘I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.’”