A grateful heart does wonders to improve our sight, making it much easier to see God's hand in our lives.
Friday, November 11, 2011
Although I have been a Christian for many, many years, it was only relatively recently that I encountered a character that I had never met and from whom I had a lot to learn. His story is closely tied to the books of Philemon and Colossians, and perhaps Ephesians as well. The books of Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians were written some 2,000 years ago. No one can be sure of all the details as to its writing, but scholars have pieced together an account that is a very powerful picture of redemption. Even if all the details aren’t correct, the redemption remains. I would like to share his story with you.
Once upon a time, during the Roman Empire, there lived a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus lived in Colossae with his master, Philemon. In those days, the life of a slave was not a particularly attractive one. A slave had no identity, no rights, and was considered to be merely a possession. Any attempt to escape this lot in life was rewarded with certain death. It does not appear that Onesimus was a very good slave. He was certainly not honest, and probably not very wise. Onesimus stole from his master, then ran away, a continent away, to Rome, hoping to lose himself in that crowded and busy metropolis.
In Rome, Onesimus encountered the Apostle Paul. And what do you know? Paul knew Onesimus’s master, Philemon! I suspect that Onesiums was not particularly happy with this “small world” experience. By all expectation, Paul should have sent Onesimus back to Philemon immediately to be punished, i.e. executed. But Paul had a master to serve as well. As an apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul shared the Gospel with Onesimus, who received it. In turn, Onesimus became a real blessing to Paul, to the extent that Paul thought of Onesimus as a spiritual son, and wanted to keep Onesimus with him for service.
Since Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, Paul needed to ask Philemon’s permission to keep Onesimus. This is the subject of Paul’s letter to Philemon. And since mail delivery was not what it is today, Paul needed to send his letter with a messenger (named Tychicus). Meanwhile, Paul had received word about life in Colossae from Epaphras, who was with him in Rome at the time. Given Paul’s affection for the Colossian church and his concern in regard to the philosophies that were threatening the Gospel there, Paul took this opportunity to write to the Colossian church as well. At the very end of the letter to the Colossians, Paul refers to another letter that was circulating in Asia at the same time. Many scholars believe that that letter was what we know today as Ephesians. It is likely, then, that Paul took advantage of the opportunity to communicate with the believers in Asia and also sent with Tychicus a general letter to the Asian churches, which eventually became associated with Ephesus.
So—God used one insignificant slave, a dishonest, insignificant slave at that, to work an incredible web of redemption. He used Onesimus’s encounter with Paul to redeem Onesimus. Onesimus in turn blessed Paul and became a participant in Paul’s apostolic work to extend God’s redemptive work to the Gentile world. These events triggered Paul to write not one but possibly three letters, all of which proclaimed God’s truth and which would be used by God to continue His work, not just for that generation, but for every generation of believers since. God used the events surrounding one slave to “buy back” countless souls.
We have not only been blessed by these events—we now have the books of Philemon, Colossians, and Ephsesians—but we are invited by Christ to participate in His ongoing work of redemption, of “buying back” those enslaved by sin. It is good to be reminded of this, especially when we feel as insignificant (and possibly as guilty) as Onesimus, or when we encounter people who might appear to be as insignificant as Onesimus.
The point here is that God is serious about His work of redemption, and He will take any and every opportunity to prosper His kingdom. We do not need to be anyone special or do anything spectacular to be a part of what He is doing. We simply need to come to Christ and depend upon Him to enable us to fulfill His purposes for us.
Monday, November 7, 2011
I have been thinking about the importance of body life in the pursuit of personal holiness. As counter-intuitive and uncomfortable as it may be, our personal growth in Christ depends on our spending time with and exposing our lives to other believers. It is in the context of relationship that our sins can be exposed and we can share unconditional love. Unconditional love is relatively easy to give and receive when we don’t know one another. It becomes significantly more difficult—and more powerful—when it is offered and received in the knowledge of our unworthiness. It seems to me that one of the biggest obstacles to experiencing the power of this unconditional love is the fear of failure.
We live in a time of unprecedented inspection, measurement, and evaluation. Unborn babies are monitored and measured by ultrasound and sometimes amniocentesis. Newborn babies are given an APGAR score at the moment of birth. Pediatricians track growth and development. Standardized tests in school measure cognitive growth. College admissions exams determine whether we qualify for the college of our choice. Once our education is complete, there are still more evaluations and exams in order to become certified or licensed in our particular field of expertise.
While continual evaluation has real benefits, it also establishes a climate of success and failure by which we measure ourselves and one another. Success is good; failure is bad. This is easily translated to “I am good when I succeed; I am bad when I fail.” Success and failure become the standards by which we determine our worth and the worth of others. As long as we live by these standards, it is very difficult for us to expose our weaknesses and admit to someone that we have failed. The drive to avoid failure leads us down a path on which we either hide or play the “Compare and Compete” game. The game is pretty simple: We define success in terms of comparing ourselves with others (on our own terms, of course), and as long as we compare favorably to at least a few people, we win. The competition associated with playing the Compare and Compete game, however, makes it very uncomfortable for us to reveal weakness or to fail in any way. We therefore become quite adept at protecting ourselves by minimizing the spiritual and relational risks we take.
It doesn’t take too much study of the Gospels to see that Jesus didn’t play the Compare and Compete game. His worth was based on His identity as the Father’s Son and on their relationship. It is also clear that Jesus was operating from a perspective that makes the concepts of success and failure irrelevant. It is easy for us to think that as God, Jesus didn’t need to worry about failing—He couldn’t! I believe, though, that Jesus didn’t worry about failing for a more profound reason: success and failure are insignificant if not downright irrelevant concepts for God. Certainly there were and are many people who look at Jesus as a failure, but their opinion is tied to their human perspective rather than God’s.
We can see God’s view of failure quite clearly in Jesus’s interaction with the Apostle Peter in Matthew 16. In verses 13-19, Jesus is asking the disciples about His identity. In the course of the discussion, Peter declares Jesus as the Christ, God’s Son. Jesus affirms Peter and declares that He will build His church upon Peter, the rock. Jesus embellishes this promise by promising Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, with commensurate authority. In the very next section, verses 21-23, Jesus again initiates conversation, this time about His upcoming death. Peter rebukes Him, and Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter and calls him Satan. If ever there was an example of failure, this is it! Remarkably, though, there is no indication that Jesus valued Peter any less as a result of his “failure.” He didn’t express regret at planning to build His church upon Peter, and he didn’t retract His promise to give Peter the keys of the kingdom.
The second incident—Peter’s “failure”—is every bit as important as Peter’s declaration of faith. Peter needs to have his human perspective corrected, but his value, his worth to God, is not about his performance; it is about his faith. As he allows Jesus to mold and teach him, he becomes equipped to fulfill God’s glorious purposes for him. Peter does not need to earn his place nor prove his worth; neither does he need fear failure.
I would suggest that we could benefit from a paradigm shift. Rather than thinking in terms of success and failure, we could focus on inviting God to do His work in us, through us, and among us. Our value would not be tied to our performance, and we would be free to take risks. Failure would no longer be a threat, and we would be able to deeply engage in one another’s lives without the stress and pressure of the Compare and Compete game.