Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.
3 John 1.2
Being privy to shoptalk is one of the unsung joys of life in a pastor’s home. Like friends in any profession, preachers trade stories when they get together. Funny things always seem to happen around churches. On top of that, pastors spend big chunks of time before live audiences, largely supported by amateurs. Things go wrong—sometimes hysterically so—and while a minister must keep straight-faced during these minor disasters, they make for terrific anecdotes. (Example: During my minister-of-music days, a visiting missionary’s wife preceded him with a solo. Barely into the song, her voice cracked. She apologized before restarting. “Please bear with me,” she said. “We’ve been traveling a lot and I’m a little hoarse”—except, poor thing, the catch in her throat resurfaced, serving up the last word as “whorish.” I glared at my choir members, daring them to giggle.)
Pastoral shoptalk also has moments when wisdom flows like honey. Listening to my parents’ colleagues taught me many things. On one occasion, a young pastor raved about how his church was prospering. Attendance and giving were at record highs. Several full-time staff had joined. The trustees recently engaged an architect to design a larger sanctuary and a wealthy couple pledged the down payment on a new site. Once the congratulations subsided, the pastor of a congregation many times larger than his gently asked, “And your people? Are they prospering in parallel with your church?” It was not so much a rebuke as a reminder. Pastors are called to be shepherds, not tycoons. Their success is gauged by how their people are getting along, not by how their church is doing. The same lesson applies to our lives. Are we nurturing our souls, seeing to their health and prosperity? Or are we focusing primarily on our physical and material needs, leaving our souls to catch as catch can?
An Appeal for Hospitality
John’s third epistle reads closer to a dashed-off note than a carefully outlined letter. (Merely 14 verses long, it could be tightly scripted on the back of an envelope.) Writing to his friend, Gaius, the first thing he says is “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.” (v2) Initially, this reads like the kindest of wishes, as well as a gentle reminder for Gaius to keep his priorities straight. But John uses a Greek word that better translates as “psyche” than “soul,” which broadens the meaning beyond Gaius’s emotional and spiritual wellness to include his mental health. In praying God’s blessings in every area of Gaius’s life, John encourages him to focus on his inner needs, knowing psychological, emotional, and spiritual soundness increase physical and material stability.
As John goes on, his purpose in praying for Gaius’s prosperity takes shape. He hopes to send ministers to Gaius’s congregation. To date, he’s had no luck, as one of its leaders—a churlish-sounding sort named Diotrephes—has refused all offers. John charges him with “gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” (v10) John’s note boils down to an appeal for hospitality. (Speaking of his envoys in verse 4, he urges, “We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.”) Welcoming John’s ministers will demand much of Gaius. Since Diotrephes drove out others eager to accept John’s offer, Gaius’s allies will be few to none. He’ll need great inner fortitude to do the right thing. And when he succeeds, showing hospitality to John’s ministers will fall to him, taxing his energy and resources. There’s no doubt why John prays that Gaius prospers in parallel, psychically and physically. He’s going to need all the reserves he can muster to get the job done.
Promises of prosperity—getting along well in life—fill the Bible. In Deuteronomy 29.9 God tells Israel, “Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do.” The Psalms open with the profile of a believer who honors God’s laws, saying, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” (Psalm 1.3) In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us not to worry about our material and physical wellbeing. “But seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6.33) Scriptural promises of physical and material success always rest on inner compliance to precepts that foster mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The result is total prosperity, a balanced, productive life—as opposed to tycoon prosperity, which sacrifices inner health for material wealth and invests exorbitant effort in staying physically fit to enjoy its fortunes.
In addition to benefits we gain by prospering in parallel, 3 John provides an even nobler reason to strive for total prosperity. When attention to our inner soundness equals concern with our physical and material stability, we’re ideally equipped to help others. We have the fortitude to oppose hostility and rejection, not merely in principle, but also in practice. We have the will to stand with the minority or alone if need be. We have energy and resources to show hospitality to those whom others refuse. In verse 3 of his note, John tells Gaius it gave him great joy to hear “about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth.” That’s where prospering in parallel ultimately leads—walking in the truth.
Prospering in parallel—seeing to our inner and outer wellbeing—ultimately leads to walking in the truth.
(Tomorrow: More Grace)