Friday, November 13, 2009

In Word and Deed

Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. (Colossians 3.17)

The Name

The Bible frequently tells us to do, pray, or speak “in the name of…” Sometimes it’s simply “in Jesus’s name.” Other times it’s more general: “in the name of the Lord.” And still other scriptures spell out the entire Godhead: “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” We end our prayers in this fashion, just as we baptize, bless, and bury believers in Christ’s name. Indeed, many Christians start and end their lives in some form of Jesus’s name. Whether spoken audibly or in gesture via the sign of the cross, the name of Jesus is such a fixture in our worship and devotion it very easily can become a commonplace of life—a thing we do reflexively without consideration of what it means. This is by and large a result of modern indifference to names. Today, a person’s name is just a moniker; position in life signifies importance. And when anyone speaks or acts on another’s behalf, we evaluate his/her position as well. If the person isn’t legitimately connected to the other personally, professionally, or legally, his/her authority to represent the third party is dismissed.

In Biblical times, however, names were extremely important. A person who acted or spoke in another’s name without prior consent faced great peril. In contrast, the words and deeds of anyone legitimately authorized to do so were taken as those of the individual he/she represented. With this in mind, it’s good to remind ourselves that when we do anything in Jesus’s name, we act as His surrogate. In effect, we’re executing His power of attorney. Thus, when we pray in the name of Jesus, we’re actually praying as Him on our behalf. Jesus deeds us this right in John 14.13: “And I will do whatever your ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” Furthermore, as we discover in Colossians 3.17, our authority to speak and act in His name extends beyond prayer. It covers everything we do.

Do It All

“Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus,” the scripture says. If we didn’t know better, we might misread this as carte blanche to act on our whims and misconstrue this right as a convenience. Sadly, this is often the case. God alone knows how many wars and cruelties have been waged on innocent people in Jesus’s name. I would venture even as I write this someone somewhere is hurting—even hating—someone else in Christ’s name. And were we to challenge the misguided individual about this, we’d be sternly told the Bible gives every believer power to speak or act in Jesus’s name. But that’s not correct. Scripture authorizes us to represent Christ, a far different matter than doing what we will on His authority.

When Paul instructs us to “do it all in the name of the Lord,” he’s sharpening our sense that every word and behavior should reflect favorably on Christ. In 2 Thessalonians 1.11-12, he explains this more clearly: “We constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you.” All we do, then, should be driven by “good purpose” and prompted by faith. Words and deeds driven by harmful desires or triggered by fear offer no glory to His name. Yet checking everything we do and say against Christ’s example surely demands more insight and energy than any human possibly possesses. It’s a recipe for failure. But that's the last thing Paul wants for us. What he’s talking about is awareness—an underlying keenness to words and deeds that misrepresent Christ. If we approach this as an aspiration, we gradually develop sensibilities and habits that steer us from failure. We learn to act and speak in good faith.

Giving Thanks

The final clause in Paul’s admonition—“giving thanks to God the Father through Him”—seems rather odd in this context. He’s hands us an enormous task and then wraps it up by encouraging us to be thankful. What is he asking us to do, exactly? Once we catch our breath so the entire statement settles in our thoughts, though, we begin to understand what “giving thanks” means. Words and deeds worthy of Jesus’s name are themselves thankful expressions. They pay tribute to Him and convey gratitude to God for sacrificing His Son to reconcile us to Him. Everything we do befitting the name of Christ celebrates God’s unconditional love. Pleasing Him is a joy we could never afford on our own.

In my youth, I often heard older believers say, “I thank God for Jesus.” This struck me as strangely redundant, since God and Jesus are one and the same. Yet as I’ve grown up, I’ve come to understand what they were saying. Following Jesus is the greatest opportunity humanity has ever been given. Abiding by His words and emulating His example brings untold benefits we could never receive on our own. Aspiring to be worthy of His name endows us with profound peace and confidence. It shields us from danger and turns our lives in healthy, productive directions. Doing all we can in the name of Christ demonstrates our gratitude to God for saving us. In word and deed, it says, “Thank You.”

Our lives turn in healthy, productive directions when we speak and act in ways worthy of Jesus’s name. Every word and deed says, “Thank You.”

(Next: Hidden Thanks)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

And Be Thankful

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. (Colossians 3.15)

The Great Equalizer

Colossians is one of Paul’s trickier letters, if it really is his in the first place, which many scholars doubt. Given its date and stylistic variances, most probably one of his associates composed the epistle in Paul’s name. The tone is markedly more pastoral, unlike reliably authentic letters (e.g., Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians), where Paul addresses ongoing issues with treatises that read closer to doctrinal briefs than spiritual counsel. Yet while the prose lacks his force and finesse, the content indubitably reflects Paul’s views. Fringe thinkers have confused the Colossians with teachings about divine hierarchies, legalism, and circumcision. After reasserting Christ’s supremacy as God Incarnate—and his ordained authority as their leader—in the first chapter, Paul (or “Paul”) disputes these toxic notions in the next chapter, and turns to pragmatic truth in chapter 3.

“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things,” Paul says in verse 2—dismissing the extraneous doctrines as earthbound and unworthy of attention. In their place, He summarizes what should command the believer’s focus, prefacing it with this: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” (v5) In case we’re unsure “whatever” that is, he makes a list: sexual obsessions, greed, anger, malice, gossip, insults, and lies. Everything he cites spins off the urge to prove we’re better or more important by securing better or more lovers, money, or influence than others have. One-upmanship isn’t confined to secular life, either. The teachers Paul vilifies also tout superior levels of spirituality, piety, and ethnicity. This is impossible, verse 11 says: “Since Christ is all and is in all, there are no Gentiles or Jews, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarians, nomads, slaves or free citizens.” Nothing we’ll ever achieve or possess can raise us above anyone else. Christ is the Great Equalizer. Know we’re all equal and don’t forget it, Paul says.

Called to Peace

Although the false doctrines foisted on the Colossians run the gamut from impenetrably abstract to imperviously literal, they share a common thrust—claiming exclusivity as God’s elect. In verse 12, Paul assures the Colossians their equal acceptance is secure and reorients them to what’s truly important. He writes, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Instead of demanding the impostors correct their thinking, he places the onus on us to disarm advocates of religious elitism and discrimination with tender care. “Bear with each other,” he says. “Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (v13-14) With this, equality acquires a much weightier significance than same status. Being chosen, holy, and dearly loved people carries certain expectations and responsibilities. There is no high road and low road to choose between; there’s only one road. It’s level and accessible to all. And it leads to peace.

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace,” verse 15 says. Whether triggered by base cravings or high-minded ideals, efforts to prove our superiority to others inevitably end in strife. Somebody always gets hurt—and most often it’s us. We weren’t called to prove anything. We were called to peace. When we give Christ’s peace complete rule of our hearts, it governs our desires as well as thoughts and feelings they produce. It overrides compulsions to compete with those trying to belittle us and destroy our faith. We speak peace to the confusion they generate by responding with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. We tolerate and forgive, and most of all we love—not to convince anyone we’re better, but being convinced we’re no better than anyone.

Mercy and Grace

The third chapter of Titus, another Pauline epistle of questionable origin, houses a passage very similar to Colossians 3. It encourages us “to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.” (v2) We’re reminded, “We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” (v3-5) This synchs up with Ephesians 2.8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Because of God's mercy and grace we’re saved. Even faith is a gift we receive, not a thing we can take pride in doing on our own. Before we get too caught up in how right and wonderful we are, we should take the last three words of Colossians 3.15 to heart: “And be thankful.”

Going into this thanksgiving season, let’s be thankful we’re no better than anyone else. Let’s express our gratitude for every opportunity to humble ourselves and extend compassion and kindness, gentleness and patience to others. Let’s thank God for this magnificent gift of faith to know His love, mercy, and grace are real—to offer forgiveness out of grateful hearts healed by His forgiveness. Let’s thank Him for His peaceful governance of our lives. We are His chosen people, holy and dearly loved. If no other blessings come our way, that’s more than enough to be thankful for.

Seeking status is a pointless endeavor that always ends in strife. Thank God for true equality in Christ.

(Next: In Word and Deed)

Postscript: Minor Changes

This past week saw the fewest posts of any week since Straight-Friendly launched in June 2008. In part, this was because it’s taken longer than I expected to bounce back from last weekend’s illness. It’s also due to the demands of maintaining a daily schedule in addition to personal and professional duties. Finally, I’ve needed to devote extra time proofreading Straight-Friendly: The Gay Believer’s Life in Christ, a book I wrote two years ago that prompted the blog. In the next two weeks I hope to announce it’s in print and available for purchase. (Pray with me about this, please.)

Consequently, I’m making some minor changes here, moving from a daily format to publishing posts every second day. Over time, the posts have grown to explore topics and texts in greater detail. No one is more aware than I of the burden this places on you by doubling the reading time of the earlier posts. It’s a lot to keep up with. Yet I also feel our conversation here is richer as a result. Slowing the frequency of the posts gives you more time to read and respond, and me more time to prepare them. It just makes sense all around.

I hope none of you will be disappointed by this and pray you’ll keep dropping by and commenting as always. You have made this place everything it is. I’m grateful to God and you for your faithful, enthusiastic support. And your satisfaction with it matters most of all. By all means, feel free to offer your thoughts about this change, pro or con. Straight-Friendly is a work in progress. Your opinion is of utmost importance.

Blessings always,