You should be especially nice at church: an examination of Galatians 6.10

“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6.10)

This verse strikes me as being counter-intuitive. First of all, shouldn’t we do good to everyone equally? Secondly, if we are to do good “especially” to some, shouldn’t they be nonbelievers? The church is a place where people already recognize the goodness of God. I often think that since a person is saved, they are secure in their knowledge of the goodness of God, and there is no pressing need for my actions to serve as a reflection or reminder. On the other hand, I often feel a compelling need to point nonbelievers to God’s goodness by my actions, so that they too can become secure in God’s goodness. I can recall many times in which I have been more inclined to do good to a nonbeliever than a believer, simply because I want to win the nonbeliever over. When we see a world full of hurting, hopeless people, it becomes easy to be apathetic regarding your behavior around Christians and be more concerned with doing good to those who are lost. Yet, this way of thinking and accompanying behavior is not quite right.

To make sense of this command and readjust our way of thinking, we should start by examining the verse more carefully and then considering it in relation to Paul’s other teachings. The beginning of this verse, unfortunately, is easily overlooked. Paul writes, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone”. Paul is not calling us to neglect anyone in our good deeds. Paul is calling us to live with a mindset that leads us to do good to everyone whenever the opportunity arises. This verse is at the end of Galatians – a letter which emphasizes justification by faith and not by works. Paul teaches that we are not saved by good works. It is futile to try to save yourself or another by doing good. The reason we do good is because our Father is good, and we are created in his image. In other words, we ought to do good because we have been created to do so. When God use a good deed to be a reminder or a reflection of his goodness, then it is bonus.

With the proper reason for doing good in mind, let us consider Paul’s teachings on the church in 2 Corinthians. Paul’s letter indicates that church, as a whole, must be the starting place for the expansion of the Kingdom. Throughout the epistle, he discusses of the church’s obligation to share. The church must share in sufferings, forgiveness, and even material wealth.
In the context of sharing material wealth, Paul writes:

>Your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. (2 Corinthians 9.14)

This is a tangible example of the sort of good that needs to be done within the church. We “do good” when we provide for our brethren; this could mean bestowing forgiveness, loving-kindness, or tangible goods. Likewise, our brethren ought to “do good” to us as well and provide in the places where we are lacking. When the church family does good to one another there is fairness and fulfillment. If we take Galatians 6.10 seriously, then members of the church should feel complete in forgiveness, love, and strength. Then, we can better serve to be a light in the world. Think of a stone lighthouse, in which the stones are the members and the whole structure is the church. Each stone lends its strength and stability to the others. Together, they make the structure strong, and are able to provide light to those out at sea. It is necessary that each stone is present and lending all of its strength.

As we consider Paul’s command to do good, we must keep in mind the proper reason for doing good. We bear the image of the Highest Good, and our actions should manifest this. However, by the grace of God, our good actions can also serve to transform those around us. This is what Paul is getting at in the latter half of Galatians 6.10. Ultimately, we do good because we can and should. However, when we do good especially to those in the household of faith, we are being used by God to form the beacon of faith that shines out into a world of lost souls.

A Journey of Sacrifice

“You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.” (*The Hobbit*, 35)

This is my favorite quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s *The Hobbit*, because it communicates the very thing that makes an adventure great: sacrifice. Bilbo is suddenly presented with an opportunity for adventure. He’s used to living in a cozy hobbit-hole, with the comforts of home at his fingertips. Yet something deep within him prompts him to take the opportunity and go on a journey with companions who are practically strangers. He does not quite know what he’s getting into and he suspects there will be perils ahead, but he still chooses to go. Less than five minutes into the journey he remembers his pocket-handkerchief and wants to turn back. It is at this point that Dwalin, a no-nonsense dwarf, reminds Bilbo that if he wants to be a part of the adventure, he’s going to have to leave the comforts of home entirely behind him. Bilbo is reminded to anticipate sacrifice if he wants to get where he’s going.

I’m not going to say that the Christian life is like an adventure –after all, adventures are temporary. You return to the the comforts that you sacrificed once the adventure is over. The Christian life is not called the Christian adventure for a reason. It does not last for a few months and then come to an end. I will, however, say that this line from the Hobbit reminds me of the sort of sacrifice which Paul explains in Romans chapter 12. The Apostle writes:

> I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.1-2)

Paul is instructing believers to seek a radical transformation. When he tells us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, he means that we are no longer serving our flesh but giving ourselves to God. The world tells us it is okay to pursue our sinful desires. Paul is telling us to leave the world’s standards behind and change our mindset. If we want to be obedient we have to go all the way. We cannot be of Spirit with a mindset and a desire that is of the world. Yes, sacrificing our desires is uncomfortable and sometimes feels uncertain, but it is necessary if we want to get where we are going.

Returning to The Hobbit, it appears that Bilbo’s sacrifices actually improve him. Prior to his journey, he knew little of what happened beyond the borders of the Shire. He was content with his pipe, his food, and peace and quiet. He never had any need to exercise courage or push himself beyond his comfort zone. He learns with every step of the journey that there is more to him than he thought. He has a courage and strength within himself that brings him to confront incredible foes. In the end, he returns to the Shire as a changed Hobbit, with a beautiful story to tell.

It is okay if sacrifices scare you. You should feel a tinge of fear when you read the aforementioned line from The Hobbit, mostly because you can sense the risk and peril that is coming. You might feel a tinge of fear when you read Romans 12.1-2 as well. Saying no to a desire is painful. Christians know that they are on a life-long journey in which they will have to give up their desires. However, we can be comforted in the fact that as we make sacrifices we are being transformed and prepared for a future glory. Sacrifice is painful but necessary, frightening but transforming. As you strive to sacrifice the desires of the flesh, remember that you are on a journey in which you are becoming closer and closer to God. Not to mention, your journey ends with an eternity spent in his presence. With this hope in mind, press on in your journey of sacrifice.

Your righteousness has nothing to do with you

Your righteousness has nothing to do with you.

1. It does not start with you.
2. It is not facilitated by you.
3. It does not end with you.

Most of us probably do not have issues with the first statement. It is easy to recognize that only Christ’s blood justifies us and sets us on the path of righteous living in the first place. However, the latter two statements tend to be more problematic for the Christian. This calls for constant reminders of the means and ends of righteousness.

We often think that because righteousness is manifested by our actions, the process of becoming righteous is our responsibility. Of course, we acknowledge that God plays a role in this process, and it is common for us to pray and ask for his help. However, if you are anything like me, after you pray for a little while, you return to discipline and self-directed control in order to be obedient to God and grow in righteousness. I tend to think of it as a sort of spiritual conditioning in which forcing myself to desire righteousness and acting on those desires makes me into a righteous person. The problem with this thinking is that both the desire for righteousness and the will power to follow through with righteous actions is only possible by the work of Christ.

16th century theologian, Martin Luther, asserts that righteous actions stem from a primary source of righteousness. This is the righteousness that justifies us, and it is only by faith that we can receive it as a gift. When this happens, Christ becomes ours and our souls are immediately transformed. We are changed and made capable of genuinely desiring and acting on pure things. Hence, success in living righteously is a matter of faith in the transforming power of Christ. This does not mean that we should instead put our efforts into growing in faith so that we can attain righteousness. Rather, it means that we should keep to the faith by which we are justified in the first place. In other words, the faith by which you turned to Christ is the faith that will produce righteous actions. By the grace of God, if you maintain your full dependence on Christ, you will be transformed.

Your righteous lifestyle is for the purpose of bringing others to God. God calls us to live righteously, but it is not for our own gain. Righteous living has everything to do with others.
Love, patience, and peace are qualities of righteousness that affect the way we interact with others. Righteous actions are an extension of God’s goodness from a believer to another person. A prime example of this is Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. Jesus lived as a perfectly righteous man and he spent his life healing the sick and comforting the weary. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus’ righteousness had a greater impact on others than it did on him. Our righteousness is not meant to merely improve our lives but to improve the way we live with others. Also, since this sort of behavior is only possible because of Christ’s transforming power, it can only point back to him. Righteous actions encourage our brethren in the faith and serves as a light to the nonbeliever.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking of righteousness as a progression that ends with you. Rather, think of righteousness as a work of grace in which the Kingdom of God is expanded.

By his grace we can possess a saving faith.
By his grace that same faith will bring about transformation.
By his grace our righteousness will point others to back to him.

You should hug trees…Or at least, appreciate them: A Theology of Trees

Christians should care about National Arbor Day (to those who don’t know, that is today). Even if you are not a devoted celebrator of trees, it is worth your time to stop and consider what wonderful things trees are. Not only are they ascetically appealing, they are present in almost any climate, and provide shade and food. Practicality aside, the Bible illustrates many points through trees. The prevalence of trees and tree imagery in the Bible should shed light on other ways to appreciate and consider these majestic pillars of nature. To explore this idea, let us look at some specific examples of trees in the Bible and examine what they ought to signify to the Believer.

In some stories, the trees play a direct role in the narrative. In Genesis, Adam and Eve sinned by taking the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To Eve, the fruit was a “delight to the eyes” (Genesis 3.6). It appealed to her, not because fruit is deceitful and evil, but because fruit, by nature, is beautiful. Being tempted by the devil to act on her desires, Eve took what belonged to the tree as her own. In partaking of the fruit of the tree, Adam and Eve brought death and corruption upon the whole human race.

In direct correlation to the fall, even our salvation came about by a tree. Christ, our loving Savior, was nailed to a tree for the sins of man. He accepted this death voluntarily out of obedience to the will of God. Through his willingness to die on a tree, humans are restored and reunited with the Father. This tree, the one which was made into a cross for the death of our Savior, should be a symbol of hope. It ought to remind us of the merciful action of our Lord by which unworthy souls are made holy.

From death into life, even our daily walks are described in terms of trees. When Christians are thriving in their faith, it is said that they will bear fruit. You cannot see into the heart or judge the faith of another person. Yet, you can tell whether or not they are being spiritually fed because they will be acting in love, joy, peace, and so on. In the same way, you cannot see the roots of the tree. You cannot see the place where the tree receives its nourishment. You only know if it is healthy by the things that it is producing. Trees, then, exist as an image of the relationship between one’s heart and one’s actions.

Even the body of Christ is represented by a tree: Paul presents the imagery of the olive tree in Romans, showing the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles and revealing the beauty of the gospel. In chapter 11, Paul says that the Gentiles have been grafted into the tree, being made into a legitimate part of God’s family. The Jews who have rejected the truth are the branches that were broken off so that all men could have a share in salvation. Now, because of God’s abundant mercy, all men can be nourished by the tree. With this metaphor, the tree represents how each person can be a part of the family of God.

Today is a day where people take the time to celebrate trees for their beauty as well as their necessary contributions to our environment.
As Christians, we can also recognize trees as being a part of the story of our salvation. Trees are involved in our fall and our redemption. They also illustrate the other aspects of our Christian life, such as the picture of bearing fruit or the imagery of the Gentiles being grafted in. Today, take the time to celebrate National Arbor Day. Appreciate trees for their beauty, their necessity, and their existence as tangible reminders of the story of our salvation.

Family Matters: A Biblical perspective one’s duty to the family

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26).

These are the words of Jesus, spoken to a crowd of his followers. This is a severe and perhaps surprising assertion. One would not expect Jesus, who demonstrates perfect compassion and love, to ask his disciples to show hatred towards their families. This demand does not seem to fit in with the behavior that is expected in the Kingdom of God. To complicate matters, Paul says in 1 Timothy that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1Timothy 5.8). Paul’s statement is also harsh, but what he says seems to contradict the words of Jesus. Yet, with a deeper investigation, these seemingly opposite claims can be reconciled.

When Jesus says his disciples must hate their family members, he is not giving instructions on how to treat one’s family, but rather communicating the cost of being a disciple. He concludes his talk saying, “therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.33). He means that the cost of being a disciple of Christ is a heavy one. It requires the complete renunciation of oneself. We are to serve God and God alone. This does not mean that we ought to hate our families, but it does mean that we have to renounce our duty to them. The severity of Jesus’ statement is genuine. He is reminding us that one cannot enter into the Kingdom of God half-heartedly.

Paul statement on the family is actual instruction for the church. The family is an institution created by God. It was designed so that members could care for each other. In fact, proper care of one’s family is necessary for the thriving of the church as a whole. Regarding church leaders, Paul writes, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1Timothy 3:4-5) To be effective in the church, you must first prove to be faithful in the small things. We are called to care for our families before we can extend our reach to the church and to the world.

Jesus and Paul are speaking of two different aspects of the Christian life. Jesus is talking about the weight of the decision to follow him. Paul is giving guidance of how we ought to live once we have given our all to Jesus. Combining the messages of Jesus and Paul, we can conclude that when we renounce our family, we receive an even greater responsibility for them. To become a follower of Christ, we must surrender all. Yet, we take on a new lifestyle when we choose to follow Jesus. We are expected to behave differently. We now put God above all, and in doing so, recognize everything that all we have belongs to him in the first place. Jesus reminds us that our families are not actually ours. Family is a gift which was graciously bestowed upon man by God. Thus, we must care for them, adhering to the structure and order that God has designed. Of course, this cannot be done without love, compassion, and attention to our loved ones. When we are faithful in this task, we can also serve effectively in God’s church. It remains our responsibility to love our families as Christ loves us.

Because I am Created in the Image of God…

American culture has been and continues to be shaped by a powerful movement. It is a movement marked by merit certificates, pop songs communicating, “be yourself because you are already awesome”, and cheap little-league trophies. It is the self-esteem movement; it is the campaign that strives to show how everyone is special in their own way. The ideals of this movement were perfectly displayed in Lupita Nyong’o’s recent acceptance speech at the Oscars, in which she notably claimed, “no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid”. (For a thorough consideration of this claim, see this article by Dr. John Mark Reynolds.)

The American Christian sub-culture is not exempt from the self-esteem movement. Having grown up in the church, I can recall listening to many talks on self-esteem at Bible studies, youth conferences, and youth camps. I should clarify that this is not a bad thing; these sorts of talks can be exceedingly encouraging. During our adolescent years, there is a lot of pressure to fit in and to define yourself. American Christians seem to be aware of this and are putting forth a great effort to establish a healthier perspective of the self. However, it appears that in our attempt to tackle this issue, we have unintentionally abused an essential doctrine: that of being created in the image of God.

In the aforementioned Christian self-esteem talks, the idea that man was created in the image of God is often used as a premise upon which we assert our self-esteem. We are often told that we are beautiful, unique, and worthy since we are created in God’s image. Yet, the knowledge that you are created in the image of God should not be merely utilized as a bolster for self-esteem. The image that we bear amounts to more than the temporal worth of being considered “special” here on earth.

To be created in the image of God is to know Him. In On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius goes into detail on what it means to be created in God’s image. He writes:

[God] made [man] according to his own image and according to the likeness, so that understanding through such grace the image, I mean the Word of the Father, they might be able to receive through him a notion of the Father, and knowing the Creator they might live the happy and truly blessed life (Section 11).

God has created man rational, not for man to become great, but for man to know his Creator and have the blessed life. Athanasius goes on to describe how man turned away from God. After the fall, man began to look toward creation instead of the Creator. As a result, man tarnished the image as well as his rationality. Yet God, being good, redeemed man by sending the Word to become flesh and reconcile man with God. Someday, those who have put their faith in God will be able to know him and spend eternity as a happy, blessed being.

Being created in the image of God carries more weight than what is implied by the messages of the Christian self-esteem campaign. When we think about bearing the image of God, these three vital details should come to mind:

  1. Our ultimate purpose and fulfillment is to know God.
  2. We have tarnished the image through our own sin.
  3. We have been redeemed because of God’s love, and the image will be ultimately restored.

Christians certainly cannot ignore the self-esteem issues. It is almost inevitable that we will face feelings of inadequacy throughout our lives. I am not dismissing the occasional pep talk or practical encouragement. However, we must be careful how we go about such encouragement. It is certainly not helpful to misinterpret a a doctrine so that we might conform to our society’s standard of worth. This gives us a false picture of ourselves as well the gracious gift that God has bestowed upon us. We ought to recognize that earthly beauty, intelligence, and skill will never satisfy us as much as the knowledge of God. It is time to let go of earthly values and instead recognize our purpose, realize our sin, be humbled by the grace that God has shown us, and eagerly await the ultimate beautification of God’s image in us.

Expectations in the Kingdom, a Lesson from Philemon

They say good things come in small packages; such is the case with Philemon. This is the shortest of the Pauline epistles, yet it addresses weighty topics such as love and forgiveness. The letter, without explicitly saying so, also communicates ideas about the behavior one should expect in the Kingdom of God. This is an idea that encompasses Paul’s message to Philemon, and stands as a reminder to all believers.

Paul writes to Philemon, asking him to do something that would seem unusual to most people. While imprisoned, Paul befriends Philemon’s runaway bondservant, Onesimus. Paul offers to pay for Onesimus’ crimes and then urges Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother. Onesimus was technically Philemon’s property and his running away was an act of injustice. Even so, Paul requests that Philemon not merely receive Onesimus’ return, but also bestow a more honorable title upon him. This is a clear break from the conventional conception of justice. When someone commits a crime, he is punished and must pay recompense. This process simply restores order; the wrongdoer is not supposed to receive any benefit.

Paul’s letter to Philemon demonstrates how the Kingdom of God sees justice in a different light. This idea, of course, does not begin with Paul but with God. Created things owe honor to their creator. All humans, then, are in debt to God and ought to pay him honor. Tragically, we have failed to do this and in fact rebelled against God instead. We continue to live in disobedience, delving into a sea of sin and debt. In fact, our debt to God is so incredibly deep that the strongest human effort cannot begin to cover it. Because God is just, the disobedience of man merits eternal damnation. In spite of all of this, God has an unrelenting love for mankind and has given the gift of salvation. The debts of all men have been paid for by the blood of Christ. Our crimes are forgiven and the just punishment we deserve is replaced with an eternity spent in the presence of God.

It is because of God’s abundant mercy that Paul is willing to extend forgiveness to Onesimus and expects Philemon to do the same. From Paul’s perspective, Christians can enact justice with the additions of love and forgiveness. When a debt is incurred, recompense must be paid, but love and forgiveness allow us to break the conventions of who pays and how it affects the wrongdoer. For Onesimus’ this means having his debts paid by Paul and his position elevated by Philemon. Of course, not every act of justice will look like Onesmius’ scenario, but the idea is that justice is not merely an equation in the Kingdom of God. We are expected to go beyond convention and implement justice in the same manner that Christ executed justice for us. When this happens, it is a refreshing experience. Paul writes:

So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me…Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. (Philemon, verses 17-20)

Paul is longing to be refreshed by Philemon’s anticipated act of mercy. The way in which a Christian implements justice should build others up and should end in blessings rather than scars. Thus, when we expect the Kingdom of God to be a community in which love and forgiveness abound, we can also expect it to be a community in which the heart is refreshed.

This story of Onesimus’ redemption stands as a reminder of the behavior that should pervade the Kingdom of God. This behavior, of course, begins with the individual. We are called to let go of grudges, show mercy, and extend the love of Christ to those who wrong us. We must also humbly receive mercy when we have transgressed against our brethren. The behavior that Paul expected to see in the Kingdom of God will not be a reality unless we can meet that standard in our own lives. This brief epistle certainly carries a potent message. If we are to have expectations for the Kingdom of God, we must also strive to meet them.

The Well-Ordered Soul in Plato and Athanasius

I spent five months trying to order my soul. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates establishes the just man as the man whose soul is well-ordered. This means that his appetite, spirit, and reason play their respective roles. Reason guides the appetite and spirit, allowing the just man to evade vice and pursue virtue. Socrates explains that “the most happy is the most kingly, who rules like a king over himself”. Embracing this idea, I sought to order my own soul without any guidance aside from my vague understanding of justice, virtue, and reason. It didn’t work.

In his treatise,On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius reveals his perspective on Plato’s idea of the well-ordered soul. He exlpains:

For if even Plato, who is admired by the Greeks, says that because he who begot the world saw it distressed and in danger of sinking into a region of dissimilitude, sitting at the helm of the soul he helped it and corrects all its faults, what then is there incredible in what we say, that humankind being in error, the Word sat at its helm and appeared as human, in order that he might save the distressed by his guidance and goodness?

The Son of God lived, died, and was resurrected to conquer death and corruption. The Word took on flesh and became the mediator between God and man. He has reached down to depraved creatures so that he might heal our broken souls and lead us to holiness. It is through his sacrifice that we are able to partake in the glory of our Creator. In understanding the basic message of salvation, the foolishness and arrogance of trying to order one’s own soul becomes apparent. Man is in a perpetual battle with the flesh that cannot be won without the Word at the helm. It is arrogant to assume that a fallen individual possesses the power to rule oneself.

The temporal ends promised by Plato pale in comparison to the beauty and goodness of Christ. The happiness that Socrates mentions is one of earth and time. The kingly sort of ruling described in the Republic is a human ruling which can never be perfected. On the other hand, the Word guides the soul closer and closer to God until the soul is made complete and is able to enjoy the eternal happiness that is the presence of God. Also, when one submits his soul to God, he is submitting it to the only King who is eternally just and sovereign.

Regarding the means to a well-ordered soul, there is action required by the individual. However, it is action that is grounded in the power of Christ. The Apostle Paul closes his letter to the church in Thessalonica saying:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

God, through the incarnation of the Word, does the complete work of sanctification in one’s soul. Plato was right about living virtuously. To have a well-ordered soul, the good must be sought and the corrupt must be expelled. Unfortunately, what Plato failed to recognize is that God is ultimately the King over one’s soul, and must be relied upon for complete order.

Plato’s idea of the soul — though pagan— is captivating and inspiring. By the grace of God, others such as Saint Athanasius have seen and proclaimed the truth of this idea in a new light. With the Word at the helm, the well-ordered soul has now become a sincerely hopeful ambition. This is not to say that it is easy. With a corruptible flesh, it remains a continual struggle to maintain purity in spirit, soul, and body. Nevertheless, there is a righteous King who abounds in grace and lends his strength so that we can become more and more like him and someday rest in the goodness of his presence.