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I recently wrote a short article that was published in a community book project. It was on the subject of gratitude. The thesis of my piece was that there is always something to be thankful for even if you are going through tough stuff.  And we all go through tough stuff. 

There is a man in the Bible named Paul, and he said, "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things. And what you learned and received and heard and saw in me, do these things. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

It's a recommendation with a promise. He says, "Follow my example, and the God of peace will be with you." Paul didn’t have an easy life either. (II Corinthians 11:23-27) He had been imprisoned, tortured, stoned, shipwrecked and left adrift on the open sea. He had faced all manner of danger and discomfort, and he had been struck blind. And yet, somehow, he had learned how to be content in any circumstance. (Philippians 4:11) So when he gives us the advice to focus on the positive, I’d say it’s worth a try.

If you would like to read the rest of my article and over 100 more, you can get The Community Book Project: A Gift of Gratitude on Amazon Kindle. It is free until Friday.

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No one who knows me would tell you that I am a fashionista—someone who is on top of all the latest fashion trends—but I do try to wear clothes appropriate for the occasion. Just as I would not wear formal attire to paint my house, I would not wear my painting clothes to attend a wedding or a banquet. Your beliefs and attitudes can often be discerned by what you wear. Do you have respect for others? Do you have respect for yourself? Many of my students at the Faculty of Education would question what to wear as they prepared to start a placement in a new school. I always advised them that it would never be a problem if they were more professional or more conservative than the other people working there.

In Colossians 3, Paul advises us what to wear and what not to wear, metaphorically speaking. In Colossians 3:1, he tells us to keep seeking things above—keep working toward becoming more and more like the person that Christ wants us to be. This is not an instantaneous transformation, but a work that will be in progress as long as we are on this earth. Christ died to redeem us all from our evil human nature, but it is up to us to continually choose to live in a way that honours Him. So Paul tells us to put off such things as anger, rage, malice, slander, abusive language and lies. (Colossians 3:8,9)

Since who we display on the outside is usually a representation of who we are on the inside, Paul exhorts us to change our clothes. He wants us to clothe ourselves with a heart of mercy. (Colossians 3:12) Mercy means showing compassion when we have the power to punish. If someone has done you wrong, you have the opportunity to forgive them instead, which is another piece of the clothing that Paul suggests. (Colossians 3:13) He also recommends kindness, humility, gentleness and patience—putting others ahead of ourselves and being considerate while also treating them with respect and tolerance. We are all on this journey towards transformation together, and none of us has reached our destination yet. We need to be understanding of each other’s imperfections.

Above all, Paul asks us to put on love. (Colossians 3:14) Although we can, by way of duty, accomplish all of the preceding virtues without having love, I Corinthians 13 tells us that without love, all else is meaningless. It is our love for God, and His love flowing through us, that will help us to love those around us. It is our love for God that will make us want to choose a wardrobe that will best represent Him. If you want to wear the outfit that is most appropriate for your role as a child of God, wear love.

What is your greatest affliction? Most of us could probably think of several things to choose from: a physical ailment–either illness or injury, a desperate financial situation, joblessness, a difficult family member, co-worker, or neighbour. Even a friend who requires too much of our time can be a burden. Certainly we all have one challenge or another that we wouldn’t be sad to say good-bye to.

I think the Apostle Paul believed that his greatest affliction was pride, despite the fact that he faced constant opposition from people around him, beatings, shipwreck and even a stoning. (II Corinthians 11:24-25) And besides being struck blind on the road to Damascus, (Acts 22:6-11) the dangers he faced in his travels, hunger, sleepless nights, jail time, and the hard work he did just to survive. (II Corinthians 11:26-27)

In II Corinthians 12:7-10 Paul tells us about the thorn in his flesh, the trouble that bothered him enough that he repeatedly asked the Lord to remove it from him. Twice in the original language of II Corinthians 12:7, Paul states that the reason for the thorn was so that he would not become arrogant. It was there to keep his pride in check. We don’t know specifically what this thorn in the flesh was, only that it was troublesome enough that this man who had already endured so much, asked God three times to relieve him of the affliction.

There are people who believe that if you have enough faith, God will give you whatever you ask for, that He will never say no. I think Paul would have a different opinion, because God did not take away Paul’s thorn. Instead, He gave him something better: grace. God said, “My grace is enough for you.” Paul knew that to have God’s grace, the power of Christ working in him, was much more valuable than relief from his affliction. I think that Paul’s thorn was never specified, because God gives His grace to us too. Whatever we have to go through, God’s grace is enough. The more trials we have, the more grace we have available to us. Sometimes in the midst of trouble we don’t always see it that way, but God’s promises never change. If God’s grace was enough for Paul, it will be enough for us too.

6

My father used to coach track and field, specifically running. For many years he coached a girls’ cross country team. Unlike the 100 metre dash where participants finish milliseconds apart from each other, long distance and cross country runners usually don’t have someone running right beside them. So the only way to see if someone is closing in on you is to turn your head and look behind you. This will cost you precious time, may cost you a personal best and may cost you victory. Any good coach will tell you to run your own race and don’t look back.

The Apostle Paul gave that same advice to the people of Philippi, (Philippians 3:12-14) and it applies to us as well. Paul had been regarded as a Christian leader for about 30 years when he wrote this letter, and he encouraged people to follow his example. (Philippians 3:17) But he also wanted to make it clear that he did not believe that he had reached the top level of spiritual maturity. He was still running the race too. He was still striving toward the goal that he outlined in Philippians 3:10-11. The word translated goal (Philippians 3:14) is actually a goal mark, the finish line. The analogy of running a race was a common metaphor in Paul’s writings, (I Corinthians 9:24-27, II Timothy 2:5, II Timothy 4:7) and he uses it again here. His audience would have been very familiar with the Greek games which we now know as the Olympics, and so they would have understood his imagery.

When Paul says that he is forgetting the things that are behind, (Philippians 3:13) he does not mean that he literally cannot remember. Unless some health reason affects our cognitive function, we cannot force ourselves to not remember, though sometimes that ability would be highly desirable. What Paul means is that he won’t let his past failures or successes influence him. Sometimes we dwell on our failures and replay in our minds what we should have done differently, even though the damage has already been done. Sometimes we think about our successes and believe that we have already attained our goal. That reminds me of a different race, the one between the tortoise and the hare. The hare was so confident of his ability to outrun the tortoise that he stopped and took a nap. The tortoise toddled right past him. We should not assume that the last success we had is enough. Instead, like Paul, we should focus on the future and continue striving to be more like Christ.

Serious runners are devoted to their sport; they train, they follow a healthy diet, and they focus on what it takes to do their best. Paul encourages us to have the same devotion, discipline and determination. We will face obstacles. Like the cross country runner we will encounter hills and valleys and a few potholes along the way. We must do our best to get through them with God’s grace. Keep running the race. Don’t compare yourself with others. Set your standards based on what God desires from you, and don’t look back.

No one who knows me would tell you that I am a fashionista—someone who is on top of all the latest fashion trends—but I do try to wear clothes appropriate for the occasion. Just as I would not wear formal attire to paint my house, I would not wear my painting clothes to attend a wedding or a banquet. Your beliefs and attitudes can often be discerned by what you wear. Do you have respect for others? Do you have respect for yourself? Many of my students at the Faculty of Education would question what to wear as they prepared to start a placement in a new school. I always advised them that it would never be a problem if they were more professional or more conservative than the other people working there.

In Colossians 3, Paul advises us what to wear and what not to wear, metaphorically speaking. In Colossians 3:1, he tells us to keep seeking things above—keep working toward becoming more and more like the person that Christ wants us to be. This is not an instantaneous transformation, but a work that will be in progress as long as we are on this earth. Christ died to redeem us all from our evil human nature, but it is up to us to continually choose to live in a way that honours Him. So Paul tells us to put off such things as anger, rage, malice, slander, abusive language and lies. (Colossians 3:8,9)

Since who we display on the outside is usually a representation of who we are on the inside, Paul exhorts us to change our clothes. He wants us to clothe ourselves with a heart of mercy. (Colossians 3:12) Mercy means showing compassion when we have the power to punish. If someone has done you wrong, you have the opportunity to forgive them instead, which is another piece of the clothing that Paul suggests. (Colossians 3:13) He also recommends kindness, humility, gentleness and patience—putting others ahead of ourselves and being considerate while also treating them with respect and tolerance. We are all on this journey towards transformation together, and none of us has reached our destination yet. We need to be understanding of each other’s imperfections.

Above all, Paul asks us to put on love. (Colossians 3:14) Although we can, by way of duty, accomplish all of the preceding virtues without having love, I Corinthians 13 tells us that without love, all else is meaningless. It is our love for God, and His love flowing through us, that will help us to love those around us. It is our love for God that will make us want to choose a wardrobe that will best represent Him. If you want to wear the outfit that is most appropriate for your role as a child of God, wear love.

2

“I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some.” When I was younger I had a great deal of difficulty understanding that statement. I grew up in a Christian family, and started going to church before I was born. I am thankful for that, but there are some challenges to it too. Because I went to the same church from as far back as I can remember until after I was married, most of my formative Biblical teaching came from that one place. So, when I read the above sentence in I Corinthians 9:22, I thought that can’t be the right thing to do. Certainly God doesn’t want us to compromise our standards, does He? After all, people have been martyred for sticking up for what they believe. What does Paul mean by becoming all things to all people? Is he being wishy-washy? Is he bowing to peer pressure?

As always, context is essential, and I believe that context comes into play in two ways when we seek to understand the passage of I Corinthians 9:19-22: Biblical context, and today’s context. To understand the Biblical context, we should start back at I Corinthians 8. Paul was talking to the Corinthians about not eating food sacrificed to idols. To Jesus, the most important thing is what is in your heart, not what you put in your stomach. (Mark 7:17-23, I Samuel 16:7) So what you eat is not an important issue, but if by eating it you cause someone else to be confused about what is right, or to be turned away from God, then what you eat certainly does matter. So Paul chose not to eat meat in order to avoid causing someone else to sin. The Biblical context continues in I Corinthians 9:1-18. Here Paul is declaring that as a minister of the gospel he does have the right to financial support from the Corinthians, so that he can focus his time and energy of sharing God’s word. But Paul gives up that right, not because he isn’t entitled to it, but so that he is under no obligation to anyone but Christ. For this reason he can bring the message to both Jews and Gentiles. He uses his own life experiences to make connections with both groups. He does not compromise the message of salvation, but he does put it in a context that can be understood by his audience.

That brings us to today’s context. If only we could learn from Paul. Very often, the people who go to church today are there because they’ve always gone to church. They focus on the programs, the type of music used in the service, and how to pay the bills. Meanwhile, outside of the church is a big wide world that doesn’t understand its purpose. They don’t see the point of going to church because they don’t know Jesus, and we as a church are not introducing them to Him, because we are too busy focusing on less significant details or on building bonds of friendship with those who already believe the same things we do. There is nothing wrong with building relationships inside the church, but if we do not associate with people who believe differently, how will we ever show them the truth of the gospel? Unfortunately, many of the people who do engage with others are passing judgement on them, telling them that they are wrong and we are right. The truth is that for many issues we cannot fully know what is right. We are all just flawed humans, and only God is God, and only He knows everything. We can, however, meet people in the context of their culture and share what is truly important: God’s love.

2

What is your greatest affliction? Most of us could probably think of several things to choose from: a physical ailment--either illness or injury, a desperate financial situation, joblessness, a difficult family member, co-worker, or neighbour. Even a friend who requires too much of our time can be a burden. Certainly we all have one challenge or another that we wouldn’t be sad to say good-bye to.

I think the Apostle Paul believed that his greatest affliction was pride, despite the fact that he faced constant opposition from people around him, beatings, shipwreck and even a stoning. (II Corinthians 11:24-25) And besides being struck blind on the road to Damascus, (Acts 22:6-11) the dangers he faced in his travels, hunger, sleepless nights, jail time, and the hard work he did just to survive. (II Corinthians 11:26-27)

In II Corinthians 12:7-10 Paul tells us about the thorn in his flesh, the trouble that bothered him enough that he repeatedly asked the Lord to remove it from him. Twice in the original language of II Corinthians 12:7, Paul states that the reason for the thorn was so that he would not become arrogant. It was there to keep his pride in check. We don’t know specifically what this thorn in the flesh was, only that it was troublesome enough that this man who had already endured so much, asked God three times to relieve him of the affliction.

There are people who believe that if you have enough faith, God will give you whatever you ask for, that He will never say no. I think Paul would have a different opinion, because God did not take away Paul’s thorn. Instead, He gave him something better: grace. God said, “My grace is enough for you.” Paul knew that to have God’s grace, the power of Christ working in him was much more valuable than relief from his affliction. I think that Paul’s thorn was never specified, because God gives His grace to us too. Whatever we have to go through, God’s grace is enough. The more trials we have, the more grace we have available to us. Sometimes in the midst of trouble we don’t always see it that way, but God’s promises never change. If God’s grace was enough for Paul, it will be enough for us too.

In my last post, I discussed Paul’s teaching that we are justified by faith and faith alone. James 2:14-26 is often seen as a contradiction of Paul, but what James said was not directed at Paul, and for that matter what Paul said had not been directed at James. Paul was speaking to a group of people who felt that they could earn their righteousness by obeying the law to the letter, and often to the point of neglecting mercy and compassion. James was speaking to his brothers and sisters—those who already claimed to have a faith in God but were not showing it in their actions.

James is not saying that we need to have both faith and works in order to earn salvation. If that were the case, we would be claiming that Christ is not our only saviour, but that we are saviours for ourselves. This is not supported in the rest of scripture at all, and it is not what James is teaching either. Faith in Christ is all we need for salvation, but true faith is more than just saying so; it is more than just intellectual agreement. That is an essential first step, but it is not the last step. True faith naturally results in obedience to Christ, and in the character of Christ being displayed through us. Good works are the only way that other people will be able to see our faith.

If we were to go to court to claim our innocence in some matter, we would be judged on our actions; that is how the jury would decide if what we said is true. The same principle applies to our faith. Our actions are the evidence that shows the world that our faith is real. Good works are the fruit of the tree that has faith as its root. You are known by the fruit that you bear. (Matthew 12:33)

It is a case of what motivates us. Are we doing what we believe is right, as Paul’s audience was, because we are trying to earn gold stars, or are we doing what we believe God wants us to do because we love Him and want to serve Him? Ephesians 2:8-10 ties it all together for us. We are saved by faith, but we were designed to do good works.

In my last post, I discussed Paul’s teaching that we are justified by faith and faith alone.  James 2:14-26 is often seen as a contradiction of Paul, but what James said was not directed at Paul, and for that matter what Paul said had not been directed at James.  Paul was speaking to a group of people who felt that they could earn their righteousness by obeying the law to the letter, and often to the point of neglecting mercy and compassion.  James was speaking to his brothers and sisters—those who already claimed to have a faith in God but were not showing it in their actions.

James is not saying that we need to have both faith and works in order to earn salvation.  If that were the case, we would be claiming that Christ is not our only saviour, but that we are saviours for ourselves.  This is not supported in the rest of scripture at all, and it is not what James is teaching either.  Faith in Christ is all we need for salvation, but true faith is more than just saying so; it is more than just intellectual agreement.  That is an essential first step, but it is not the last step.  True faith naturally results in obedience to Christ, and in the character of Christ being displayed through us.  Good works are the only way that other people will be able to see our faith.

If we were to go to court to claim our innocence in some matter, we would be judged on our actions; that is how the jury would decide if what we said is true.  The same principle applies to our faith.  Our actions are the evidence that shows the world that our faith is real.  Good works are the fruit of the tree that has faith as its root.  You are known by the fruit that you bear.   (Matthew 12:33)

It is a case of what motivates us.  Are we doing what we believe is right, as Paul’s audience was, because we are trying to earn gold stars, or are we doing what we believe God wants us to do because we love Him and want to serve Him?  Ephesians 2:8-10 ties it all together for us.  We are saved by faith, but we were designed to do good works.