1 Corinthians 3: 11-15
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
I used to wonder what this passage meant. What did the building materials symbolize? Why would some people's work be burnt up? That didn't sound very fair. Even more confusingly, why did the lousy builder survive?
Now, I believe it refers to the works Christians do for Christ, the foundation.
We all try, in our own ways and different situations, to build upon the foundation of Christ, guided by the Word.
We try to serve, to reach out to people, to live righteously, to be Christ-like, to love.
And we have good intentions in doing so.
But motivations are complex things, mainly because the human heart is capable of harbouring diverse emotions at the same time and cleverly blending them up with each other till we can't tell even in ourselves what is what. And though overall we may have the right intention, other things are present, other things may creep in and get braided together.
We volunteer genuinely wanting to help and yet also pleasantly conscious of the eyes upon us.
We pray in public or teach others feeling spiritual because of our eloquent words and knowledge even as we sincerely want to encourage and edify others.
We rebuke others, wanting to see what's wrong corrected but forgetting who we are and lapsing into pride and judgmentalism.
We serve faithfully and dutifully yet complain about it and feel like we're not given the appreciation and recognition we deserve, feel that others are slacking off, feel like these people aren't properly grateful for what we do for them.
Our hearts are complex. If they weren't literature wouldn't need to be more complicated than fairytales.
However, to the One who made our hearts and sees them clearly even right now, that tangled up mess of motivations is more important, if not all important.
In fact, our motivations determine the effectiveness of our works.
If our works are in themselves our security, they are pointless. Perhaps that's the hay and straw Paul mentions, and that's the builder who just barely manages to survive the fire, faith almost negated by the unconscious descent into self-sufficiency and self-righteousness. If our sincere good desires are tainted by other less-than-Christ-like motivations, the effectiveness of what we've done is set back. Perhaps that's the wooden architecture, which though it comes out better on the fire test than hay and straw, definitely can't compare to the precious metals and stones.
We may have served in doing legitimately good things. Helped others. Fulfilled needs. Without the right heart, however, we won't have been building with anything more precious or lasting than wood or even hay. And on the last day, when this world and its concerns come to an end, when our works are tested in the 'fire' of the transition to another dimension and everything except its effect on us ceases to be important--we will be reminded for good that what matters to Him is the heart. Perhaps the same deed, done with different motivations, turns out diamond in one case, smoky ashes in the other.
I often make the mistake of over emphasizing to-do lists. Getting things done, the more the better, the bigger the better, just remembering to stick on a little 'For God' gift label at the last minute.
But before we get distracted by how much we do or what we do, consider the why--remembering that the motivations that come from our hearts may be what determines how effective our works ultimately are.
Trust in the Lord, and do good;
Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.
As I mentioned in my last post, and probably elsewhere on this blog (apparently I have to level up to add a search engine, so it would appear I am no better equipped than you to search my own blog! If I repeat myself sometimes, I'm really very sorry; it probably didn't show up on my Google search!) Psalm 37: 3-4 has been a very important part of the Bible to me.
How to 'dwell in the land and feed on His faithfulness'--in other words, be content, right where you are? To praise Him in the hallway, while you wait to see what doors open?
It is important for the Christian to cultivate joy and thankfulness--the two really come together, and are very much more related than today's marketing media likes to think--in a world where there is so much to be sad about; but also because we worship a God of which there is so much to be joyful and thankful for. I would say, from my own experience, that it is important to your spiritual growth--one of the biggest spiritual steps in my own journey, which transformed how I related to God and how I related Him to my life, was learning to connect Him to joy, and thankfulness. (Steve DeWitt's Eyes Wide Open and Greg Gilbert's What is the Gospel. I know I've written on both books before here; and more importantly, Google assures me it is so, so I'm able to provide the links above.)
And I've also realized gradually that in order to be thankful, and happy, you sometimes have to be very purposeful about it. We like to think that happiness and thankfulness are effortless emotions that spring naturally to our hearts when we're in some beautiful situation--facing a glorious sunset on a beach during a holiday without a care in the world, when your loved ones throw you a surprise party and shower you with affection and gifts. God does a miracle in your life or gives you the great desire of your heart. Of course, you'd be thankful. Of course, you'd be joyful. How could you not, in those circumstances?
It is that effortless--sometimes. The problem is that if we expect those moments to be the only times we experience those emotions, we're not going to have very much of either emotion in our lives. That nice fuzzy feeling hits you for one beautific moment and then fades rapidly as we get used to it, and very soon vanishes completely; you barely remember it when something bad happens.
People let you down. People are difficult and hard to love, as much as they want and need to be loved. Life isn't a series of #blessed moments.
And in fact if we expect to only feel thankfulness and joy towards God when we have such experiences in our lives, we've got a lot of spiritual maturity to grow into, and we have only a superficial understanding of Who He is and what He can do.
I've been working out my own interpretation of what Psalm 37:3-4 means over the years, as I nurture hopes and dreams and experience disappointment and disillusion.
Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. To me, that has been a call to cultivate contentment for my current situation, and likewise faith for the future based on the knowledge of God's faithfulness proven in the past.
Cultivating contentment in turn has sometimes meant making myself set aside my prejudice and emotions to acknowledge things I didn't care to acknowledge. Consciously appreciating the good in people even as I see their weaknesses. Learning to better understand myself and fathom how accurate, how worthy, are those 'desires of my heart'. At any rate, so far it has always cost me effort in the beginning, showing me that contentment at its most poignant is a frame of mind rather than a passive emotion; because Christian contentment--which focuses on God--is based on the objective truth of His attributes.
Contentment is the opposite of self-entitlement, after all, and it always costs us effort to let go of our intrinsically self-centered perspective and feelings.
The wonderful thing is that it isn't all, paradoxically, effort. Because--as mentioned earlier--happiness, which is very much an emotion, stems from contentment. When we learn to let go of our self-entitlement, when we admit that goodness is not deserved but given, when we recognize God's gifts, our eyes are immediately opened to enjoy and appreciate and use our life better than we did before--right where we are, with exactly what we have. Which is a very real kind of happiness. To be reminded of His faithfulness, and to see how we depend on it, are living on it--'feeding' on it--every day, all the time.
Serve. Love. Fellowship. Learn.
What do you associate with relationships within a church?
For the first time, I considered the many relationships I had with people within my church family in the light of the emotions they entailed.
When Christ compared the church to a body--His body--the metaphor includes the shared sensory system of the body (if you think about it. I didn't.)
A stomachache, sprained ankle, paper cut may be localized, but they affect our overall well-being, no matter how functional the rest of our body is. Try writing a post with a headache. Similarly, in a church which lives out Christ's command to love and care for each other as oneself, emotions should be something we are privileged to share. Should be something we cannot help but share, in fact.
The pain of losing a loved one. Of a difficult child. Of illness. Of financial problems or a struggling marriage.
And on the other hand, the joy over a conversion, over answered prayer, in fellowship, through encouragement, and something as simple and miraculous as a new baby.
These very real emotions are spread and shared through the unique relationships we have within a church, and we should be prepared for both the sorrow and the joy.
From my own experience, the shared sorrow which should be part of every church's experience is very important as it
shakes these facades we so easily slip on, something we humans need so badly in the superficial interactions we call 'friendship' and even 'fellowship'. I remember the first funeral I attended which concerned the loved one of a church friend. There I saw and felt sorrow so personal it left me shaken and uncertain, but most of all, knowing instinctively that it marked a turning point in a shallow relationship which up till then consisted mainly of chitchat and laughter over tea break.
And again, on the flip side. A marriage should be a joyous occasion, something everyone is able to celebrate together, something which reminds everyone in the church of the relationship between Christ and His people, the love which characterizes that relationship. Something is very wrong when people within the church are unhappy, when they don't rejoice together with the couple, when the marriage--or any other otherwise happy occasion--becomes a means for old grudges or gossip to surface.
These examples of course are far from exclusive. I include them here not for speculation but as food for thought. Once you think about the importance of shared emotion among God's people, it's surprising how many little events and things become important. The simple fact that someone resents another person's joy, or that someone is unaffected by another's grief, speaks of a festering gangrene, a disconnect within the nervous system, even an amputation, within the body of Christ. If not an actual decapitation (from the Head.)
When we open ourselves to the widened spectrum of emotion which church relationships should entail, it means, inevitably, letting go of the subtle self-entitlement which underlies how we see our lives. It stops us from unduly obsessing over our own lives--whether on our own troubles, or on fine-tuning these troubles from our lives. It stops us from falling into the trap of thinking that these imperfections are the main thing, that our main goal is to craft a life as near perfect as possible, to manipulate the ratio of Nice to Nasty things in our lives (which sounds childish, but is a surprisingly real delusion.) Because once we enter this extended spectrum of emotion, so to speak, we realize almost immediately that the problems are always going to be there. If not in my life, then yours. Or his. Or hers.
And simultaneously, that joy, likewise, is always there. Even in the darkest times. There is always something to be thankful for.
Realizing this helps us to put life in perspective. Sorrow, as long as we are on this earth, is poignantly present. Even if we are happy--now--someone else's sorrow, like disturbing news headlines you try to ignore on your birthday, reminds us that happiness is not the solution, at least not here on earth. And happiness, beautiful as it is, is no more than an emotion, is not and cannot be the sole motivation for a life.
To quote Greg Gilbert, the church is 'where God's people learn to love one another, to bear one another's burdens and sorrows, to weep together and rejoice together, and to hold one another accountable...the kingdom of God looks like, at least before it's made perfect...'
Before it's made perfect.
Few churches, if any, will have a clean bill of health. But the diagnosis shows us what we lack and what we ought to fight for.
We need to be vulnerable and honest with each other. We can't afford to retreat into the selfishness of comfort-zones, guarding the sacred Holy-of-Holies of our personal life from anything that threatens to disrupt it, dreading and resenting those who need help--even if it seems endlessly. We can't afford to be content with Sunday-best facades which safely gloss over real-life problems and weaknesses, because the bonds within a healthy church call for the common experience of real, raw, honest emotions--of pain, sorrow, joy--under which these paper cutouts crumple.
If we don't feel together (and this works in both interpretations of that phrase; sharing the same emotions as well as the corollary sense of unity) with our church, perhaps we're not relating to each other as we ought. Perhaps in serving one another we've neglected a much more significant, far more basic way of loving each other.
After all, Christ was called a Man of Sorrows. He took on--and is taking, even now--the full load of our sorrows, and was made the means to our fullest joy.
And His love is the model for us all.
I don't know who you are, or anything about you--I like to call you my ghost readers, who leave no trace behind (rather like me when I read other blogs.) I've come to feel that all you quiet readers must be somehow like me, if you actually enjoyed my writing or found it interesting. I'd love to find out a bit more about you, get a better idea of who I'm writing for, and what matters to you. After all, you have been what encourages me to keep writing. So many times I've been tempted to delete this blog, when I felt like a failure for not being able to keep up the weekly posting, when I felt like a hypocrite for presuming to write on spiritual things when I was struggling with so many issues myself, when I felt fear that people would misinterpret and speculate on what I wrote. You've encouraged me to keep writing even when another rejection email comes from another publisher, and my lifelong dream of being published seems more and more like a castle in the air. (And before you start offering me tissues, this was meant to be a thank-you note, not a pity party; after all, there's a myth that every writer needs to collect one hundred rejection letters before amounting to anything. Not quite there yet!)
It's been four years, and I'm trying to build up this blog, seeing how it's lasted this long, and seeing how the readership has grown. I hope to write more helpfully and more relevantly.
So I would appreciate it if you would indicate in this little survey below, what you enjoy most about this blog/the main reason why you're here, why you came back; and what you want to see on this blog. There are ONLY 3 questions, by the way, before you run away! Share a bit about yourself, won't you? I'd love to get a glimpse of the faces and lives behind the numbers in the stat counter which is all I know of you.
John 15:13: Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends...
We know this verse well. We know it as the role model for serving, for marriage, for ministry.
But since most of us aren't called to actually sacrifice our lives for others in the context of our comfortable first world environments, it's a rather hazy guideline when you compare it to what you actually do day by day.
A sermon I heard recently posited an interpretation of this phrase which helped me apply it to my 21st century life and context.
If we see life as the time we have here, then laying down our life for others happens every time we give our time to others, to serve them, to help them, to encourage them, to be with them, and even just to listen to them. When we sacrifice our Saturday evenings to prepare Sunday School lessons or Bible study materials. When we spend hours in the kitchen cooking for someone coming over or travel to deliver some food. When we're on a long phone call, listening quietly, changing the phone from side to side as each ear gets hot and flattened. When we craft a long, personal message and plan a meet up.
I think of Christ, in His short time here, knowing exactly how long He had, laying down His life for us even before His death on the cross, by giving His time/life to each person He ministered to. With that perspective, we see the selflessness and magnitude of His love foreshadowed in each touch of His hand, each time He waved away the disciples' agonized 'But Master--we don't have time for that--'; each time He beckoned gently, laying aside His own needs and wants.
When He healed the woman with the discharge, on His way to Jairus' house, struggling through a massive crowd of people pushing and pulling at Him, urging Him to hurry up and do His stuff, He stopped and gave her those precious five minutes which changed her life. Without dismissing her. Without worrying. Without begrudging her for detracting from a seemingly more important task or need, or resenting her timing (which I'm afraid sounds illogical but is nevertheless very human.)
When He met the Samaritan woman at the well, humanly speaking a heart-to-heart-talk about morality and religion was probably the last thing He felt like doing. It was hot. He was tired, and thirsty (the chances of my striking up an intense, long, personal conversation when I'm tired, but especially when I'm thirsty, are rather slim!) If it had been me, I would definitely have treasured that precious lull of inactivity in the midst of a hectic and draining day, to close my eyes or rest my voice or simply stone in exhaustion. Some much-needed downtime that one didn't have to feel guilty about. Instead, He engrossed Himself in her personal story and needs, taking the double effort necessary to interact with a stranger from a different background and culture on a personal and potentially sensitive subject. Without becoming embittered when she initially reacted by becoming defensive. Without trying to impress His sacrifice on her so she could be properly grateful for it.
Imagine, He knew exactly how many minutes He had here.
We don't know that, but we do know our time is limited.
How did Christ use His time, knowing this, and how does that knowledge affect what we do with ours?
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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