Aroma or Stench

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Of all the human senses, perhaps the least valued is smell. Yet smells can evoke powerful scenes and emotions. Think of freshly baked bread, pipe tobacco, a familiar perfume, or freshly mowed grass. Or imagine standing downwind of a dirty diaper, skunk, or old fish.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God. 1 Cor. 2:14-17 NIV

Paul’s metaphor alludes to the Roman custom of burning incense along the route of a victorious general leading his captives to death in the arena. Wherever we live, work, and play, we also leave a fragrance—not literally, but in how our lives display Christ to others.

In verse 17, Paul gives an example of the sweet aroma of sincerity. The Greek word here for sincere means without hypocrisy or genuine. In Paul’s day, peddlers were often hucksters of shoddy goods, shady retailers with more interest in their own profits than the customer’s benefit. Sincere men, insists Paul, shun such practices.

I chuckled recently at the cigar smoker in his late-‘90s model sedan who pulled up at the car wash and requested the “new car smell.” We all make similar attempts to sanitize our own lives. Author Larry Crabb suggests, “We wish we were better than we are, but we’re not. And that realization brings shame, a desire to hide, to avoid real contact, to present to others only that part of us we think will be well received” (Inside Out, p. 30). So we apply extra fragrance and try to convince others—and ourselves—that our Christian faith is authentic. Then one day we realize we have distanced ourselves from everyone we long to know, and we smell like week-old fish.

Are you real? Do you know who you are? Are you the same alone as you are in others’ company? Can you be frank about your life beneath the perfume?

When our actions are sincere, authentic, and fueled by a vibrant relationship with Jesus, “we are to God the aroma of Christ.” Jesus Christ’s fragrance is unmistakable. You can smell it on someone who follows Him. But when we stray from the One who gives our lives meaning and purpose, “instead of fragrance there will be a stench” (Isaiah 3:24).

What aroma lingers in your wake?

Question for discussion:

Is there someone in your life with whom you can be totally honest about your weaknesses, failures, and struggles?