Best of Reflections: Why Make Such a Big Deal of Humility, Gentleness, Patience, and Forbearance?
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
In another post, I confessed my surprise over where Paul begins as he urges us to live out our divine calling. There's nothing here about bringing peace to the world or preaching the Gospel. Rather, Paul says we're to live out our calling with humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance. Why? Why does he make such a big deal of such ordinary and unspectacular qualities and behaviors?
I have come to answer this question from a couple of different perspectives, one of which I'll explore today, saving the other for tomorrow. When I sat back and pondered why Paul began his explanation of living out our calling in such an unremarkable way, all of a sudden it struck me. This is the voice of experience. This beginning reflects the real-life, down in the trenches experience of someone who has spent plenty of time in the church. Paul is not some ivory tower theologian who passes down idealistic counsel that sounds great in the lecture hall but is irrelevant to common life. On the contrary, Paul is a pastor, a pastoral theologian, and a Christian who has spent plenty of time trying to live out his calling in community with other believers. Paul's experience explains, in part, his counsel in verse 2.
For example, Paul knows that Christians struggle with humility. I wouldn't be surprised if Paul himself knew this struggle personally. We know we're to be Christ-like in putting others before ourselves, but our human nature rebels against such counter-intuitive and counter-cultural humility. Similarly, we can find it easy to treat people harshly, especially when they disagree with us or disappoint us. So we need to be reminded to be gentle with others, much as God is gentle with us.
Why does Paul mention patience and putting up with each other? Because he knows what happens in genuine Christian community. We can rhapsodize idealistically about the glories of Christian fellowship, but if we really get in and share life with our brothers and sisters, we start to bug each other. Some of our foibles are sins that need forgiveness and repentance. But many are just our peculiar ways of being. I think, for example, of my friend Stanley, who loved to sing robustly in church. Unfortunately, Stanley was a terrible singer who never hit the right notes. I loved Stanley's spirit, but hated his singing. I needed to exercise patience and forbearance, even if sometimes I just needed to sit a few rows away from Stanley. And he needed to put up with my self-absorbed assumption that worship was for my pleasure more than God's pleasure.
Paul understands that genuine Christian community is not easy. All of us will struggle to be humble, gentle, patient, and long-suffering. So Paul begins, not with lofty idealism, but with down-to-earth exhortations on the basis of authentic Christian experience. Yet, this is not the whole explanation of Paul's starting point. I'll consider another perspective tomorrow.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: As you reflect upon the four qualities or behaviors mentioned in verse 2, what strikes you as significant? Which of these fits into your strong suit? Which one of them is most challenging, the area where you most need to grow?
PRAYER: Thank you, Lord, for the realism of Scripture. Thank you that Paul writes, not from some safe distance far away from real community, but as one who lived his life in real churches with real Christians. Thank you for the down-to-earth quality of your Word, for the fact that it speaks to the actual challenges and opportunities of our lives.
Help me, Lord, to be humble, gentle, patient, and forbearing. I'm thankful that, over the years, I've grown in some of these qualities. But, as you know better than I, Lord, I still have far to go. You also know exactly where I am most in need of development. So I invite you to do your work in me through the Spirit, that I might live out my calling in a faithful and productive way. Amen.