Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is packed with advice and teaching on just about every area of life. After he seemingly made all his important points, he dedicated the last portion of his letter to personal greetings, comments and thoughts regarding his future plans. Surprisingly, in the middle of this newsy section is a two-verse jewel – extraordinarily profound because these verses summarize the way we are to live today. 13 “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. 14 Do everything in love.” 1 Corinthians 16:13-14
Perhaps a key to understanding this admonition is to distinguish between what we do, and who we are – rather, Whose we are. If we think of ourselves as Christians, then we will likely look at the first four phrases as instructions to carry out to the best of our abilities. But, if we have determined to live/abide in Christ, then these same four are not action commands, but a state of “being.” We do not will ourselves to perform them, nor do we labor to achieve them. They are a natural by-product, or fruit, that comes from being grafted into the life-giving Vine of Christ. So, they appear only through our connection to Jesus, and it is His work, not ours.
It is little wonder that almost none of us can claim being on our guard, standing firm in the faith, being people of courage, and being strong, as our natural conditions. If they come through abiding in Christ, then the sad truth is that many of us visit with Jesus, but we really don’t live in Him. We run into the shelter and safety of His wing when we need advice, when we feel under attack, when we’re facing insurmountable difficulties; and we receive what we need, because that IS His promise. (Matt 11:28-30) 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” When we think we’ve received what we came for, we run out to attend to our pressing business. Then, when we’re confronted with the next need, we run back for more. It is a little like cutting a branch off of a fruit tree, grafting it back on, then cutting it off again, only to graft it on again. At best, the branch doesn’t die. But, it is definitely NOT going to produce fruit, as the nutritional flow of sap is constantly disrupted. Our inexperience with abiding generally means we only know how to achieve goals through our own efforts, and cannot even conceptualize accomplishment any other way.
So, it follows that we are equally clueless regarding how to do everything in love. The saddest part is that we think we know how. If “God IS love,” (1 John 4:8), and God is so infinite that we will spend all eternity learning of Him, then how can we think we know Love? We know what we’ve been taught and what we’ve experienced, but that is a minute fraction of the depth of Love. If God is the only One Who thoroughly understands love because He IS Love, then only He knows what it looks like to do everything in love. The only way we can participate is if we are abiding in Jesus, and His life is flowing through us. That means our actions, our words, our attitudes are totally directed by Him, and probably won’t “look” like anything we would have thought to do.
And that is actually how we gauge whether we are carrying out Paul’s instructions. Do our actions, words and attitudes effortlessly reflect Jesus, or are we practicing one or more of those admonitions through our determined willpower? Are we surprised by the love and grace and wisdom demonstrated, or is the outward expression consistent with our personal interpretation?
The good news is there is no condemnation in missing the mark. When the Lord presents us with types of fruit – or states of “being” – it is not to demonstrate where we’ve failed, but to highlight where we are on the journey to become more like Him. Judging ourselves through word and deed becomes one of the most important things we can do. How can we ever know what we need, if there is no assessment of where we are, or what we have? Is He actually surprised or disappointed with whatever that is? No! Does a parent condemn a child who falls in learning to walk?
The disconnect for most of us is that we’ve been taught all our lives that we simply need to work harder to accomplish goals. Could it actually be as easy as drawing close to Jesus, allowing Him to be Lord of our lives ALL the time, and placing ALL our trust in Him, rather than relying on our intellect, reasoning, and/or capabilities? There is tremendous freedom in realizing that working harder is not going to produce the desired results. The work is Christ’s. Our work is seeking Him with all our hearts.
With five succinct, but loaded phrases, Paul identified some of the most valuable positions that we Christ-followers living in the last days can take. Therefore, in exploring these as markers as well as instructions, the guiding truth for our study comes from 2 Corinthians 3:17-18:
17” Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”