Somewhere around 1999, I took a summer class from Eugene Peterson at Regent College in Vancouver. It was entitled “Soul-Crafting” from the letter Paul wrote to the believers at Ephesus. There are others but one particular idea lingers with me to this day, then causing a paradigm shift in my thinking. As you may know, the Apostle Paul begins nearly every letter with these words: To the saints. Peterson did not skip over those introductory words. Instead, he said this: "Paul deals with people from a position of health.” Ponder that notion for a moment. Dr. Peterson went on to suggest that we are saints not because of what we do. A saint is not what we see when we look in the mirror each morning. Instead, we are saints because Jesus declared it so. We are saints despite our failures, despite the problems that exist in our churches. Paul would get to the problems that prompted his writing of letters, but first he wanted to recognize their proper position in Christ.
Martin Luther--and if you have been reading these missives over the years you’ve heard this before—coined a phrase in Latin that captures what Paul is also saying in writing “to the saints.” Luther’s words were simul justis et pecatta, which is to say that we are, at the same time, saints and sinners. And it seems to me that the order is significant. We are saints first but equally sinners. One will burn away while the other will remain. What makes this difficult to accept is the fact that the majority of what we experience from others and see within ourselves seems to indicate the opposite. Mostly, we relate as sinners. If we are honest, we don’t like what we see inside ourselves. But nevertheless, we are saints, says the great Apostle as well as the great Reformer. This is good news! Embrace it, but do so without denying the reality of the other (the sinner part).
So, Paul begins the letter to the church at Colossae in the same fashion: saints. Ah, a breathe of fresh air once again! I am a saint. So are you. We need reminded. And then Paul expresses his affection for these people whom he had never met. Years ago, in the book entitled The Shack, there was a phrase that resonated with me each time I read it in the book. On numerous occasions, the one representing Jesus or the Spirit would say, “He (the Father) is especially fond of that one,” or “He is fond of you.” That is not a common word but it fits here in Colossians. Paul is fond of these people because he has heard how their faith is working itself out rightly, or in love. We can know a lot, do a lot, but if we don’t love, we don’t understand the faith or our theology. But according to reports, the Colossian believers are loving and Paul is thrilled with them. They are on the same page. They are about the same thing. What bonds us to each other is not simply time, or shared experiences, or our vulnerability, though these things contribute; what bonds us is when we are moving outward toward the same thing, namely to love with the self-sacrificing love of God. That is ultimately what creates true spiritual community.
Paul then is praying for these people. His goal is stated up front, v10) to live a life worthy of the Lord, pleasing him in every way. To be able to do that, we are going to need at least 4 things from what I read in the early part of chapter 1. It is these four things for which Paul is praying. Let me list them and then say a word about each: knowledge, wisdom, endurance and patience.
What is knowledge? We aren’t born with it. We are born ignorant. We will need to do what Paul is praying for: grow in our knowledge of God. It does not come naturally. But here is my understanding of what knowledge is: the understanding that there is a larger story unfolding of which I am a part. It is a story that contains many chapters, some of which are difficult. But it is a story that will end well. And my story fits within this larger story. Paul is praying for these people to understand this important truth. They are part of something grand no matter how it may appear at any given moment.
Then he prays for wisdom. What is biblical wisdom? We aren’t born with it; we are born fools. Foolishness, says the wise king of proverbial fame, is bound up in the heart of a child. It must be driven out or it simply gets rearranged as we get older. In light of the above definition for knowledge here is my understanding of wisdom: learning how to navigate the choppy and unchartered waters of the larger story in a way that promotes not my story but the story of God, who He is while accepting who I am.
Now, it is a great exercise to consider a definition for knowledge and wisdom’s opposites. Those would be ignorance and foolishness. Here are my definitions:
ignorance=there is no story other than mine. Or, if there is, it takes a back seat to mine. My commitment is to see to it that my story takes center stage, that it goes along without a hitch and to then make anyone pay who does not cooperate with this agenda.
foolishness=arranging how I live and relate so that my best interest are always central, mostly in subtle ways. I will care about you only as it compliments my personal agenda.
I think we might now understand why Paul is praying. More than that, he says at the end of chapter one that he is laboring with God’s energy in order to present everyone mature in Christ. To be mature, we will need to combat ignorance and foolishness with knowledge and wisdom. Because, and this is really important to grapple with, ignorance and foolishness often masquerade as knowledge and wisdom. This happens frequently in the church. It also happens subtly. You and I would do well to stop and ponder where this might be happening in our thinking and in our churches.
Paul continues to pray. Two more things top his agenda. They are found in verse 11. I wrote about them a couple of writings ago. They are not what I would expect, not typical words or qualities at the top of our culture’s “get list.” He prays that these people will have great endurance and patience. They go hand in hand. We will need to endure for the long haul. We will need patience for the long haul. We will need patience with God because often it seems he is not moving fast enough in my children, in you or in our world. We will need patience with others since it appears people change very little or, at best, very slowly. And, we will need patience with our own judgmental selves and the lack of progress we are making, if we are honest. Patience and perseverance. Perseverance and patience. There may not be a more delighting characteristic to our God than endurance: Well done good and faithful servant. The journey of faith is a long obedience in the same direction. There are far too many exit ramps off the road marked perseverance. We will need to help each other get back on the road while also helping each other from looking for shortcuts.
So, that’s it. That is what we will need to live a life worthy of the Lord, pleasing him in every good way. We will need to join Paul in praying that we grow in knowledge and wisdom, lest we continue to be guided by ignorance and foolishness. We will need wisdom and knowledge in order to help those with whom we worship to also forsake their ignorance and foolishness. And we will need endurance and patience along the way because the journey is long and often difficult. Let’s join Paul in laboring for one another.
Grace upon grace to you,