From Generality To Particularity

As I was making my way through Colossians, I was struck by an idea that may or may not have been on Paul’s mind, particularly in chapter 3.  Paul speaks about what we should “put on,” things like compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, to name a few.  We hear such words and we know what they mean for the most part.  But what do they look like in everyday life when we are angry or tired or struggling with conflict?  But then Paul gets specific.  He begins to talk specifically about how wives should operate, what it means to be a husband, how children should relate to their parents and so on.  From this movement by Paul, I was struck by this idea:  the move from generality to particularity.

Jesus said to the woman at the well, Go call your husband.  She responded with these words:  I have no husband.  She responds with what I am calling “generality.”  It answers the person inquiry but not with anything that allows the other to actually know more.  But with Jesus, that will not do.  In order to do the work that Jesus wants to do in her life and what the Spirit wants to do in our lives, we are invited to move from generality to particularity:  You have had 5 husbands and the man you are with now is not your husband.  For this woman, the particulars of her story involved the shame of having been married 5 times and now living with a sixth man.  Fully exposed, the work of God could move forward and bring life and hope to this woman.

Ever notice how often we speak in generalities?  Sometimes when a waitress asks “How are you today?”, I respond by saying, “How long do you have?”  She doesn’t really care to hear the details of my life and at that moment, rightfully so.  It is simply an attempt at humor.  Yet, in our relationships, this same pattern is followed.  People asks us a question and we offer generalities.  Sometimes that is because the person asking really isn’t asking.  At other times however, we really don’t want to be known, our fear ruling our lives and keeping us at a distance.

I can recall two men who were both once part of our Fellowship.  I remember working beside one while golfing with the other and on occasion, I would make an effort to move our conversations beyond the normal chit-chat.  But I would often leave both individuals puzzled because despite all the words and questions and answers, I really didn’t know either man much better after the conversation than I had before.  They said the right words but in my youthfulness, I wasn’t wise enough to go after the specifics of what they were saying.  Looking back now, I think both men were hiding.  They kept their answers general in nature, avoiding the specifics of what was happening in their hearts and in their marriages.  A few years later, both their lives and their marriages would implode.

This hiding tendency is in all of us.  We tend toward vagueness.  We offer generalities.  Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters alludes to this pattern in these words spoken by the senior demon, Screwtape to his junior assistant, Wormwood.  Screwtape says, You must bring a man to a condition in which he can practice self-examination without discovering any of those facts about himself which are perfectly clear to anyone who has even lived in the same house with him. In other words, keep him focused on generalities where he/we can remain untroubled by how we live.  But the Spirit’s work is to reveal the particularities of our lives.  And if we are to help another, we must be committed to the same practice.  We must not settle for generalities.  We must be relentless at times to keep asking the next question, the question(s) that help bring into the light what needs exposed that inhibits God’s life and love from then being the controlling agent in how we interact.

And it begins in our primary affiliations.  Paul starts at home.  He starts with how we are doing as husbands and wives, mothers and fathers.  He talks about what we are to be like at work as an employee or employer.  I think he does so because if we don’t start there, the Gospel has little power to the world.  We can be all about the mission of the church, doing lots of things, and while God uses those efforts, they can lack the power He longs to release from us because who we are and our poor relating remains undetected, and thus, inhibiting us.  

We are, beginning in the relationships closest to us, to model a bit of the life of the Godhead.  Seven times in nine verses, Paul references something to the effect of what is “fitting in the Lord.”  In other words, something about how we relate to those closest to us reflects how the Lord relates to His Father and the Father to His Son. That is our calling.  I sometimes wonder if it first requires us to see where we are doing poorly in order to improve?  That was certainly true for me athletically.  I knew I had some weaknesses but at times, I didn’t want to see the film.  I didn’t want exposed as inadequate.  But hope is born there and so it is in our faith lives as well.  Must we first see where we are spiritually deformed before we can be spiritually formed?  Might this again be a reason we must move from the generalities of how we relate to seeing the specifics, so that we are first troubled and realize how far we have to go and how badly we need God’s life, His grace and mercy?

I think to live lives pleasing to the Lord—Paul’s original goal for these people, including us—we must move from generality to particularity in how we model God to the world.  And we must help others do the same during those occasions where we are engaged in meaningful conversations.

One last thought, unrelated, but provoked by Paul exhortation to put on kindness (3:12).  I was reading a novel last night called The Beautiful Thread.  If you have heard of or been reading the series called The Hawk and The Dove, this book is the latest.  It is a series about life in a monastery.  Fascinating writing and realistic.  I marvel at the accuracy with which Penelope Wilcock writes, not only about the struggles of living together in community but the wisdom necessary to preserve such a community.  Anyhow, Father John, the Abbot, has been struggling immensely and he delivers these words to his people at the Chapter, a chapel- like time for the men who live in the monastery.  He says to them that he had two thoughts that have threaded through him the past week.  The first, he says, is that whatever is going on in my own life—whether I’m in despair; whether others look up to me or I am disregarded, of no account—whatever—I have the option to be kind. You don’t have to be rich or important, or very bright to be kind.  It’s no small thing to be on the receiving end of kindness.  And the withholding of simple kindness is a root of bitterness and the seed of war.  Making the choice to be kind prays “thy kingdom come” even when you feel past praying and past caring.  Kindness, I have come to believe, is the currency of Christ’s kingdom, the stuff out of which new hope can be made.  Where we push a sprig of it into the earth in whatever place we are, life springs anew.

     So when all light is gone and the horrible sense of pointlessness overwhelms me, showing me my own inadequacy, I can at least make the choice to be kind; and that’s my prayer, my creed, my way of anchoring myself to Christ.

Grace upon grace to you.  The best is yet to come.  In the meantime, let’s be kind.