Posts tagged Embodiment
Give Yourself Away

“For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Rom 1:11–12, ESV).

Impart a Spiritual Gift

Writing to believers in a church he did not establish, in a city he had never visited, Paul communicates that he longs to see them, so that he might impart “some spiritual gift.” This phrase is curious. I cannot find an approximate match anywhere else in Scripture. Some have argued that the spiritual gift is the message of the gospel, charismatic gifts (e.g. tongues, prophecy), or perhaps, the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 19:6). The problem, of course, is Paul does not say this. He says some spiritual gift, and as Jewett rightly comments “the particle τι (‘some, some kind of’) leaves open the question of precisely what Paul seeks to contribute within the parameters of a charismatic gift.”1 One thing we can conclude, however, is that the giving of the gift is tied to Paul’s visit: he is the conveyer of the gift, and it cannot, therefore, be given by letter or via proxy.

Using The Clear To Interpret The Unclear

One passage that may help shine a light on this esoteric gift is 1 Thessalonians 2:1–16. There, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of his ministry among them. In v. 8 Paul tells the church that they were “affectionately desirous of you,“ translated differently: they longed for them. He goes on to say, ”we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thess 2:8, emphasis added). Additionally, in v. 17 Paul laments being “torn away” from the Thessalonians (“in person not in heart”), and tells them that he “endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face” (1 Thess 2:17, emphasis added). This, I think, is the key to understanding what Paul means by “some spiritual gift” in Romans 1:11.

Perhaps the reason Paul does not specify the nature of the gift, and why it cannot be received apart from his visiting in the flesh, is because he, himself is the gift. Stott elucidates, “there is ‘an intentional indefiniteness’ about his statement, perhaps because at this stage he does not know what their main spiritual needs will be.”2 Paul’s ambiguity as to the form of the spiritual gift is due to the fact that he does not at present know what they need. Willing to become all things to all people (1 Cor 9:22), he will wait until he arrives in order to determine how best to serve the believers in Rome.

No Substitute For Physical Presence

We have to ask, why does embodied presence even matter? What’s the difference between a text message and a face to face conversation? In our burgeoning digital age, this is a terribly relevant question. I believe Paul knew the answer to this question, for he understood the importance of face to face interaction. Allow me to explain.

As the saying goes, it’s not the quantity but the quality that really matters. Frank Bruni, however, disagrees. In an op-Ed piece entitled “The Myth of Quality Time”3, Bruni praises the integrity in acknowledging the havoc our rat-raced busyness has caused, but admonishes our attempts to remedy this with dedicated pockets of quality time. He argues that quantity (of time) is the key to enhancing quality (not the other way around). And nothing works better to bridge the gaps in intimacy than extended time in each other’s presence.

Bruni describes his family’s (extended family) ritual of blocking out an entire week every year to rent a house where they can all stay together. He confesses that for years he purposely showed up a day late, or ducked out two days early, because he “appreciated his private time.” But in recent years, he was determined to stay the entirety of the week. He recounts what he has learned:

With a more expansive stretch, there’s a better chance that I’ll be around at the precise, random moment when one of my nephews drops his guard and solicits my advice about something private. Or when one of my nieces will need someone other than her parents to tell her that she’s smart and beautiful. Or when one of my siblings will flash back on an incident from our childhood that makes us laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly the cozy, happy chain of our love is cinched that much tighter.

There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence. We delude ourselves when we say otherwise, when we invoke and venerate “quality time,” a shopworn phrase with a debatable promise: that we can plan instances of extraordinary candor, plot episodes of exquisite tenderness, engineer intimacy in an appointed hour.

Those who believe that they do not have time to do something like this attempt to substitute quantity time with carefully planned opportunities to spend quality time. To this line of thinking Bruni retorts:

But people tend not to operate on cue. At least our moods and emotions don’t. We reach out for help at odd points; we bloom at unpredictable ones. The surest way to see the brightest colors, or the darkest ones, is to be watching and waiting and ready for them.

Some of our most treasured memories took place almost serendipitously on some seemingly mundane day. As Bruni succinctly puts it, there’s simply no real substitute for physical presence. Deep down, I think we all know this—and so does Paul.

Bruni goes on to write:

Sustained proximity is the best route to the soul of someone; that unscripted gestures at unexpected junctures yield sweeter rewards than scripted ones on date night; that the “I love you” that counts most isn’t whispered with great ceremony on a hilltop in Tuscany. No, it slips out casually, spontaneously, in the produce section or over the dishes, amid the drudgery and detritus of their routines. That’s also when the truest confessions are made, when hurt is at its rawest and tenderness at its purest.

I know how my 80-year-old father feels about dying, religion and God not because I scheduled a discrete encounter to discuss all of that with him. I know because I happened to be in the passenger seat of his car when such thoughts were on his mind and when, for whatever unforeseeable reason, he felt comfortable articulating them.

And I know what he appreciates and regrets most about his past because I was not only punctual for this summer’s vacation, but also traveled there with him, to fatten our visit, and he was uncharacteristically ruminative on that flight.

It was on a run the next morning that my oldest niece described, as she’d never done for me before, the joys, frustrations and contours of her relationships with her parents, her two sisters and her brother. Why this information tumbled out of her then, with pelicans overhead and sweat slicking our foreheads, I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that I’m even more tightly bonded with her now, and that’s not because of some orchestrated, contrived effort to plumb her emotions. It’s because I was present. It’s because I was there.

Conclusion

The author and book escape me at present, but I remember recently reading a line that said, “It is God’s job to get people through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. As Christians, it is our job to sit with them in it.” We serve an incarnational God (cf. Jn 1:14), who has charged us with an incarnational mission. Paul textures the Christian life in anatomical terms by referring to the church as members of Christ’s body (cf. 1 Cor 12; Eph 5:30). Therefore, we are charged with being the physical manifestation of his invisible attributes.

If I was in the hospital, it would mean more to me if you took the time to come and pray with me over sending a get-well-soon email. I would prefer a hug, an encouraging word, and a prayer of blessing on my birthday, over an “HBD” on my Facebook wall.

Make yourself available. Be present. As Jim Elliot was fond of saying, “Wherever you are be all there.” Inconvenience yourself for the sake of others, and in so doing you will, like Paul, be mutually comforted (cf. Rom 1:12).

  1. Robert Jewett and Roy David Kotansky, Romans: A Commentary, ed. Eldon Jay Epp, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006),, 124. ↩︎
  2. John Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 57. ↩︎
  3. Frank Bruni, “The Myth of Quality Time,” The New York Time, September 5, 2015. ↩︎
A Brief Meditation On Suffering

Variegated Manifestations of Suffering

James writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2, emphasis added). I find encouragement in the phrase “various kinds.” In the past, I assumed that the only suffering that counted was religious hardship like martyrdom, getting fired for being a Christian, or being harassed for not seeing the latest raunchy comedy with friends. But James urges us to count it as joy when we meet trials of various kinds. This includes the AC going out in the fever pitch of summer, flat tires on the way to work, paper cuts from your child’s science project, indigestion from the Chinese buffet you had for lunch, or worst of all, a string of sleepless nights with a colicky baby. Whatever form your trials/hardships take, they fall under the umbrella of various kinds.

Rejoice in Suffering

“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3–5, ESV).

How do we respond to such suffering? Paul gives the same answer as James: rejoice! As I said, I wrongly believed that the only suffering that counted was that incurred on account of my faith. In contrast to this, James and Paul teach that what makes suffering count is not the type but your response to it. Paul assumes that clueing us in on the purpose of our suffering (i.e., endurance) will help us frame the right response to it.

For the mom who has not slept since Reagan was President, Rejoice! For you belong to a God who never sleeps nor grows tired. And he has promised to be with you always, to never leave you or forsake you. He gives strength to the weary, and sleep to his beloved. Cry if you must, but know that he holds your tears in a bottle, and he will wipe them all away one day. Most importantly, know that he is using this season to shape and form you. He is teaching you that like your child, you are equally as helpless, and need him to feed, protect, and provide for you. He is taking you to a place where you can move beyond cliché Christian platitudes, and into the throes of real, vulnerable, messy faith.

Mind Over Matter?

Rejoice in the midst of suffering: easier said than done, right? Maybe. It depends on how we define “joy.” We must note that Paul does not tell us to rejoice for our suffering, depicting Christianity as a religion of masochism. Rather, he tells us to have joy in our suffering. Keller recapitulates Paul’s exhortation to rejoice while maintaining the balance of rejoicing in our suffering and not for our suffering when he writes:

God hates the pain and troubles of this life and so should we. Rather, a Christian knows that suffering will have beneficial results. A Christian is not a stoic, who faces suffering by just gritting their teeth. Christians “look through” the suffering to their certainties. They rest in the knowledge that troubles will only increase their enjoyment and appreciation of those certainties.1

The foundational tenant of Buddhism is overcoming or lessening suffering (i.e. evil) in this world. Ironically, since the material world is just an illusion, suffering must be categorized as an illusory reality, as it is part and parcel of the created realm. Unlike Buddhism, however, Christianity does not see the world as a temporary holding cell for the not-yet-enlightened. We believe that God created the material world. Therefore, Christians are called to rejoice in our suffering because the material world was good, and will be made new one day.

Suffering in and of itself is a parasitic aftershock of the fall that leaches onto God’s good creation. It stands as a testimony to the reality of evil (ipso facto, all matter). When Jesus relays the signs of the end of the age, he tells his disciples that “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Mt 24:7–8, emphasis added). He speaks of the sufferings we will witness and perhaps endure as the beginning of the birthing process. Paul contributes to this equally puzzling allegory when he writes, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom 8:22). The natural question should be, what is being birthed? Freedom—“creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). The road to this freedom, however, is marked in suffering.2

When Christ returns he will bring heaven to earth. As Christians, then, our current mission, the whole reason we are sent into the world, is to open windows of the future-kingdom-life for those engulfed in the darkness of this present age. But we do not overcome suffering by denying the metaphysical or the goodness of this world (i.e., mind over matter).

When you are victimized by the sin of gossip, you can embrace the one who wronged you and speak forgiveness over them. When your neighbor’s dog incessantly exercises his bowels on your lawn, you can pick up his deposits and place them in the trash. When you encounter a child who has suffered at the hands of negligent guardians, you can clothe, feed, adopt, protect, pray, and provide for him or her, as a way of unfurling the effects of the fall.

These examples of suffering (and many others) will no doubt affect us. But encountering suffering in this world is not merely an exercise of mind over matter. Rather it is finding joy in the fact that God is shaping our minds through matter, so that—through our transformed minds—he can affect the material world. The biblical-expectation is that, with the Spirit’s help, we will internalize suffering in such a way that joy in suffering is fueled by our eschatological vision, which will stir up our ever-increasing obedience of faith.

  1. Timothy Keller, Romans 1-7 For You (Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company, 2014), 112. ↩︎
  2. If you are confused as to why the biblical authors use the analogy of pregnancy and birth pains, I encourage you to ask a woman who has birthed a child if she agrees with this verse: “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (Jn 16:21). ↩︎
Holistic Communication Through the Sacraments

A few weeks ago, I was people-watching at church. I observed a father place his arm around his daughter. After this, he leaned over and kissed her on her head. A father’s deep affections materialized to communicate to his daughter how he felt for her in his immaterial soul. I asked myself, is the body merely a megaphone for one’s innards? No, this was not a reductionistic sender-channel-receiver transaction.

Receiving the materialization of her father’s affection in the body, the daughter will process the act further immaterially. Perhaps she records a memory, or simply basks in the moment. Perhaps her insecurities are assuaged as she nestles safely under his arm, or maybe she experiences again what she has known all her life: my daddy loves me. The communicative act goes soul through body to body into soul.

God loved the world. He communicated this love bodily through the incarnation of his Son, Jesus (John 3:16). Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24). He died in the flesh and rose in the flesh (Luke 24:38–39). We know this. But what I am afraid we have missed is that he implemented a way to recommunicate this to us through the sacraments.

“And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’" (Mark 14:22–25)

A sacrament is a material symbol, perceived sensorily, which–when joined with faith–communicates God's covenant promises. In the enactment of the Lord's Supper, we see the bread, representative of Christ’s body, broken. We see the cup, representative of his blood, poured out. We are not sidelined to observe only; instead we are invited to partake freely. For what purpose? The Lord’s Supper is mnemonic[1], catechetical[2], ecclesiological[3], and eschatological[4]. The Lord’s Supper is God’s love for his children communicated materially through the elements to be received materially and internalized immaterially. God created us as holistic beings: material and immaterial in psychosomatic union. We need not bifurcate what God has joined together.


  1. The sacrament is the Word of God enacted. Partaking in the bread and cup assists us in remembering the Son’s salvific act on our behalf.  ↩

  2. The table teaches us about atonement, propitiation, our union with Christ, and God’s omnipresence, i.e., extra Calvinisticum.  ↩

  3. God’s table is reserved for God’s people, the church. Therefore, only baptized believers may enjoy the fellowship and nourishment of the sacrament.  ↩

  4. In Ephesians 2:6, Paul writes that by the Spirit’s power we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (experientially). So, too, the invitation for God’s sons and daughters, heirs to the throne, to come and dine with their sovereign King. But we do so with the anticipation of the final feast on the last day, when his kingdom is finally and fully realized (Revelation 19:6–9), and all things are reconciled and brought into subjection of the Son.  ↩