“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.
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).
- 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. ↩︎
- John Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 57. ↩︎
- Frank Bruni, “The Myth of Quality Time,” The New York Time, September 5, 2015. ↩︎