about that empathy with paul

I love the epistles, the letters that compose a good chunk of the New Testament. I love them because they’re so applicable, so much more in reach at times than the Old Testament prophets and commandments and sacrificial laws. Don’t get me wrong—I love the Old Testament. I love the whole Bible, reading it, applying it, watching it continue to work itself out around me. But there’s something about the Old Testament that is either too vague or too specific. For too vague, read some of the prophets who speak of impending doom and a coming Savior with a lot of code and double-speak and, by the way, anytime the Old Testament mentions a “whore,” it’s usually talking about a country. Or a town. Or foolishness. It’s never about the skanky girl on the primetime TV show. For too specific, read through Leviticus and parts of Numbers and Deuteronomy and see how doing this one action on this one day of the year deserves this one method of punishment for seven days outside the city. And that’s probably what they needed then, but in America right now, cutting off the hand of a woman who grabs some guy’s junk while he’s fighting with her man is not exactly legal.

It’s the letters that always grabbed my attention the most growing up, because I could take comfort in them and learn self-discipline from applying their wisdom. They’re easy to memorize and applicable in daily situations. It’s good, practical advice and, by the way, when the epistles mentions whore-like behavior, it’s not talking about a country or a town or foolishness. It’s talking about the skanky girl on the primetime TV show and what happens when we start acting more like her and less like Christ. See, that I can actually understand.

James was always my favorite growing up, the letter James wrote to Jewish believers of Christ. It, like the other letters, reaffirms the gospel. It encourages, “God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (1:12). It also corrects, “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless” (1:26). For someone like myself who was born with the habit of talking before thinking, reading verses like that is lovingly correcting and, while I still talk way too much and pray about it more than you might think, I’m aware that it’s a situation that needs to be addressed. All of the letters are this way.

Many of them are Paul et al.’s letters to the people of Galatia or Corinth or Thessalonica. Sometimes Paul is commending the churches’ behavior. Sometimes he scolds them. Always he says how much he misses them, how much he longs to see them, how much he prays for them. He references hearing reports from people he’s sent on ahead of how the churches are doing and how encouraged or discouraged he is by their reports. He mentions bragging on specific churches and people, telling others how much God is moving in their lives. All of this takes up significant portions of each letter, and I always felt they were just formal niceties that didn’t mean anything, and I’d skip over them. Until last night, when I finally understood all these things Paul has been talking about.

Having mono has been one of the worst experiences of my life. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s hard to put into words how hopeless the whole thing is. There’s no treatment, there’s no ETA for getting rid of the stupid thing, and there’s no way for me to work through it like I have everything else in my life. Normally my life is multi-tasking: eating while working while watching a TV show on mute and listening to music. And now I lie awake because I can barely sleep but I don’t have the strength to move, and I think over and over about everything I’m not getting done for work, for our upcoming wedding, for our new house, etc. But that’s another post for another time, because God has already shown me many things from this whole unpleasant ordeal.

Our LifeHouse is our small group of about twenty 20- & 30-somethings who aren’t married. We meet once a week to share about what God is doing in and around us and what we learned from the previous week’s sermon. We discuss how it does or doesn’t apply to our lives. We pray together and we leave. I’ve been participating in or leading a LifeHouse since probably September of 2007. But for some reason, this particular group we have now is seeing a move of God like I haven’t seen in a small group before. People are openly sharing their struggles and encouraging one another, building each other up, supporting each other through very serious problems. I love being a part of it. And then, suddenly, the mono strikes and so far I’ve missed about a month’s worth of meetings. I really hate it, but at the same time, I continue to hear about what’s going on through my co-leader or through my fiancé. They tell me stories from LifeHouse that, even though I wasn’t there, still encourage me. Because I know the people in that group and I have a deep love for them. I pray for them and I brag about them to everyone I can, and more than anything I marvel at the way God is moving in them.

The past two weeks I’ve sent out emails to the group with their prayer requests and keep feeling more and more like Paul. Finally, I understand all those things from his letters that I thought were obligatory comments and formal niceties. I tell them how much I miss them, how much I long to see them, and how much I pray for them. It seems a little silly, maybe, because I often feel a lot closer to the Saul-before-Paul than to the Paul who wrote those letters. But it’s an encouragement to me that God has used this time to help me understand the complete love, passion, and compassion Paul had for the people of these churches. It alters ever-so-slightly the way I view the epistles, as not empty letters filled with good advice from a spiritual authority, but rather as heartfelt outpourings of love and encouragement from an equal brother in Christ who genuinely wants to see the churches grow and wants more than anything to know how God is continuing to minister to and through them.

I love how those things Satan intends for evil, God works out for good. I feel like this whole stage of having a ridiculous, nonsensical illness is one of those things intended for evil. But, like I said, this isn’t the first thing God’s used to mono to teach or remind me, and I doubt it will be the last.