To our faithful friends spread over the world,
2020 isn’t playing out quite the way we expected it, is it? As this global pandemic continues to run its course, I know so many global uncertainties abound that it’s hard to find our bearing. A few of you have had to come back to the States for a season and many of you are enduring the oddness of a quarantine in a foreign land. Just as I was writing this from my new “home office,” I overheard my wife in the room next door reading to our kids. She mispronounced the words “suspended in misery” as “suspended in ministry.” I wonder if both of those categories might resonate with you - “suspended in misery” and “suspended in ministry.”
I wanted to write to you, to share with you one passage that has the potential to give clarity in this murky “in-between” in which we all find ourselves. In 2 Corinthians 2:12-17, Paul writes,
“When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though the Lord opened a door for me, I had no rest in my spirit because I did not find my brother Titus. Instead, I said good-bye to them and left for Macedonia. But thanks be to God, who always leads us in Christ’s triumphal procession and through us spreads the aroma of the knowledge of him in every place. For to God we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To some we are an aroma of death leading to death, but to others, an aroma of life leading to life. Who is adequate for these things? For we do not market the word of God for profit like so many. On the contrary, we speak with sincerity in Christ, as from God and before God.” (2 Corinthians 2:12–17, CSB)
Paul’s feet landed in Troas to find an open door for the gospel, but his deep concern for Corinth divided his heart. He had “no rest” for his spirit because he had yet to receive the news from Titus about Corinth’s condition. False teachers had infiltrated Corinth and Paul wondered if their influence had prevailed. So he felt suspended between two needs and left an open door for gospel ministry. In this passage in 2 Corinthians, Paul justifies disengaging in Troas to find Titus as the false teachers had exploited this episode of weakness to further discredit his ministry. In that murky moment, the gift of clarity was granted: “But thanks be to God…,” he writes. But what happened?
Right in this restless moment, Paul erupts with thanksgiving (verse 14). He gives no indication his circumstances had changed. Yet, God takes that moment to interrupt his despair and lift the fog about who He really is and the true nature of gospel ministry. What Paul realized at that moment serves us well to consider in our “suspended-ness.”
Remember the “always” and “every place” of God’s presence with you. Paul finds rest in the fact that God “always” leads us and spreads through us the aroma of the knowledge of Christ in “every place.” The same “always” and “every place” applies to you. If you find yourself in the States, you didn’t leave God behind when you boarded that plane. He’s not in some other time zone. For those of you around the world who remain isolated in your homes, God isn’t stuck in another house two blocks down. He is with you. God didn’t stay in Troas while Paul ventured off. You may be disengaged from your ministry in some ways, but you can never be disengaged from your Maker.
You can, like Paul, breath in a huge sigh of relief generated from the new covenant glory of “God with us.” I know, for those who have stayed in your country, each email that comes from the State department probably feels more and more confining as the normal exit routes seem fewer and fewer. Remember God does not mediate His presence through your passport. He owns the universe and dwells with His people, always, everywhere. If you are stuck, you are stuck with Him and as Paul realizes, that’s the best place to be. This God comforts the depressed right where they are.
In case you forgot, your God treasures the opportunity to exalt His power through your weakness. This all too easily slips from our minds. The image of “Christ’s triumphal procession” opens a different angle for Paul to see his own discouragement and displacement. We are weak, He is strong. Paul re-realizes the core irony at the heart of gospel ministry. God spotlights Christ’s victory through his servants’ suffering, not their strategic successes. Weakness is God’s preferred platform so that “this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us” (4:7).
So, your strategic plans to reach your people for 2020 have been put on hold by this virus? Sounds like a perfect recipe for God’s table-turning grace to come to the rescue once again. Maybe He has pulled you away to protect you from the dangerous illusion that you are necessary. Maybe He has displaced you so that those new believers’ faith that had started unhealthily leaning on you would be repositioned on Him and Him alone. No one would have scripted this virus and that’s just it: our weakness is His wheelhouse. Let’s keep our eyes on Him as He does what He loves to do: catch us all by surprise.
Rehearse, over and over, the objective reality that God truly delights in you. Before Paul unpacks the polarizing nature of gospel ministry on earth, his thanksgiving springs from the concrete reality that he is a “fragrance of Christ” to God. This “fragrance” is always pleasing, always pleasant, unlike the word he uses later for “aroma” which elicits varying responses among differing audiences. God isn’t repulsed by how we “smell.” Just the opposite. He can’t get enough. His senses are filled with the very aroma of His beloved Son in us. We are in Christ and we share the very pleasure Christ enjoys with the Father.
As Cowper so famously wrote, “Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.” Paul sensed God’s smile. That remained unsuspended. The burden of being displaced is enough to bear on its own without adding the frown of His disapproval. He delights in you as He delights in His Son. Let this virus remind you of your value before the only One that matters. Perhaps, we’ve displaced Christ’s righteousness with some substitute, even ministry itself. Rejoice alongside Paul, “For to God we are a fragrance of Christ.” Period. Remember, His delight arises, not from your service, but your Savior.
And I love the image of gospel ministers being an aroma of Christ. We elicit polarizing responses: for some, compounding their judgment; for others, their joy. One thing about an aroma is that it can linger long. I remember our first tutor in our language learning days. She was a young college student who would commute for an hour on a crowded bus to get to our house in the dead heat of summer. Poor gal. When she arrived, she arrived. That thick, musky smell of no shower + body + Mediterranean diet + who knows what was simply overwhelming! Even after she left, she was still there. A smell that strong is stubborn. That’s what encourages me about this angle on our witness. We may not be among our people physically, but may our influence linger long. Let’s pray, in these uncertain times, that our manner and message would be an “aroma of life leading to life.”
Thanks be to God. We are thankful you are who you are. We are thankful you are where you are, wherever that may be.
Looking to the God of all comfort with you,
Chip and the BH Global Team