One of my favorite hymns begins with the words, "My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation. I hear the sweet, tho’ far off hymn that hails a new creation.” Christians can rightly be accused at times of projecting a facade of serenity and happiness as a sort of whitewash over life’s brokenness. But this 150 year old verse touches on something much deeper. It grows out of an internal reality that neither ignores nor succumbs to the many difficulties and sorrows this world has to offer. This is the song of one whose hope is not ultimately found in the circumstances of this world
A Different Tune
The Apostle Paul’s life is a beautiful and poignant example of one whose song rose above the difficulties of this world. It can be easy to forget that he wrote in chains when we read the soaring prose of a letter like Ephesians. There is nothing present but exuberant joy when he begins the body of the letter with, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world that we should holy and blameless before him.” And though Paul does at times mention his imprisonment, the tone and tenor of his writing is consistently optimistic. The focus is always on the realities of the gospel, and not his circumstances.
While Paul’s imprisonment is often considered by those who study and exposit the Bible, the lives of the Ephesians are somewhat less accounted for. Ephesus was an important economic hub in the ancient world largely because it was the center of worship for the goddess Artemis. Brazen idol worship, religiously sanctioned prostitution, and euthanization of infants deemed unwanted were just part of the order of the day. It is interesting to consider, in light of this, that Paul’s letter to these people contains no laments regarding their circumstances either. Rather the stress is placed on the importance of their lives reflecting their faith, as Paul urges them, “...to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…”. A pastor in chains writing to a flock in the den of iniquity where the message of the gospel and its implications refuses to be derailed.
Staying on Point
It is vital that Christians today notice the emphasis of Paul’s letter in addition to its content. The temptations to shift off message are endless. We are living in strife filled times. The political landscape is bleak. It seems the only times the presidential candidates are telling the truth are when they are criticizing the other. Racial tensions are tragically intense and fueled by an irresponsible media. Violence is on the rise nationally. The culture has seemingly never been so hostile to Biblical principles. It has seldom been easier to let circumstances detract from the message of the gospel, which is precisely why it is so important that Christians stay on message.
This is not to suggest some sort of cultural dualism; it is not as though Christians care only for the spiritual. Staying on message does not mean that we simply ignore the problems that face our society. But it does mean that no issue is ever allowed to drown out the Christ fueled song of joy that characterizes the lives of the redeemed. Rather the gospel ought to rule, color, and inform the way we approach the problems that this world offers to us and our neighbors. It ought to give us a desire for truth rather than narrative, a love for neighbor rather than a hatred of the opponent, and above all a passion for winning people to Christ rather than to our side of a political or cultural wedge issue.
The problems of our time are not to be ignored, but the realities of Christ and His kingdom put them in perspective. If that perspective is sacrificed, we will lose much more than the so called culture war. It cannot be overstated how badly this world needs Christians who saturate themselves in the truth of Christ and lead with that message to those who disagree with them. Think: God became a man and died for the sins of the world so that those who believe could be reunited to their creator for all of eternity. He was literally and historically raised from death and seen by hundreds of people. He resides now in heaven, interceding for His beloved. How can that message take a back seat to anything? That old hymn reaches its chorus with the words, “No storm can shake my inmost calm, when to that refuge clinging. If Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”