Things That Matter

In these strange times, we are being reminded of the things that matter. We are gaining a clearer perception of the things that have value.

In the last few weeks, I have seen good friends have to make difficult and costly decisions about where to base themselves. From experience, it is amazing how quickly you can pack and gather important possessions when pushed to it. Inevitably, individual items are left behind but they are usually replaceable; people, however, are not.

Although somewhat tongue in cheek, I often describe and evaluate my own life in line with the Benedictine monks’ expression “pray and work” (Latin: ora et labora), but add a third category of running (currere).

I shall come more to prayer shortly; but suffice to say at this point that I have come to see the value of prayer and its importance has been heightened lately.

As for working, although I have now fully decamped from my desk within a stone’s throw of Edinburgh Castle, I am trying to continue my research in the area of New Testament and Christian Origins. While holding things lightly, I realise that this time could even be an opportunity to make headway on writing; although I know for many academics with dependants, this will be an extremely challenging time. While I think my own research area is valuable, part of me wishes that I was more scientifically minded and able to be of medical assistance – either at the forefront of developing vaccines to defeat Covid-19 or caring for the most vulnerable. Current medical research and care are both vital; those working in these areas deserve our full support.

As for running and sport more generally, we have no idea when competitive sport will be able to happen again. This is of great sadness and frustration to many who have prepared for these contests; but it pales into significance in the current crisis. Some parts of the world are on lockdown and even recreational running is not possible. I hope it does not come to that in the UK because of the physical and mental benefits that exercise can have; but we should be prepared for it as a necessary precaution to protect the most vulnerable. These times show how much sport is valued, but that it is of relative value compared to other things. To borrow the language of ancient Stoic philosophy,[1] we might consider sport to be neither wholly good nor wholly bad in value; it is an “indifferent” (Greek: adiaphoron).

I have spent a considerable portion of 2020 immersed in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Philippians and hope to complete a draft of a chapter focused on it next month. At one point, the apostle Paul also borrows this philosophical language about “indifferents” and repurposes it to convey to a group of Christian believers what matters. Paul writes:

“And this I pray: so that your love may abound yet more and more in understanding and total insight, in order that you may discern the things that matter (Greek: ta diapheronta)” (Philippians 1:9-10a, my translation)

I believe that these words can still provide significant perspective today and I shall briefly dwell on three things that matter: prayer, love, and ultimate perspective.

Prayer

At times like this, even if we habitually pray to God, we might be inclined to see the practice as futile. We might ask: if there is a God, and God is good, why has this crisis been allowed to happen? Herein lies the age-old question about God and suffering. One approach to it, however, is to recognise that choosing to pray provides an opportunity to go beyond the self and talk to God honestly about what is happening. Praying is an inherently outward-looking activity and its purpose is to align us with God. When we pray, we see things more as God sees them. In this case, we see that God is saddened by the suffering because God is good, and it is right for our response to be the same. We can join with God in praying for the crisis to cease, for cures to be found, for those who are suffering as a result of the virus and for their families, for those working to help people in the crisis, for those who have lost work, for those who have had to cancel or postpone significant life events, and so on and so on… In short, we shall find a whole host of reasons to pray. Rather than being a reason not to pray, such crises give us even more reason to pray, and will stir in us the character of God, and lead us to action.

Paul’s situation here can encourage us: he prayed despite being in prison. It is even possible that these were some of the last words he ever wrote before he was killed. Yet, his priority in this time was prayer for the believers in Philippi. This was a consistent attitude throughout his ministry; prayer was an unceasing activity for Paul (cf. Colossians 1:9) because of the love that he had for God and others.

Love

Rather than praying for a way out of his situation, Paul’s prayer is for the Philippians: that their love might carry on increasing and that they would gain deeper insights regarding their actions. Love is the catalyst for their understanding and wisdom; love sets the whole process of deeper understanding in motion.

Maybe the hardest thing about the Coronavirus is that our love often needs to be from a distance. We may want to go and visit friends and relatives – particularly elderly ones – but that could be dangerous. Here, again, Paul’s perspective can help us. By being in prison, he is distanced from the Philippians. In the previous verses, his love for them is plain: paradoxically, although he is distant, his love is intimate. He describes how he has the Philippians in his heart (1:7) and declares: “how I long for you with the affections of Christ Jesus” (1:8). The language is highly emotive: the word for affections literally means “intestines” or “entrails” – this is a passionate, visceral love. Most importantly, the source of Paul’s love is the love of Christ. Paul’s example shows us how intimate love is possible from a distance, is effective, and matters.

Ultimate Perspective

Through prayer and an increase in love, Paul believes that the Philippians will be able to discern the things that matter. Paul is in philosophical mode here;[2] except that he is not merely talking about things which are indifferent, but about things which make a difference and matter. The ancient philosophers had the notion of something being indifferent and limited in value; but they did not talk about things having positive value. This is a fresh perspective from Paul.

It is also an ultimate perspective because it concerns that which is ultimate: at the end. The purpose and result of the Philippians’ love and, consequently, ability to make correct value judgements is so that they might be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (v.10). Paul frequently talks about this day of Christ. He has already talked about in Philippians, in expressing confidence that the good work that God has started in them will carry on until the day of Christ Jesus (v.6). If I have learned anything about Paul over the last few years, it would be the extent of his fixation on the return of Jesus (the parousia).[3] On the one hand, Paul tells the believers that this day will be a great source of great hope, comfort and consolation: parousia means “presence” and when Paul finishes his short revelation of what will happen on the day of Jesus’ return, he says “thus we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). Yet, on the other hand – and we often hide away from this – this day will involve the judgement[4] of God: it will come suddenly, like a thief, with pain and destruction for those who are unprepared (1 Thess 5:2-3). Paul wants to ensure that no believer in Philippi has to experience God’s wrath: that they are pure and blameless for the day of Christ.

Paul had an ultimate perspective and I would urge that we need one too – particularly in these challenging times – a perspective based on faith and hope. I am not entering into any predictions of the end times: such calculations are fraught with difficulties, and moreover, effectively forbidden by Scripture (Mark 13:32-33). Yet, the current crisis reminds us how fragile our world is, and how limited our control over our movements and circumstances can be. In times like this, we need to be spiritually alert, but ensure we do not get whipped up into spiritual frenzy.[5]

In times like this, in faith, we need to hold onto things which have value and matter. Three such things come to the fore in this famous passage from Paul: prayer, love, and an ultimate perspective. God is the provider and the means by which all three can be sustained in the life of the believer. God is with us now and calls us into a deeper relationship with Him that truly matters and has ultimate value.

[1] e.g. Cicero, On Ends, 3.21.53.

[2] Here any serious Paulinists reading this will know that I am making use of some of Paul Holloway’s arguments in his work on the letter.

[3] Other passages which talk about a final day (of the Lord) include: Romans 2:5, 2:16, 13:12; 1 Corinthians 1:8, 3:13, 5:5, 2 Corinthians 1:14; Ephesians 4:30; Ephesians 6:13; Philippians 2:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 5:4; 2 Thessalonians 1:10, 2:2.

[4] Significantly, “crisis” is a Greek word and its primary meaning is “judgement”. The notion is relatively rare in the Pauline letters, but more common in the Gospels, notably John 3:17-19, particularly v.18: ‘Whoever believes in him is not judged/condemned; but whoever does not believe has been judged/condemned’.

[5] I have seen parts of C. S. Lewis’ essay, “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948), cited on social media this week. They can easily be transferred to the coronavirus crisis with the incorporation of social distancing measures: “This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

3 thoughts on “Things That Matter

  1. Alex, thank you for this measured and thoughtful response to the situation we are currently experiencing. I agree with you it is a great opportunity to take more time to pray and read God’s word and show love in practical ways, even if the latter has to be from a distance. Praying you continue to know God’s love and presence close to you through this current situation. Blessings, Tania

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