There’s an old Irish saying, which certain preachers like to use in sermons. Here’s one rendition of it:
To live above with the Saints we love,
Ah, that is the purest glory.
To live below with the Saints we know,
Ah, that is another story.
Some people have a unique ability (whether intentional or inadvertently) to irritate, frustrate, and annoy us. I don’t think that this is an official spiritual gift, but certain people seems to have mastered this skill better than others. (And, in fairness, I would not be surprised to find that others feel the same way about me, sometimes.)
Still, in His wisdom, God placed us on this planet with other people, and – like all of His actions – this was not an accident. Like us, fellow human beings are imperfect. Like us, they have good qualities and not-so-good qualities. Like us, they all need Jesus.
Take a look at what Paul wrote to the church of Colossian believers:
I want you to know how much I have agonized for you and for the church at Laodicea, and for many other believers who have never met me personally.
Colossians 2:1 NLT
Were there annoying people at this church? Probably. Were certain individuals preaching something contrary to the truth? Almost certainly, since Paul addressed incorrect teaching in this book. Were some of the believers immature or ignorant? Again, it would seem so, since Paul also taught some key principles in this letter.
Still, Paul cared deeply for these believers. The term “agonized” is not a trivial one, and doesn’t suggest a mere casual interest or a professional obligation. He wanted them to grow and be healthy as a community, as we find in the next verse:
I want them to be encouraged and knit together by strong ties of love. I want them to have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan, which is Christ himself.
Colossians 2:2 NLT
So, in following Paul’s example, how should we deal with “the saints below”, defined (by me) as fellow members of the church who we interact with here on earth? Let’s take a look at these two verses, and see what we find:
- Other followers of Jesus were really important to Paul, and should be important to us. Their well-being in the community of believers isn’t just something for us to wish for them, or to hope that they figure out. It is something that we should fight for. When a fellow Christian is marginalized by a community (excluding cases, like matters of church discipline, where this is done to help that person), this should be a concern for us, even if we haven’t met them.
- A review of different translations of this verse suggest that Paul was “contending” (NIV), had “great conflict” (KJV), and had a “great…struggle” (NASB). The best way that I can think of how Paul could have achieved this goal remotely would be for him to pray earnestly for these people. We can do the same, today: battling for others in prayer, whether we know them personally, or we just know about them and their struggles. Even when we don’t know their names, we can trust God to know who they are.
- Encouragement and love were fundamental to Paul’s goals. These can certainly be things that we pray for, but we also have the opportunity to extend both of these blessings directly to others. As part of the Body of Christ, we can encourage those who need it, and show Christ-like love to them, serving and sacrificing for the benefit of the Kingdom of God (and its residents).
- Finally, the key gift for the recipients of Paul’s advocacy is that they understand about Jesus. Among all of the details of the Christian faith, none is more fundamental and critical than the person of Jesus Christ. God’s plan (to redeem human beings from the condemnation of sin) spanned millennia, and Jesus completed the key step in that plan at just the right time (see Romans 5:6).
May we fight for the unity and health of the church, get the great news out to a hurting world, and fight in prayer for all the believers (those that we like, those that we don’t like, and those that haven’t even met us).
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.