Our gods call to us. They demand comparisons to other people. They say we aren’t good enough. And tell us we don’t have enough. These gods are our screens: our TVs, our computers, and our phones.
Deep rooted in the American psyche is a struggle of the ego. We look inward and find ourselves wanting. And then we respond outwardly with arrogance, self-depreciation, or self-deprivation.
If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us spend a great deal of time comparing ourselves to others. If not on a conscious level, we certainly do so subconsciously. We wonder why some people accept us, while others deny us. Deep down we all desire love and respect. And each denial of that desire leaves us wounded and longing. It leaves stuck in the limbo of comparisons to others.
Each of us responds to these emotions in a different way. It seems, though, that we’re all searching for that balance of our ambition and ego. We’re trying to find when it is appropriate for us to speak up for ourselves and when we should practice self-denial. We wonder what humility really looks like in an age where the gods are the screens. Paul the apostle has some answers—in the way he measured success.
In the first-century AD, when Paul the apostle lived, the gods of the time had their own set of demands. From a very general standpoint, success was defined as meeting societal norms (staying in your place, according to Roman society); serving the gods of your city and the Empire; and your occupational success. By comparison, our time is not so different. Although our gods look differently, they still have their demands.
Paul defied the Empire. And it’s this that led to his martyrdom. Instead of worshipping the Emperor and the deities, Paul worshipped Jesus. He proclaimed that a crucified and resurrected poor, Jewish rabbi was God incarnate.
Jesus completely redefined Paul’s identity (Acts 9). It caused him to walk away from a life of persecuting Christians and into a life of evangelizing as a Christian. Any understanding of self begins with an understanding of Jesus.
Paul recognized how absurd this seemed to those of his day: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV). Paul denied the wisdom of his age—he denied to pay the gods their dues—and embraced his identity as a servant and apostle of Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:18–25; Romans 1:1).
Paul’s new identity in Christ, as an apostle, led him to redefine his life, calling, and occupation. In an age of ego—not so different than ours—Paul’s encounter with Christ led him to rethink what was worth boasting about. To the Corinthian church, Paul says:
“And because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:30–2:2 ESV).
For Paul, the work of Jesus is first and foremost. It is only the work of Christ that is worth boasting in. It does not require a special package to be believed. Paul did not come with some glorious stage presentation, speech, or pomp and circumstance. He came to the Corinthian church humbly—simply proclaiming Christ crucified and risen.
The truth of Christ does not require eloquent speech. Truth stands for itself. It does not need our presentations, our credentials, or us at all. Truth will make its own way. The Holy Spirit works through the person, but it does not need the person.
Although the truth of Christ stands on its own, Paul also realized that his personal reputation could help the cause of the gospel. It could be used for God’s purposes. In this regard, Paul was not hesitant to defend himself—when it was necessary to do so.
When forced to defend himself, Paul would list his credentials (2 Corinthians 11:16–33). But he also emphasized just how much he had sacrificed for the gospel. He considered self-sacrifice much more important than a resume. Paul also reminded people of the work he had done on their behalf—that he had made sacrifices for them. For Paul humility didn’t mean being quiet or being used by others. He had a personal stake in the work of his ministry and he wasn’t afraid to remind people of that.
While Paul’s reminders to the Corinthian church could have been viewed as boasting, he saw it as honoring Christ’s work in his life. He could not let someone deny the work Christ had done through him. Paul saw defense of the truth of Christ’s work in his life as absolutely essential to his efforts on Christ’s behalf.
Paul practiced self-denial, but he did not deny the importance of the individual. Christ calls and uses individuals and communities.
Paul regularly denied the authority of any one individual—noting how absurd an emphasis on a particular person’s ministry is (1 Corinthians 3:18–23; compare 2 Corinthians 5:12). Authority is Jesus’ alone.
Nonetheless, Paul was required from time to time to remind people who he was:
“For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16–18 ESV).
For Paul, the gospel’s proclamation is the reward. Christ at the center is what demarcates success.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul goes on to state all the ways he has done the work of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19–27). Ultimately, it is the salvation of others that Paul boasts in (1 Corinthians 15:31; compare 2 Corinthians 1:12–14). By denying self, and living for the sake of the gospel—for the salvation of others—Paul found life. He discovered what life is all about.
Paul looked at the gods of the age and denied their demands. Paul boasted in what Christ, and Christ alone, had done through his life. Paul measured success by how closely he followed Jesus—through all trials.
We must deny the demands of our generation and replace them with the commands of Christ. We must measure success by how well we love others—how often we speak up for Jesus, despite the costs. In doing so, we will find true success. Our deep desires for love and respect can only be fulfilled in our relationship with Jesus.
We all have moments of despair, but there are also the days when the sun peaks through the clouds and we stop and say, “You know, God really is here and working among us. I’m not alone at all.” It’s these moments that we have to capitalize on. These feelings of new life, of resurrection, can transform our lives and the lives of others.
The last month has been rough for me. I have often felt like everything is going the opposite way it should. But today, I realize that Jesus is here. It’s not that I didn’t believe that before—of course, I did—but today I feel like he is sitting next to me. When I think about Jesus’ presence among us, about his resurrected life, I imagine how Mary Magdalene must have felt upon seeing the resurrected Jesus. John’s Gospel records:
“Mary stood outside at the tomb, weeping. Then, while she was weeping, she bent over to look into the tomb, and she saw two angels in white, seated one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been lying. And they said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have put him!’ When she had said these things, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ She thought that it was the gardener, and said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will take him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned around and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni’ (which means ‘Teacher’). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, and my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene came and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’” (John 20:11–18 LEB).
When you encounter the living Jesus, in the midst of despair, everything changes.
Here’s how my viewpoint recently changed: I just had the wonderful opportunity of announcing that the organization I lead, Jesus’ Economy, will be able to fund two church planters in northern India for another year. For us, reaching this goal was huge and difficult. And honestly, I wasn’t sure if we would make it. But I also couldn’t bear the thought of not living up to our commitment to fund these two church planters for three years.
The prompting of being on mission for Jesus, in proclamation of his resurrection, is what kept me going through this rough patch. And God coming through inspired me.
I believe the resurrected Jesus will keep you going, no matter what you’re going through.
I often think of what various holidays are like for those serving Jesus around the world—and of course, I especially think of our church planters in northern India.
Our church planters in northern India are living self-sacrificially everyday, spreading the gospel to those who have never heard Jesus’ name. Their lives are living testimonies of who Jesus is. And this puts it all in perspective for me: all of my difficulties do not remotely compare to their hardships. And yet, they get the splendid opportunity of seeing Jesus work everyday—which really makes it all worth it.
Easter resurrection is something real for church planters in northern India: They regularly see lives fully transformed by Jesus. And so, their lives make me wonder how much better and fuller my life would be if I could make the same kind of sacrifice. This makes me think of Jesus’ words just prior to the cross:
“This is my commandment: that you love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12–13 LEB).
Living resurrected life with Jesus means living self-sacrificially. And that changes everything. It makes every difficulty an opportunity to do something good for someone else. It takes the perspective off of us, and puts the perspective on God’s workings in the world.
Until this last month, I thought of thankfulness as an attitude, but it’s so much more. Thankfulness is a perspective we look at the world through. As we are grateful for the resurrected life of Christ, and the resurrected life he offers us, our worldview changes. It’s not about saying, “Oh, I’m so grateful I have all this (whatever this is for you).” Thankfulness is saying, “Oh, I’m so grateful that Jesus came for me (for all of us), and that he is with me now—right here.” Saint Paul put it this way:
“One person prefers one day over another day, and another person regards every day alike [for the Sabbath and festivals]. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who is intent on the day is intent on it for the Lord, and the one who eats eats for the Lord [in celebration], because he is thankful to God, and the one who does not eat does not eat for the Lord [that is he fasts], and he is thankful to God. For none of us lives for himself and none dies for himself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For Christ died and became alive again for this reason, in order that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 14:5–9 LEB).
Paul is talking about various viewpoints for feasting, celebration, worship services, and fasting among his audience, but this has a direct implication for us. Whatever we do, let us do it for Christ, in thankfulness—in order that he might be Lord over all things in our lives, in every season.
It’s this perspective that perfectly fits with the Easter season, when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection for each of us, for all of us. This season we celebrate Jesus’ resurrected life and his resurrection of our lives.
I’m not saying that this sorts everything out; like all of us, I still get depressed along the way. But today on the other side of this, I feel different—today, I realize that God is much greater than I could ever imagine. Today, I realize that he indeed always comes through—he resurrects our efforts and turns them into something beautiful.
In Bihar, India church planters are facing a great challenge. There are millions of people who have never even heard the name of Jesus. I met over a dozen church planters when in Bihar—they changed my life. They were like meeting Saint Paul, over and over again.
One church planter said: “I lead six churches in five villages and three small groups. I also oversee five Bible studies.” He then went on to list half a dozen community development programs he leads, all of which empower people in rural villages. I was flabbergasted.
Another said: “We’re reaching out to villages who have never heard the name of Jesus” and “The message is empowering people—they’re being healed and finding a new life.”
“There are women who are finding hope again for themselves and their children in the gospel of Jesus,” said yet another church planter. “They’re seeing that Jesus can change their lives for the better and embracing the gospel.”
The good news of Jesus is renewing lives in Bihar, India. Stories like these are just a few of hundreds. But these questions don’t just motivate me; they convict me.
When you meet a church planter who has given up everything to provide others access to the gospel, you suddenly realize that you can spend your entire life studying the Bible and not understand Jesus. Am I willing to give what these church planters give? Am I willing to live as Saint Paul lived, like they are?
What does the process of making a complete commitment to providing access to the gospel look like? For Paul, it was his direct experience with Jesus (Acts 9), but it was also more. Acts tells this story:
"Now there were prophets and teachers in Antioch in the church that was there: Barnabas, and Simeon (who was called Niger), and Lucius the Cyrenian, and Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch), and Saul. And while they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart now for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then, after they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them away" (Acts 13:1-3).
For Paul, his decision to provide others with access to the gospel began with a personal experience, but then moved to a group decision. It also, most importantly, involved the direct words of the Holy Spirit. Paul knew he was called, but he waits for this moment to commit all of his time to it. God was working in Paul's life the entire time, but this moment marked his full-time commitment.
Being around church planters in Bihar made me admit to myself that I am not as hardworking for Jesus as I thought I was, and furthermore that I actually know very little about what it means to follow Jesus. I don’t say this to be self-depreciating—in some kind of false humility; I actually mean it. Meeting church planters in Bihar, India is like meeting people who lived like Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy. And meeting those kinds of people will change you.
My time in Bihar made me realize, as we all should—that no matter what our calling is—that we have a long ways to go. And that Jesus wants to work on our hearts to get us where we need to be. No matter what our specific calling, he will use it for his glory, but we must first be willing to admit our weaknesses and be used by him (Phil 4:12-14). We must also wait on God's precise timing, as Paul and Barnabas did.
When Paul decided to pursue a global ministry, he was giving up other parts of life for Jesus. Nonetheless, Paul—and likewise the church planters in Bihar—made the decision to share about Jesus and the incredible life he offers. They committed their lives to providing access to the gospel and alleviating poverty.
No matter what your precise calling is, Christ wants to renew your life, for the better. And along the way, during the discernment process, he will be with you.
We are actively working to renew Bihar, India through church planting: Please join us. For just $226, you can support a church planter for a month. You can help people hear the name of Jesus for the first time.
What does it mean to co-labor with God? In this video, I tell you about Priscilla, who is one of the key reasons why St. Paul succeeded. Her story demonstrates what it means to co-labor with God.
Share this video with your friends. Use hashtag #EmpoweringWomen and tag @JesusEconomy (or @Jesus' Economy on Facebook).
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Our world is more interconnected than ever before. And that means that the gospel can finally reach its full fruition as Jesus intended. Today is the day that we change our world. The time is now.
The apostles in Jerusalem "asked only that we should remember the poor, the very thing I was also eager to do" (Galatians 2:10 LEB).
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how incredibly powerful it is that Saint Paul makes this statement. Nestled in the middle of his letter to the Galatians—where he is discussing the dispute between him and Saint Peter—he tells us this seemingly random bit of information. But without this line, we may be led to believe that caring for the poor was of lesser importance for Paul than other things, but that is certainly not the case. Instead, helping the poor was a given for Paul.
In Paul’s seemingly random mention of the poor in Galatians, there is a profound lesson: Giving to the poor shouldn’t be something we have to argue ourselves into, or convince other Christians of. Instead, it should be a given for all of us. Helping the poor should simply be part of what we do—how we live. If someone asks us if we care for the poor, we should be able to make a remark similar to Paul—something like, "Of course, I am eager to help."
But if we’re honest with ourselves, caring for the poor isn’t a given for us. Often times we argue ourselves out of helping others. We convince ourselves that it’s okay to let the problems of others stand—with a mere, “I’ll pray for you”—when we could actually do so much more.
May we be people like Paul—people who are simply living the obvious, of helping others.
(This post is part of the blog series, “What Saint Paul Says about Poverty.”)
Saint Paul continues to shock me, after all these years. There are days that I feel as if I am reading his letters for the first time. I believe this is because God has been gradually working on me all these years, and thus my heart is in a different place today than the last time I read Paul’s letters. Recently, I have been focusing my research on what Paul says about giving. Each time I do, I come to the realization that he has fantastic lessons to share with me. I recently shared seven of these lessons—here are seven more lessons from Paul about giving.
In continuing his statements about why the Corinthian church should give to the Jerusalem church, Paul says:
“Now the one who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will provide and multiply your seed, and will cause the harvest of your righteousness to grow, being made rich in every way for all generosity, which is producing through us thanksgiving to God, because the service of this ministry is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but also is overflowing through many expressions of thanksgiving to God. Through the proven character of this service they will glorify God because of the submission of your confession to the gospel of Christ and the generosity of your participation toward them and toward everyone, and they are longing for you in their prayers for you, because of the surpassing grace of God to you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:10–15 LEB).
Paul confronts us with the reality that giving is itself in an incredible gift. It prompts us to look to Jesus and glorify him—to acknowledge his incredible work among us, in both the spiritual and fiscal things. God is at work in all things. He is to be praised.
(This post is part of the blog series, "What Saint Paul Says about Poverty.")
We often think of giving as one way, but the biblical writer Paul sees it very differently. For Paul, the work of God is not a linear process, but a cycle. When we give, it’s not just the receivers who get a gift, but also us.
When addressing the need for the Corinthian church to give to the church in Jerusalem, Paul says:
“The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one should give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or from compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to cause all grace to abound to you, so that in everything at all times, because you have enough of everything, you may overflow in every good work. Just as it is written, ‘He scattered widely, he gave to the poor; his righteousness remains forever’” (2 Corinthians 9:6–9 LEB).
Here are seven lessons we can glean from what Paul said to the Corinthian church.
When you express what Paul said in seven points like this, his statements suddenly become both shocking and hard to believe. (“Could God really view giving this way?” we may ask.) Yet giving is a fundamental law and order of God. It is how the world is meant to function. Nothing that we hold is truly ours—instead, what we have (everything we have) is a gift to steward. It is meant to be shared (compare Luke 19:11–27).
When we give to others, all sorts of possibilities are opened up. The cycle of poverty can be ended and the cycle of our lives can be transformed in the process. The question is: Will we believe Paul and act on his words?
(This post is part of the blog series "What Saint Paul Says about Poverty.")
“But just as you excel in everything—in faith and in speaking and in knowledge and with all diligence and in the love from us that is in you—so may you excel in this grace also. I am not saying this as a command, but proving the genuineness of your love by means of the diligence of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, for your sake he became poor, in order that you, by his poverty, may become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:6–9 LEB).
When Paul set out to explain to the Corinthians how they should handle difficult situations, help others, and share the good news of Jesus, he chose to center his message on grace. In making the case for living graciously, Paul pulls in the example of Jesus. He states that Jesus became poor for the sake of the world.
The first level of Jesus’ poverty came in his decision to become a human. When Jesus decided to become human he moved from being crowned in glory in heaven to being a mortal. He went from being able to move like a spirit to being stuck in flesh. But Jesus took it on gladly, for our sake. Jesus also became poor in a very ordinary way: He grew up in poor Nazareth and was a traveling preacher, who was basically homeless.
If Jesus had not chosen to become human, he would not have been able to save us. If Jesus had not become physically poor, he likely would not have been as effective as a minister. Even in his poor appearance, Jesus was an attractive teacher—a stark contrast to the rich teachers of his day (compare Isaiah 53:1).
Jesus understood that it was through enduring poverty that he was able to reach and save humanity. On his way to dying for the world—on the cross—Jesus became a poor man. Those of us with much must realize how incredibly far we actually are from the state Jesus lived in. We must also keep in mind that our poor neighbors understand many things about Jesus that we do not.
If Paul was alive today, he would probably remind us of the exact same thing he brought up to the Corinthians: be gracious, for Jesus was incredibly gracious to us. Do what you can for those in need. Be kind to others, despite whatever dispute you may have with them. Spread the good news of Jesus at all cost.
How does Paul’s perspective on Jesus, conflict, and poverty change your perspective? What are you going to do about it?
(This is part of the blog series "What Saint Paul Says about Poverty.")
What a person really thinks about poverty is articulated most clearly by how they live. Likewise, what someone really thinks about the good news of Jesus is perhaps best shown by what they are willing to give up for Jesus. Paul and his colleague Sosthenes were unafraid, unbashful, and willing to do whatever it took to spread the good news of Jesus to people around the world. Paul and Sosthenes were willing to be poor, and even homeless, for the sake of Jesus. They say, in a letter to the Corinthian church:
“Until the present hour we are both hungry and thirsty and poorly clothed and roughly treated and homeless, and we toil, working with our own hands. When we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we encourage. We have become like the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things, until now” (1 Corinthians 4:11–13 LEB).
If I was to characterize Paul the Apostle’s ministry in one word, it would be “boldness.” When I read passages like this, I am struck by the differences between how Paul lived and how I live—I am brought to the realization that my heart still has a long ways to go in fully understanding, and living for, Jesus.
Later, in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul notes that he may be sorrowful, but is rejoicing and he may be poor, but is making many rich—spiritually rich through telling others of the saving message of Jesus. He goes on to say that he may have nothing but actually possesses everything: he possesses salvation and the Holy Spirit through Jesus (2 Corinthians 6:10).
So what did Paul really think of the poor and the way poverty should be approached? If we’re honest with ourselves, we realize that he respected the poor, all the way up to the point of being willing to be like them. Paul didn’t see a difference between himself and those living in poverty—they were one and the same. Paul’s concern was the good news of Jesus (come as savior, who died and rose for humanity); and living among the poor, often as a poor person, was often how he spread that news. Whatever Christ asked of Paul, he was willing to do. It is important to keep in mind that Paul once had wealth and sacrificed it for Christ. He did what Jesus asked.
What are you willing to do for Jesus? How does the example of Paul’s boldness change the way you look at the world?
(This post is part of the series, “What Saint Paul Says about Poverty.”)