The Last Letter is documentary project showing stories of people living on purpose. The idea of writing a letter, explaining who you are and why you are doing what you are doing. The apostle Paul’s last letter, 2 Timothy, challenges me to consider looking at life from an eternal perspective.
What I come away with is a conviction that there is a connection between using ones gifts from God faithfully and living joyfully.
For Timothy, his gift was preaching and teaching. God invested that gift into Timothy, through his family, through the church, through mentorship… it was a defining aspect to Timothy’s life and purpose. For Timothy not to preach and teach would be for Timothy to fail his purposes in life. Although that can be framed in a heavy way, it can also be stated more positively: When we use God’s gifts faithfully, we can have confidence of living joyfully.
I want to show up for my own life. Well, I want to want to show up for my own life. Sometimes I just want to get by. I want to do enough to not get in trouble; enough to have time and money to do what I want to do, and not much more. But whenever I live like that, for very long at all, I find it deeply unsatisfying. The most satisfying times in my life have been when I have taken what God has equipped me to do and done it. I need to show up for my own life.
The movie Saving Private Ryan expresses a picture of this. A squad of 8 men are dispatched to find James Francis Ryan and send him safely home. In the process of saving him, the squad along with Ryan, heroically battle overwhelming odds to defend a key bridge. The leader, Capt. Miller, speaks haunting last words to Ryan: “earn this”.
The final scene has an elderly Ryan with his wife, kids and grandkids visiting a graveyard in Normandy. He finds the grave marker of Capt. Miller, begins to weep, and then turns to his wife pleading: “Tell me I’ve lived a good life; tell me I’ve been a good man”.
How can anyone earn the gift of life? It can’t be done. But the question of the effort put into enjoying the gift, that is legitimate. The gift that has been given freely is opposed to earning, but it is not opposed to effort (Dallas Willard). God gifts us with life, with the gospel, with new life from the gospel, with his body, the church, and with particular qualities and strengths for us to utilize as part of his body. We are people defined by gifts, gracious given, not able to be earned, but worthy of effort.
For Timothy this means preaching the Logos. God in Christ is who gifted him this vocation, and Christ will judge whether the investment was handled well. Like the parables in Matthew and Luke, investments are worth checking on. Where much is given, much is expected. Timothy is expected to use his gifts in season and out of season. This requires some degree of mastery. As Paul told Timothy in an earlier letter, spiritual training is like physical training, just with more significance. You take what is given and you shape it with effort.
This idea of spiritual effort is vital. Philippians 2 we are told to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Timothy is then used as an example of someone who does this. Hebrews 4 tells us to make every effort to enter into God’s rest. James says that trust without work is dead. Again Paul tells us that we are saved by grace through faith, as a gift, so we can be do good works.
Specifically Paul challenges Tim to correct, rebuke and encourage. To correct is to show a map of how things are vs. how they are perceived. To rebuke is to tell someone not to go the wrong way, and to encourage is to show them the right way. Our gifts, even if not in teaching, should have a similar effect. We should give a positive example that contrasts, and even conflicts, with wrong ways. But this is vital: our goal is redemption. The pharisees may be content to be an example and to point out where other’s are wrong, it is in the aspect of hopeful expectation, of looking to being able to encourage someone who has been redirected that our highest virtue is experienced.
Even if I show up for my own life using my gifts, a concern is that I will not keep up. I will grow weary, drift, harden my heart and waste away. It is a proper fear; it happens. Paul warns about it and says it is a common problem. Human desires, in conflict with the change process of maturity, find an alternative route. By replacing teachers of truth with teachers of myths, we can find ways to rationalize whatever we want. Sound doctrine is reality, myths are an alternative reality.
My cousin recently posted that he has been clean and sober for 18 months. He was amazed at how many people affirmed and encouraged him. He had been living out the myth of partying=livin’ large. Even one guy who joked he was 2 days clean and sober (just cuz he ran out of money) affirmed my cousin. The point? Even when we are actively deluding ourselves with myths about reality, we can sometimes see and appreciate reality. But it is hard to keep up in the race for reasonable living.
Paul did it, though. He slings metaphors of temple, races, wrestling; it actually is possible to live out a live based on reality instead of desire warped delusion. Even though it is hard, it is worth it. The result is confidence. He is able to look up, to see his savior, the author and completer of our faith, the one who has run before us. He sees a savior he can trust, and he sees that the reward of living in faithful reality is better than the temptations to drift.
I used the video at the beginning when I spoke on this passage partly because it shows some of the places where we have served. But another reason is because the guy who did the video was in town, sadly, for his brother’s funeral. Sam noticed symptoms on Sunday, was hospitalized on Monday and passed beyond this life on Thursday. Unlike Paul, he did not have a countdown to his final day. The finish line suddenly was thrust before him with no time for adjustments, only enough time to lean into it and finish hard.
Sam showed up in this life. He took his love for God, for people and for fun and invested them in Kingdom ways. Doing business here in the US, he seems an odd example of the video which largely highlights missionary service. But Sam was on mission and at his memorial hundreds showed up, and many more sent word, honoring Sam’s response to God’s grace. Story after story was shared how Sam was used to make a difference in the lives of many. He is a wonderful example of Paul’s admonition, in his own Last Letter, to Timothy. Fanning our gifts into a flame, living well whether timely or not, such that we show a better way, with hope that some might respond and join the race, is the way to live confidently and gratefully. Well done, Sam.