There’s a box in my closet that gets richer with each passing week, and it’s not a piggy-bank. It’s a little box where I keep the handwritten letters my wife and church members write me.
The inside cover of the Bible I preach from is covered with little notes. Some are written by the pastoral team of the church that sent me, some are written by members in the church we planted, some are written in cursive, and some are written in print. I love to read them when I am discouraged because they all stink.
That is, they stink with affection. In Philippians 1:8, Paul writes, “For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” The English word ‘affection’ is a good word. But in this place, it might not smell stinky enough for the point Paul is laboring to make. Words have a life of their own, they develop their own body odor and some even endure brief seasons of acne, and the word Paul uses for ‘affection’ is intended to fill the nostrils of his readers.
Older translations of the Bible swap the word “affection” here with “bowels.” If your semantic web immediately fills with physical image of intestines, innards, and stomachs, then you are rightly experiencing the weight of Paul’s sentiment. Turn your nose upwards for a moment and smell how differently the same sentence reads now: “For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the guts of Christ Jesus” or “in the guts of Christ Jesus.”
The English word for ‘affection’ isn’t the wrong word, but the Greek word for affection is more visceral: it is emotional and physical. It’s emotional by being physical. What Paul is communicating should be felt by the deepest parts of his listeners. His affection for them churns with his bowels and heaves up his stomach. And here’s where it gets stranger.
Paul’s affection isn’t Paul’s affection. It is Jesus’ affection and it is Pauls’ yearnings. To continue to build a visual both strong and biblical, it is the guts of Christ in the body of Paul (or even Paul in the guts of Jesus). And for this incredible reality, there is no mathematical equation: it’s not 50% Paul and 50% Jesus. It’s 100% the affections of Christ and they are 100% in the emotional life of Paul. As Christ in the gospel imputes his foreign righteousness to us, he likewise imparts his foreign affections to us.
Paul’s sentiment reminds me of a few popular phrases. First, “What Would Jesus Do?” In the Pauline imagination, Christlikeness is very much like a tangled bird’s nest of fishing line on a pole. The more our actions and Christ’s actions are entangled and inseparable, the more Christlike we are. And yet, here Paul is developing a theology of christlikeness that is so massive that it even includes Paul’s right use of feelings towards the church in Philippi. There is nothing wrong with our rainbow-colored WWJD? bracelets around our wrists, but in our relationships inside the church it’s also worth asking, “What Would Jesus Feel?” towards the members in our church?
The second popular phrase I am reminded of is “Be the hands and feet of Jesus.” Paul’s sentiment doesn’t only land on the extremities, the little fingers and toes of believers, but directly on the emotional center of Christians. In other words, as we encourage one another to be the hands and feet of Jesus, we should also encourage one another to be the guts of Jesus: to vomit at what makes Jesus vomit, to enjoy what Jesus enjoys, and to live a deeply human life by bringing our technicolor emotional life into greater alignment with the life of God. The affection of Jesus Christ towards the people of God is on tangible display to the Philippian church in Paul’s letter.
Like a fighter trains his footwork, God can train your heart work. If the thought of your local church can only muster a dull reimagining of Philippians 1:8: “For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with apathy” then the Lord can help you do the hard work of heart work. And I believe that it would please the Lord to look to the ministry of Paul as an example of modeling Christ’s affection for the local church: a life of letter writing.
Brief as they may be, here are two reasons to write letters to church members:
- Letter writing is for the recipient: Personally, I have to confess that I experience a small measure of skepticism when somebody tells me that they’ll pray for me. This sin is my own. When I was a younger Christian, “I’ll pray for you” was a phrase I abused when the conversation became difficult and I wanted an easy way out. A handwritten letter, by comparison, is like a prayer incarnated, a prayer that has taken on flesh, a prayer delivered rather than a prayer promised.
- Letter writing is for the writer: Being a human being means that your emotional life is less like an aquarium that’s visible and neatly organized, and more like an ocean. There are some sea creatures lurking on the ocean floor and even some beautiful organisms that have yet to be discovered. When the Lord eliminates your furious pace of living through prayer, and further slows you down in writing those prayers down for a church member, some things will come up that surprise even you. This is a grace of God for you.
The crowd that gathered around calvary all had different thoughts and opinions of what Christ was doing on that cross: some believed he was hanging there because he was a criminal, others believed he was nailed there because he was a heretic, and even some of his disciples believed that cross was holding him up because he was a failure.
But those who have God’s spirit know that the cross is Jesus Christ’s public display of affection for the church. So mostly, as you seek to be the guts of Jesus Christ, whether through handwritten letters or otherwise, remember what he does with his: he spills them.