When It Hurts.
Paul’s second letter to Timothy is one of my favorite letters in the whole Bible, though it’s so intimate, I always feel a little strange reading it. It's a message between two close friends, the kind of friends who go straight to the honest core of what’s really happening in a soul.
The older mentor wrote from prison, from the middle of intense physical suffering. You and I read Paul’s words in modern typeface on sheets of printed paper (or on a computer screen), but think about how Timothy would have actually received them—perhaps written with a shivering, dirty hand with dirty fingernails. His words were hard words--Paul was going to die soon, and he was sober and passionate in his final written commission to Timothy.
Timothy was a tender-hearted man, not Alpha, and not charismatic. He was my kind of guy, a thinker who doubted himself and felt his surroundings deeply. Timothy had to have cried when he read Paul's words, and I bet he held this letter to his own chest, aching for a way to comfort the friend and teacher he loved.
I believe this letter has a unique message for us in 2018 because it talks about specific troubles that have discouraged thousands of believers in our time. Paul’s message isn’t easy—in fact it’s incredibly difficult. But because “a thing resounds when it rings true,” studying this epistle can give us courage, reviving those whose deepest ache is for the Kingdom.
I was up until one this morning, reading and rereading this epistle, and as I read, I found myself jotting down notes and praying for you. I don’t have room here to write about every aspect of this letter, but I want to create some bullet points that will hopefully encourage you to go read II Timothy and pray through it. (I'm not including verse numbers here, but these points do flow in the same order, generally, as the letter.)
1. You have a spiritual legacy. Taking time to get reoriented inside of that legacy can be helpful.
Timothy’s legacy was his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. I don’t know who those people are for you, but I do know that you have your own cloud of witnesses, people who showed you the gospel and its beauty. My husband and I are going through a rough patch right now, so two weeks ago, he pulled out his old Andrew Peterson CD’s. He needed to be reminded of what those early songs once quickened in his heart.
Your legacy may sit on a shelf full of long-dead writers, and it’s okay if it does. But when you are weary, when you feel alone, go soak a while in the memory of the teachings God has used to win you to the beauty of the gospel. Even if your greatest spiritual influences have passed into eternity, they aren’t gone. At this very moment, their souls keep company with the God you love. Even if you feel alone, your ministry fits into the framework they left for you. You’re part of a great team, and you belong.
2. The gift of God lives in you, waiting to be fanned into a flame. It’s not a spirit of fear, but of God’s power, and his love and self-control. This will be hard to remember. It’s going to be tempting to be ashamed of the gospel.
Paul was in prison, so people assumed he had done something shameful. Our dynamic is a little different—our shame comes from being affiliated with a religion that has been distorted into something ugly and selfish. But no matter what causes the believers of any era shame (for our enemy will always attempt to shame us into silence), we have still been given counter-cultural resources from the Almighty: supernatural strength, supernatural compassion, supernatural selflessness.
3. How does Paul counteract shame? He doesn’t lean into a cause for validation here. He leans into a person. He says “he knows whom he has believed,” and he is convinced that the living Jesus will be able to guard the commission given to him until his work here is finished. He also reminds Timothy that the Holy Spirit lives inside him and can be employed to guard his commission. When we are embarrassed by religion gone bad, it’s tempting to try to justify ourselves and our cause, but God is real, he is our worth and our defense. He is our lodestar.
4. A faithful life here may be incredibly lonely. The believers of Asia turned away from Paul--imagine being abandoned by the believers of an entire continent. As if that weren’t hard enough, there were two people who hurt him particularly, because Paul names them specifically. (Whose names would you include here?) There was also one friend who didn’t turn away. If God has provided someone willing to search for you and find you in your moment of spiritual need, realize that’s a gift. That Facebook message. That text. That whisper to endure. It probably wasn’t just human; it was likely your Lord working through the body to remind you that he sees you and loves you.
5. The commission? Take a deep breath before you read it because it’s not easy. “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
Does this mean you will suffer if you follow Jesus? I can’t say for sure. Paul’s commission is included in a personal letter to one friend; it’s directed to one personal, historical situation. But from what I’m seeing of our era and what it takes to walk with Jesus, I think a lot of us can expect the same. And if this commission does fall upon us, it’s going to require single-minded focus. Paul says, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” These words are super convicting to me because this is where I get lost most often. Our enemy knows that I will reject obvious evil—I’m much more likely to be distracted from the gospel by good but lesser causes. I’m definitely in the entangled by civilian pursuits camp.
6. If we do fight for what is best, there’s no promise God’s going to give us results the secular world considers positive. We aren’t told that we will win so much we will get sick of winning. We may be misunderstood. We may be falsely accused. Our family members may suffer hard consequences as we speak out about the religious evils of our day.
But even if we suffer, we will still be called “to endure everything for the sake of the elect.” Those who are watching and listening to our pain matter. Their souls matter. Paul was alone, imprisoned, cold, humiliated, prepared to die. In this circumstance, he knew his focus during agony would show those who were watching and listening the truth. He knew their salvation could be impacted by his endurance.
You might not know who these elect are. They might hear your story second hand, and you might never meet them in this earthly life. But stop right now to pray for all who will be influenced by your story of faith. Ask God to strengthen you for their sake, and to help you walk through whatever is hitting in a way that ministers to their deepest need.
So many people in our world are spiritually discouraged. They’ve seen false religion gravitate toward elitism, wealth, and comfort. They are finished with a church that runs on economic and cultural manipulation. You may be the only person in someone’s life who clings to the real Jesus in such a way that the true gospel is revealed. As hard as it is to walk that road now, it’s worth it. That soul is worth your investment.
7. We are called to be gentle. To be patient. To correct those who are wrong with as much tenderness as possible, hoping that the opponents of Jesus will repent.
But that doesn't mean we stop speaking truth about evil. In fact, in the latter part of this letter, Paul describes a church culture that has fallen into many of the same bad habits ours has embraced, and Paul instructs Timothy to be exhortative and bold about naming those wrongs.
So it’s okay to speak with authority.
Kindness plus truth. It’s a rare and powerful combo.
8. Expect a fake religious culture with eight specific traits.
a. Fake religious people will love themselves and their money.
b. They are going to be proud, as if their merit has earned all they have, and they will be and abusive and arrogant with their power.
c. They are going to be heartless toward people who need compassion and care.
d. They will slander unfairly.
e. They won’t have any self-control, so their language and behavior will be brutal.
f. They won’t love what’s good—but they will love what goes against the ways of heaven.
g. Their words will be reckless and conceited, and they will gravitate to whatever feels good in the moment.
h. All the while, they will claim to be Christians—while denying the real power of the gospel.
And we aren’t supposed to hang out with people like that. Paul tells Timothy to avoid them. We’re supposed to mix it up with nonbelievers, but we aren’t supposed to mix it up with fake religious people. It’s healthy to draw a relational boundary there.
9. Fake religious teachers will creep into communities and allure weak people and lead them astray, filling them with teaching that never leads to truth.
We see this happen daily, but it’s good to know that Paul told us it was part of this journey. It doesn’t surprise God that this is happening. It shouldn’t surprise us.
10. If you’re going to stand up against fake religion and actually love Jesus, expect to have a really hard time of this life. This is a war, after all. You face unseen forces that despise you and your calling.
Paul says, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and imposters will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
This is the weather forecast for your faith.
“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
Great religious movements will find earthly pastors who are willing to betray the true gospel for the sake of supporting their own pet causes. Religious organizations will look for preachers who are willing to bend the truth for worldly goals. Sound familiar?
When that happens, we aren’t supposed to be shocked, sulk, and give up. Paul told us ahead of time that this would happen.
We are to endure suffering.
We are to keep doing the work of an evangelist.
We are to keep putting one foot in front of the other and fulfill the ministry we’ve been given.
11. As we focus, we will begin to live with a different values system.
It’s fascinating to see how Paul learns to perceive the world. Note how he assesses his condition.
While Paul sits cold and suffering in prison, he claims he was rescued from the lion’s mouth. As Paul tells Timothy that he thinks he will die in this prison, he rejoices that the Lord will rescue him. Rescue from what? From pain? No. Rescue from every evil deed so that he can safely enter heaven.
His safety isn’t earthy. His rescue isn’t earthly. His rescue is the gift of integrity--faith to endure difficulty so that his worship can be pure as he passes on to the next world.
I needed this epistle today. I needed the reminder to constantly transpose the stuff of earth into the currency of eternity. I needed to be reminded that it’s supposed to be hard here sometimes, supposed to be lonely, supposed to be a bad fit. I needed the phrase, “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.”
I needed the reminder to treasure and pray for those souls God will call to eternity as a result of the way I live my life here.
P.S. If you’ve never studied this book of the Bible, this video from The Bible Project is worth your time.