We’ve looked at two of the exercise machines that build spiritual muscle. There’s one more.
We find our key word—grace—over in Ephesians. In chapter 4 Paul talks about putting off the “old man” and his “deeds” (Eph 4.22), and conversely “putting on”—like a new suit—the “new man” (Eph 4.24). He lists several behavioral changes that will follow—you’ll quit lying and start telling the truth (Eph 4.25); you’ll control your anger (Eph 4.26-27); you’ll stop stealing and start giving (Eph 4.28); you’ll start speaking in ways that build people up instead of tearing them down (Eph 4.29).
And as part of this last item, Paul throws in an off-handed comment that introduces us to our third exercise machine. Words “that are good for edification,” he says, will “give grace to those who hear.”
There’s our word grace. We ask our two exegetical questions:
- Is the word grace here used in the narrower, technical sense, of spiritual strength? Since the immediate context speaks of “edification,” we can reasonably say yes.
- Does the context identify a practice, an “exercise,” that results in this spiritual strength? It does; the exercise is our words—our conversation.
In a sense this passage is backwards from the other two. It’s not speaking of something that makes us stronger; it’s speaking rather of something we do that makes others stronger. But since this is a reciprocal activity, based in relationship, it’s reasonable to conclude that the words that others speak to us will similarly strengthen us, since they’re “good for edification.”
So the third exercise machine is conversation with other believers that strengthens us to live biblically in an antibiblical world.
We have a word for that, one that we get from the Scripture itself:
We talk about fellowship a lot in our churches. We even have a room named for it: the Fellowship Hall.
How do we know which room in the church is the Fellowship Hall?
It’s the one with a kitchen.
And as a body we’ll frequently adjourn to the Fellowship Hall, where we’ll all eat casseroles and talk about sports and politics and who’s dating whom.
And when it’s done, we’ll leave and say that we had such good “fellowship” today.
No, we didn’t.
I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong to talk about sports or politics, or even who’s dating whom—provided we’re not gossiping.
But that’s not fellowship. It’s just conversation.
Fellowship is talking to one another about our relationships with Christ, and our struggles, and our victories, and our experiences. It’s encouraging one another as we walk the path of discipleship together. It’s building spiritual muscle in others by spotting them when they’re bench pressing and by telling them that they can do 10 more reps.
And it’s not just talk. It’s taking action to make things better. It’s intervening on behalf of “widows and orphans in their distress” (Jam 1.27) and going to someone’s house when he’s depressed and mowing an elderly couple’s lawn and telling an inattentive adult son that his Mom needs his financial help.
We can work on the other exercise machines alone. Bible study and prayer can be corporate, of course, but we actually need to have a significant portion of our time on those machines by ourselves.
But fellowship is a team sport. That’s the whole point.
A further thought.
You can’t knowingly encourage a fellow believer in his struggle if you don’t know he’s struggling. The church needs to be a place where we know that we can share those struggles safely and where we know that those who hear will care and respond with encouraging words and with selfless actions.
The church ought to be a safe space.
And we ought to measure our words, directing them as carefully as if they were bullets, able to stop the attacker but able also to hurt the good guys if they’re sent out carelessly, without possibility of recall.
We ought to engage one another in the body with care, and thought, and intent, and purpose.
We ought to put weights on that machine, too.