As someone who is particularly fond of the Gospel of 3 John , it is little surprise that I was pleased when yesterday’s sermon began with a discussion of John’s greeting to Gaias in 3 John :1-4: “The Elder, To the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth: Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers. For I rejoiced greatly when brethren came and testified of the truth that is in you, just as you walk in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” In the hands of a less skillful writer, such a greeting about one’s soul and health prospering would be a mere cliche to be tossed into a letter for the sake of politeness, but in the words of John it, of course, means so much more than a mere cliche, because the truth is of the utmost importance to John and to those who view the Bible and salvation in like fashion.
Given the way the message began, I was a bit concerned, I must admit, with what I was about to hear in yesterday’s sermon. The emphatic nature by which the speaker commented on the fact that God and Jesus Christ had never failed and that we were called to succeed made me reflect on matters that could easily be considered as failures. Are broken marriages failures? What about broken families and estrangements with relatives and former friends? Are one’s flaws and foibles and shortcomings and their inevitable repercussions failures? What about mistakes of judgment, or the trials of all kinds that befall us? What about the difficulties that result from misunderstandings and miscommunication as well as betrayal that continually dog us? Are such things failures? Much depends on definitions here.
When we look at success, much depends on definitions as well. In the evocative description of one Church of God ministry, we may be “Born To Win,” but here too winning depends on definitions often as well as perspective. If we are looking for victory as overcoming our fallen human nature and entering into the Kingdom of God, that is a victory that puts our present sufferings completely in the shade. This, of course, was the victory that was spoken of first implicitly and then explicitly in yesterday’s message, greatly easing my own concerns about the direction the message would take. Yet there are often expectations that people will succeed in the here and now if they are godly, that they will earn a lot of money and marry well and have a lot of kids, and it is easy to feel like a failure when one does not succeed if one and those around one have that sort of expectation as to the life we live and the positive benefits that come from it. Certainly in the message that was given yesterday it is very possible that many people did not feel as if they were successes here and now.
And yet our feelings are often a poor judge of the true state of our life. When John wrote to Gaius, the wish for one’s soul (or life) to prosper was not an idle one. Nor was it a straightforward or obvious wish. For in the rest of that letter John is exhorting Gaius to be hospitable to one Demetrius, a traveling evangelist who had run afoul of the power-hungry Diotrophes, who was throwing members out of the congregation for showing favor to those who aligned themselves with John. Most of us would consider being asked to do something that was both right and potentially harmful to our political standing within a congregation to be an immensely stressful situation, and having problems of that kind to wrestle with in our own lives would hardly be considered prospering. Yet the sort of prospering that John had in mind was the development of godly character in terms of patience and longsuffering in the face of entrenched institutional evil. Many of us have wrestled with that evil, although not all of us have been particularly patient or gracious in how we dealt with it. And yet enduring such trials successfully does indicate that our soul prospers, even if we do not feel well in the process. How much better life would be if we could accurately judge how much we prospered as God judges the prosperity of our lives. Would we be more sad or more concerned about such matters in that case as we are now?
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