As a professor, I’m often asked by students to write letters of recommendation for them—for leadership positions, study-abroad programs, graduate schools, and even jobs. In each letter, I have a chance to praise the student’s character and qualifications.
When Christians traveled in the ancient world, they often carried with them similar “letters of commendation” from their churches. Such a letter ensured that the traveling brother or sister would be welcomed hospitably.
The apostle Paul didn’t need a letter of recommendation when he spoke to the church in Corinth—they knew him. In his second letter to that church, Paul wrote that he preached the gospel out of sincerity, not for personal gain (2 Corinthians 2:17). But then he wondered if his readers would think that in defending his motives in preaching, he was trying to write a letter of recommendation for himself.
He didn’t need such a letter, he said, because the people in the church in Corinth were themselves like letters of recommendation. The visible work of Christ in their lives was like a letter “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God” (3:3). Their lives testified to the true gospel Paul had preached to them—their lives were letters of reference that could be “known and read by everyone” (3:2). As we follow Christ, this becomes true of us too—our lives tell the story of the goodness of the gospel.
A study conducted by the Barna Group in 2018 found that most Americans don’t like to talk about God. Only seven percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly — and practicing Christians in America aren’t that different. Only thirteen percent of regular churchgoers say they have a spiritual conversation about once a week.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that spiritual conversations are on the decline. Talking about God can be dangerous. Whether because of a polarized political climate, because disagreement might cause a rift in a relationship, or because a spiritual conversation might cause you to realize a change you need to make in your life—these can feel like high-stakes conversations.
But in the instructions given to God’s people, the Israelites, in the book of Deuteronomy, talking about God can be a normal, natural part of everyday life. God’s people were to memorize His words, and to display them in places where they’d often be seen. The law said to talk about God’s instructions for life with your children and “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (11:19).
God calls us to conversation. Take a chance, rely on the Spirit, and try turning your small talk toward something deeper. God will bless our communities as we talk about God’s words and practice them.
In the Danish film Babette’s Feast, a French refugee appears in a coastal village. Two elderly sisters, leaders of the community’s religious life, take her in, and for fourteen years Babette works as their housekeeper. When Babette comes into a large sum of money, she invites the congregation of twelve to join her for an extravagant French meal of caviar, quail in puff pastry, and more.
As they move from one course to the next, the guests relax; some find forgiveness, some find love rekindled, and some begin recalling miracles they’d witnessed and truths they’d learned in childhood. “Remember what we were taught?” they say. “Little children, love one another.” When the meal ends, Babette reveals to the sisters that she spent all she had on the food. She gave everything — including any chance of returning to her old life as an acclaimed chef in Paris — so that her friends, eating, might feel their hearts open.
Jesus appeared on earth as a stranger and servant, and He gave everything so that our spiritual hunger might be satisfied. In John’s gospel, He reminds His listeners that when their ancestors wandered hungry in the wilderness, God provided quail and bread (Exodus 16). That food satisfied for a time, but Jesus promises that those who accept Him as the “bread of life” will “live forever” (John 6:48, 51). His sacrifice satisfies our spiritual cravings.
Following the park guide, I scribbled notes as he taught about the plants of the Bahamian primeval forest. He told us which trees to avoid. The Poison wood tree, he said, secretes a black sap that causes a painful, itchy rash. But not to worry! The antidote could usually be found growing right next it. “Cut into the red bark of the Gum Elemi tree,” he said, “and rub the sap on the rash. It will immediately begin to heal.”
I nearly dropped my pencil in astonishment. I hadn’t expected to find a picture of salvation in the forest. But in the Gum Elemi tree, I saw Jesus. Jesus is the ready remedy wherever the poison of sin is found. Like the red bark of that tree, the blood of Jesus brings healing.
The prophet Isaiah understood that humanity needed healing. The rash of sin had infected us. Isaiah promised that our healing would come through “a man of sorrows” who would take our sickness upon Himself (53:3). That man was Jesus. We were sick, but Christ was willing to be wounded in our place. When we believe in Jesus, we are healed from the sickness of sin (53:5). It may take a lifetime to learn to live as those who are healed—to recognize our sins and to reject them in favor of our new identity, but because of Christ, we can.
There’s a growing “rent-a-family” industry in many countries to meet the needs of lonely people. Some use the service to maintain appearances, so that at a social event they can appear to have a happy family. Some hire actors to impersonate estranged relatives, so that they can feel, if briefly, a familial connection they long for.
This trend reflects a basic truth: Humans are created for relationship. In the creation story found in Genesis, God looks at each thing He has made and sees that it is “very good” (1:31). But when God considers Adam, He says, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18). The human needed another human.
The Bible doesn’t just tell us about our need for connection. It also tells us where to find relationships: among Jesus’s followers. Jesus, at His death, told His friend John to consider Jesus’s mother as his own. They would be family to each other even after Jesus was gone (John 19:26–27). And Paul instructed believers to treat others like parents and siblings (1 Timothy 5:1–2). The psalmist tells us that part of God’s redemptive work in the world is to put “the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6), and the church is one of the ways God designed to do this.
Thanks be to God, who has made us for relationship and given us His people to be our family!
My six-year-old son Owen was thrilled to receive a new board game. But after a half hour reading the rules, he was frustrated. He couldn’t quite figure out how it worked. It wasn’t until later, when a friend came over who already knew how to play, that Owen finally got to enjoy his present.
Watching them play, I was reminded of how much easier it is to learn something new if you have an experienced teacher. When we’re learning, reading the instructions helps, but having a friend who can demonstrate makes a huge difference.
The apostle Paul understood this too. Writing to Titus about how he could help his church grow in faith, Paul emphasized the value of experienced believers who could model Christian faith. Of course teaching “sound doctrine” was important, but it didn’t just need to be talked about—it needed to be lived out. Paul wrote that older men and women ought to be self-controlled, kind, and loving (Titus 2:2-6). “In everything,” he said, “set them an example by doing what is good” (v. 7).
I’m thankful for the solid teaching, but I’m also thankful for the many people who have been hands-on teachers. They have shown me by their lives what it looks like to follow Christ and made it easier for me to see how I can walk that path too.
My grandmother recently sent me a folder full of old photographs, and as I thumbed through them, one caught my eye. In it, I’m two years old, and I’m sitting on one end of a hearth in front of a fireplace. On the other end, my dad has his arm around my mom’s shoulders. Both are gazing at me with expressions of love and delight.
I pinned this photo to my dresser, where I see it every morning. It’s a wonderful reminder of their love for me. The truth is, though, that even the love of good parents is imperfect. I saved this photo because it reminds me that although human love may fail sometimes, God’s love never fails—and according to Scripture, God looks at me the way my parents are looking at me in this picture.
The prophet Zephaniah described this love in a way that astounds me. He describes God as rejoicing over His people with singing. God’s people had not earned this love. They had failed to obey Him or to treat each other with compassion. But Zephaniah promised that in the end, God’s love would prevail over their failures. God would take away their punishment (Zephaniah 3:15) and He would rejoice over them (v. 17). He would gather His people into his arms, bring them home, and restore them (v. 20).
That’s a love worth reflecting on every morning.
While on a hike with my kids, we discovered a light, springy green plant growing in small clumps on the trail. According to a signpost, the plant is commonly called deer moss, but it’s not actually a moss at all. It’s a lichen. A lichen is a fungus and an alga growing together in a mutualistic relationship in which both organisms benefit from each other. Neither the fungus nor the alga can survive on its own, but together they form a hardy plant that can live in some alpine areas for up to 4,500 years. Because the plant can withstand drought and low temperatures, it is one of the only food sources for caribou (reindeer) in deep winter.
The relationship between the fungus and the alga reminds me of our human relationships. We rely on each other. To grow and flourish, we need to be in relationship with each other.
Paul, writing to believers in Colossae, describes how our relationships should look. We are to clothe ourselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Col. 3:12). We ought to forgive each other and live in peace “as members of one body” (v. 15).
It’s not always easy to live in peace with our families or friends. But when the Spirit empowers us to have humility and forgiveness in our relationships, our love for each other points to Christ (John 13:35) and brings glory to God.
I grew up in warm southern cities, so when I moved north, it took me a while to learn how to drive safely during the long, snowy months. In my first hard winter, I ended up stranded in a snowdrift three times! But after several years of practice, I began to feel comfortable driving in wintry conditions. In fact, I felt a little too comfortable. I stopped being as vigilant. And that’s when I hit a patch of black ice and skidded into a telephone pole on the side of the road.
Thankfully, no one was hurt, but I learned something important that day. I learned how dangerous it can be to feel comfortable. Instead of being watchful, I had gone on “autopilot.”
We need to practice that same kind of vigilance in the Christian life. Peter warns believers not to glide thoughtlessly through life, but to “be alert” (1 Peter 5:8). The devil is actively trying to destroy us, and so we too need to be active, resisting temptation and standing firm in our faith (v. 9). That’s not something we have to do on our own though. God promises to be with us in our sufferings and ultimately, to make us “strong, firm and steadfast” (v. 10). By His power, we learn to remain watchful and alert in resisting evil and following Him.