Recently, I was on the planning committee to honor someone who was certainly worthy of commendation. A fellow responded to our recommendation by saying, “Well, I have done that too.” And in that moment, we all hung our heads, for this fellow (who certainly was a capable individual) lost our respect by nominating himself. As he spoke, my mind began to flood with instances where preachers (including the one who is writing this) commended themselves. Paul asks a pertinent question in 2 Corinthians 3:1: “Do we begin again to commend ourselves?”
All too often, the commendation of men is so important that we even take it upon ourselves to commend ourselves. We feel, in the immortal words of Dr. Tom Malone, that, “He who tooteth not his own horn must remain forever in a state of untootedness.” But do we need to supply letters of commendation to others or to receive letters of commendation from others? Paul is emphatic that the most important letter of commendation that any minister can receive is the spiritual influence that he has had in the lives of others. Those whose lives God has changed are “our epistle of commendation.”
The Paper Reduction Act
All too often my wife has told me something, and I have completely forgotten it because I failed to write it down. Indeed, the advancement of technology has greatly reduced the availability of paper. File cabinets in our offices have been replaced with drop boxes on our computers. And many of us, when we have to write something down, feverishly search for a scrap of paper to make this possible.
God, too, is searching for something to write on. He wants to write the life stories of church people “in our hearts.” Could it be that the increase of technology has limited the availability of this writing surface? We are increasingly trusting websites, blogs, and tweets to take the place of pastoral concern. This is not to say that I am opposed to technology. Indeed, you are reading this article from a website. But a website cannot replace a witness, a blog cannot replace a burden, and a tweet cannot replace a testimony.
Like the Old Testament priest, God wants us to carry the names of our people in our hearts. And people can instinctively sense when they are a resume point rather than a point of concern. There is no substitute for loving people. God is writing our epistle of commendation, and it is the life story of people within our influence that God is writing “in our hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2).
About the Author
Simultaneously, we must never forget that these life stories written in our hearts are “the epistles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:3). Jesus is the author of these individual accounts. Their development that commends our ministry is authored by God Himself. Too often in ministry I considered the development of people within my church the result of my good management and skill. How arrogant! Spiritual development is attributable to one thing alone—we are what we are by the grace of God. He is the author of spiritual development.
The story was told of a soldier at war who wrote his girlfriend every day, and she ended up marrying the mailman. We must never forget we deliver the news, but we did not author it. That is God’s job!
Circulation and Marketing
These epistles that are written by God in our hearts “are known and read of all men” (2 Corinthians 3:2). When my dissertation was completed in 2001, it was developed into book form, and I had dreams of it being circulated all across America. Unfortunately, a good number of the copies are still sitting in my closet. The book has been written, but it would be glaringly inaccurate to say it is “known and read of all men.”
The people in whom God has produced transformation are letters that have wide circulation. They are the best marketing tools that any church has. Our visitor cards often ask, “How did you hear about us?” Very few people these days respond by saying “the phonebook listing” or “the newspaper ad.” More frequently, we hear “the internet” or “facebook.” But after thirty years of pastoring, the number one answer has remained consistent—“word of mouth.” The best advertisement for any institution is a satisfied customer.
If you like what I am doing, you will tell someone. If you don’t like what I am doing, you will tell ten people. Transformed people go places that billboards, websites, and mailers can’t go. How often has a new convert resulted in numerous other people coming to Christ! The transformed life is a letter “known and read of all men.”
Becoming a Classic
We live in Rhode Island, and there are many old cemeteries in our towns. Some of these cemeteries are overgrown with weeds. The memorials, though etched in stone, are broken and faded. Some names on them cannot even be distinguished. Such decay is inevitable because tombstone etchings are external and physical. But the book that God is writing in the lives of our people is not subject to decay. It is “written not with ink” and it is “not in tables of stone” (2 Corinthians 3:3).
God is writing something more permanent than that. God is writing “with the Spirit of the living God” and He is writing on “fleshly tables of the heart.” And because God’s work is internal and spiritual, it is durative. God is not writing a dime store comic book. God is authoring a classic.
All too often we preachers want some flash in the pan that will commend our ministries in an instant. God is not producing firecrackers that brightly shine but quickly fade. God is producing lamps that burn long after we are gone from the scene. When God writes the letter of commendation, it never goes out of date. May we strive for God’s commendation of our ministries in the lives of changed people who have been etched into our hearts, for only this commendation is of eternal significance.