Friday, December 10, 2010

Bearing Fruit in Good Works

In Colossians chapter one, St. Paul prays for the Colossians that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and live (“walk”) in a manner worthy of and pleasing to the Lord, bearing fruit in good works and increasing in their knowledge of God. In order to do this the Colossians are to be “empowered with the strength that is according to God’s glorious might.” But then comes the surprising part.
We think we already know what it means to bear fruit in good works pleasing to God. Good works, we assume, are to do something, to accomplish something. Especially when St. Paul’s prayer uses synonyms for power three times, we assume that the good works pleasing to God have to do with the accomplishment of some great task, a feat, the overcoming of some injustice or the establishment of some righteous policy or institution. For us, bearing fruit in good works that are pleasing to God means doing something that can be seen: changing the world--or a least a piece of it, a piece outside myself.
Ah, there’s the rub.
The surprising part of this prayer is that St. Paul tells the Colossians exactly how “the strength that is according to God’s glorious power” is to empower them to bear “fruit in good works.” The power is “for all patience [endurance] and longsuffering with joy” which is manifest in “giving thanks to the Father.” The good works that are pleasing to God are born and manifest in endurance and longsuffering with joy, in giving thanks even in distressing circumstances.
Suffering is a part of life. Everyone suffers. Endurance and suffering for a long time (i.e. longsuffering) is nothing unique--it is the common human lot. What is uniquely Christian, what requires the power of God, is to endure and suffer for a long time with joy and giving thanks to the Father. Without the power of God, we suffer only as Michael Henchard does in the Mayor of Casterbridge, of whom Hardy says, “Misery taught him nothing more than the defiant endurance of it.” However, by the power of God, suffering with joy and thanksgiving can become a means of growth and transformation.
This is counter-intuitive. How can enduring evil transform it? Aren’t we called to change the world? Isn’t that what it means to do good works? Aren’t Christians called to be “salt and light” (i.e. agents of change)? The short answer is no. We are called to be changed and be transformed. We are called to transform that part of the world and its evil that dwells within ourselves. Then, as God wills, the world outside ourselves will be influenced.

The crucible of our transformation is the patient endurance of suffering with joy and thanksgiving by the power of God.
Patient suffering with joy and thanksgiving is not all the Christian life is about. This is, after all, only one of St. Paul’s prayers. However, patient suffering with joy and thanksgiving is an essential part of the Christian life. It is a part wherein we share in the sufferings of Christ, a part wherein we bear fruit in good works pleasing to God, and unfortunately it is a part we’d prefer to ignore. We feel so much more comfortable imagining that God’s glorious power in our lives exists to help us to do something rather than to endure something.

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