By STEFANIE BENNETT | CONTRIBUTOR
Part 2b: Living With Sisters in Community, Chapters 7-9 (pp. 105-144)
[Y]our walk with God is designed by God to be a community project. Anonymous, consumerist, isolated, independent, self-sufficient, “Jesus and me” Christianity is a distant and distorted facsimile of the faith of the New Testament.
–Paul Tripp, New Morning Mercies, July 12 devotion
It’s week 3—and if you’re like me, you’re getting to the parts of Fox’s book that make you a little less comfortable. Jana called this week’s reading, “the nitty gritty,” and “gritty” is right. We’re oysters with the sand of truth in our shell, and we’ll either work hard to get it out and get comfortable again, or we’ll grapple with the grit until it becomes a pearl. In other words, we’re beginning to see that this “community” thing is work and will cost us something—but, oh, the rewards!
As I sat around a table on Wednesday with a handful of other women of all different ages, stages, and struggles of life, I was encouraged to find that they were brimming with stories of godly women who, even at the expense of their own comfort, had modeled purposeful, dimensional discipleship to them. Coupled with Fox’s chapters for this week, we can be encouraged that our efforts to exhort one another (chapter 7), learn from each other (chapter 8), and grow together (chapter 9), made possible and purposeful by the work of Christ, is worth all the work. And let us not forget Paul’s reminder that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). In this, we can ask for God to grant the will to love and serve his church in this way, and rejoice in his goodness when he answers.
As we began to discuss chapter 7 (Sisters Exhort One Another), you may have been tempted to shrink back at the thought of exhortation, sensing it to be too risky. Throughout your life, you may have been on both the giving and receiving end of exhortation, and it may not have always gone well. One woman at our table summed the risk perfectly: “I want you to like me, and I don’t think you’ll like me if I confront you.” Spurgeon, also, knows the risks: “we never get any praise for telling people of their faults; we rather hazard their dislike; a man will sometimes thank you for it, but he does not often like you any the better” (qtd. In Fox, 111). Certainly, removed of its love and purpose, exhortation can look remarkably similar to nit-picking, or “fussy fault-finding” (Thanks, Wiki, for this succinct definition!), and no woman I know wants to be characterized in that way.
So what, then, is the purpose of exhortation, and what would compel us to do it, even in knowing all the risks? To answer, Fox points us to Bonhoeffer:
Exhorting one another with the truth of God’s word is a ministry of mercy, an offer of genuine fellowship” (qtd. in Fox, 112).
Furthering this, Janaexplained that this ministry of mercy “takes exhortation from ‘fussing’ to a valuable cause.” When we exhort (or are exhorted), it is an offering of fellowship rooted in the finished work of Christ. We are not pointing to ourselves when we address issues, but rather to our perfect Savior. “The basis upon which Christians can speak to one another is that each knows the other as a sinner, who, with all his human dignity, is lonely and lost if he is not gotten help. This is not to make him contemptible nor to disparage him in any way. On the contrary, it is to accord him the one real dignity that man has, namely, that though he is a sinner, he can share in God’s grace and glory and be God’s child” (Bonhoeffer, 105-106; qtd in Fox, 112).
Isn’t it beautiful that, above all, exhortation is about bestowing upon someone their “one real dignity”? In this way, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing nearer” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
And some of the other beautiful, life-giving ways that we can stir one another on toward love and good works is by learning from each other and growing together. While it can be tempting to keep our learning/teaching at a surface-level, Fox proposes that discipleship is not about “general tips for our life [or] passing on personal advice [ . . .] it’s about pointing you to the wisdom of God’s word. It’s about helping you understand your identity in Christ and what it means to be a daughter of the living God” (128-129). Or, to paraphrase Susan Hunt: “Discipleship is equipping through relationships” (Fox, 129). By invoking the Titus 2 mandate in this chapter, Fox calls us to both look ahead toward those who have journeyed faith longer than us, and “see their footprints going ahead of us,” while also looking behind to those who will journey in our faith footprints (126). And this is something we are all called to, not just those who bear the gift of discipleship.
In fact, sometimes we can allow our “spiritual giftedness” to limit us. If we decide that our spiritual gift is not kids or encouragement or picking up trash, we can console ourselves into avoiding whole areas of service to the church. But we are promised that in serving others, we receive the benefits of growing together in unity, and if we do not love the church through both our gifts and service to it, the whole body suffers. Fox exhorts us, “The purpose of God’s giving gifts and graces is communal, not personal. My spiritual gifts are not my own; they belong to Christ and his church” (Ryken, 100; qtd in Fox, 138). And this is a very good thing because “when each part is working properly, [it] makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16).
May God use our gifts and our love for Him and his church to show us how we can be a blessing in the way he has designed.