Winter is near. You may have plans for the season-to head south and escape it, to grab skis and plunge headlong into it, to launch a new business, to redeem last year's grade point average.
The Apostle Paul had winter plans and they are frozen in aspic for time immemorial in the leave-takings of a 2,000-year-old letter that no pastor preaches on because it is naught but regards and regrets about persons we don't know. The verse would seem to have as much meat on it as the neck bone of your Thanksgiving turkey. Nor am I inclined to mine Paul's meaning for hidden allegories about the winter of our present economic discontent, or the setting sun of Western Civilization. It is flatly prosaic instruction:
"Do your best to come before winter" (2 Timothy 4:21).
What spoke to me in this postscript of the inspired prisoner was a correction to my own understanding of prayer. (Didn't he tell us a chapter back that all Scripture is good for "correction"?) The correction is incidental to the passage, in a sense; Paul didn't mean to challenge my attitude; he just meant to have Timothy come before winter!
He must have been dead earnest because it is the second mention: "Do your best to come to me soon" (verse 9). Life is hard: Demas has forsaken me, Alexander the coppersmith did me harm, I am alone except for Luke. Bring my cloak, it's cold in this dungeon-oh, and don't forget the parchments.
I am struck by what Paul does not say. He does not say, "Timothy, pray to come in winter, and the Lord will certainly grant your prayer." Or, "Timothy, I have besought the Lord on your behalf to come in winter, and I know He will allow it because He Himself said, 'Ask and you will receive.'" And yet, I must assume Paul did pray about the matter and did ask the Lord to allow an expeditious reunion. He was the man who told us to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
"Do your best," says Paul. Which sounds like a man who is aware of living in a certain amount of contingency. For all his abiding on a spiritual plane-this is the apostle who was privileged to be caught up in the third heaven, according to 2 Corinthians 12:2-he makes plans like the rest of us, and hopes they will materialize. Try, Timothy. Use the same means for travel preparation as anyone who puts his pants on one leg at a time. Raise the cash. Check the boat schedules.
Paul has lifted his petition to heaven, and there he leaves it in the lap of the Almighty. He evidently does not regard God's throne as an automatic wish-dispenser. Nor does he take the tack that God will necessarily answer his prayer exactly in the way he envisions it. If Timothy cannot come till winter, or spring, or even at all, presumably Paul will not be shook.
When I think about how to make sense of this, I consider: Paul's chief desire is God's chief desire-the kingdom come. If any mortal ever wanted that, Paul did. And so Paul asks for Tim's coming in winter because somehow, in his judgment, that would be helpful in advancing the kingdom. But of course Paul knows that he doesn't know all things, and that he cannot see around corners, and that it may well be that the long-range success of God's eschatological juggernaut will not be best helped by Timothy's coming.
So Paul feels free to ask Timothy-and God-for what he deems most propitious, but feels equally open-handed about the outcome. His assurance is not that Timothy will definitely come before winter but that God has heard his prayers, every one of them. Speaking for myself, I am so relieved that God did not grant all my prayers! I shudder to think of some things I have fervently asked for!
I need to get away from the habit of being dejected every time prayers are not answered precisely my way. One thing I should have learned by this autumn of my life-that when God does not implement my plan it is because He has an even better one.
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