Incarnational living is characterized by glorifying Jesus in everything we say and do.
“We all know who you are. I know where you live.” The words of the taxi driver shocked me when he interrupted my directions to home upon entering his cab near downtown Daejon, a provincial city in central South Korea. At that time, there were only a few foreigners living in this city of over a million people.
Most of us lived in the same part of town near the Methodist university where my wife, Susan, and I were immersed in language study. So, I assumed he was referring to foreigners in general. However, he proceeded to take me straight to my own doorstep. “You’re the missionary who rescued the grandfather,” he said as I paid my fare.
Months earlier, as I walked along the busy road near our home, I had watched a dramatic scene as a stooped, elderly man, dressed in old-style traditional Korean clothing (Hanbok), leaned on his cane and recklessly stepped off the curb in into the busy city traffic. Cars swerved left and right, and brakes screeched as the disoriented grandfather panicked, dropped his cane, and slipped to all fours.
Instinctively, I ran into the street, threw my hands up, and did my best to slow the traffic as I picked him up and brought him back to the sidewalk. A young woman, presumably his granddaughter, was running to meet us. She thanked me profusely, and then they were on their way. I didn’t give much thought to the experience, and don’t think I even bothered to mention it to my wife. As wide-eyed rookie Nazarene missionaries in South Korea some thirty years ago, it seemed like every day was filled with similar adventures.
However, word of the scene with the elderly gentleman had evidently spread, at least through the corps of taxi drivers.
It was an important lesson to learn: As strangers in a strange land, we were very conspicuous. Everything we did, both good and bad, was witnessed, evaluated, and remembered by the community around us—and beyond.
They knew who we were. Such a reality is fraught with the risk of failure, but it also provides great possibilities for allowing others to see Jesus in us! In Philippians 1:20, Paul writes, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (emphasis mine). Paul’s circumstance was difficult as he penned these words. He was in prison for the sake of the gospel. He was in chains for Christ. He was struggling with a “thorn in the flesh.” He was facing the very real possibility of execution, and he was being criticized mercilessly by a group of legalistic Christians (the “Judaizers”).
Yet in the midst of all this difficulty and persecution, Paul was experiencing the beauty of knowing that, not just in spite of, but because of his sufferings, many people were seeing Christ through him.
Paul wrote in that same passage, “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (v. 12-13). He goes on to celebrate that because of his chains, the Christian community in Philippi had been encouraged and emboldened in their proclamation of the gospel.
Paul provides us with a perfect example of incarnational ministry. He lived out this important element of holiness. As the Father is seen and exalted though Jesus—God incarnate, in the flesh—so we are to allow others to see Jesus through our lives. As Christ’s followers, we are very conspicuous. As my taxi driver friend taught me: people know who we are.
Through the circumstances of life, both good and bad, there is great potential to allow people to see Jesus in us and through us. Or, in Paul’s terminology, to “...exalt Christ in our bodies.” Our highest priority, our greatest goal, our mission in life, is to allow Jesus to be seen in us. Experience teaches us that the more difficult our situation, if it is fully surrendered to Jesus, the greater the opportunity for us to exalt Christ.
This realization has changed my prayer life. I find that my prayers are less focused on asking the Lord to remove my frailties and problems, and more focused on asking God to use these problems to help people see Jesus through me. Our whole outlook on life can be changed through this realization. What would we not endure if it means pointing people to Jesus?
Shortly after I graduated from Nazarene Theological Seminary in 1982, a life-long friend helped me learn this important incarnational lesson. I was experiencing a measure of painful criticism from a small segment of my congregation. Looking back on it now, I realize that the criticism might very well have been warranted, and I was actually serving in one of the most forgiving and supportive churches around, but at the time I felt overwhelmed by the stinging pain of being misunderstood and misrepresented.
I even secretly questioned if my pastoral calling had been a big mistake.
I called my friend and lamented over my perceived mistreatment. “David, don’t you see what a great opportunity this is?” he counseled. “Now, perhaps for the first time in your ministry, you have a real opportunity to let your people actually see, not just hear about, Jesus in you. How you react in this tough time will define your ministry. What can be more Christlike than loving and forgiving those who you believe are mistreating you? Let them see Jesus in you.”
Let them see Jesus in you. They are always watching.
David E. Downs is district superintendent of the West Texas District Church of the Nazarene.
Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2019