Leavers and cleavers on the journey of life

The journey of life

“Life is a journey.” We journey with parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, and so on. At various stages of this journey co-travelers join and leave. Some for good reasons and some for bad reasons. Paul’s experience narrated in 2 Timothy 1:15-2:13 helps us to have a biblical view on this reality, its impact on our lives, and ways of coping with it.

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The prisoner in death row

Paul wrote the second letter to Timothy between AD 64-65, during his second imprisonment in Rome that led to his execution. Anticipating the end of his journey of life, he wrote:

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

Leavers

Paul writes painfully, that at this stage of his life, most of the people whom he counted on have deserted him: “all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes” (2 Timothy 1:15). The NLT highlights the agony of the desertion by rendering it as, “even Phygelus and Hermogenes” (2 Timothy 1:15, NLT). He had counted on this pair of friends so that he could never convince him that they had abandoned him. It was Paul’s “et tu brute” moment.

This pair may have had at least three reasons for abandoning Paul. First, they feared they would be implicated in the offense leading to Paul’s execution. They had to save their skin. Second, they were disappointed since God did not to deliver him as in previous occasions. Third, Paul’s experience dampened their enthusiasm for the mission since it involves suffering and death. Regardless of their motives, they behaved as the disciples of Jesus who followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem but fled when he was arrested and crucified.

The deserters leave a vacuum in our lives and the trauma of that experience takes years to overcome. It dampens our enthusiasm for mission. The wounds that separation inflict hesitate to heal; even if healed, the scars stay on for the rest of life. They leave behind good, bad, pleasant, or scary memories. Our life in the family, church, and workplaces have plenty of such patches.

Paul had seen many people leaving him all through his life, though the desertion by friends at this point is incomparably painful. Demas left him around at this point too as he noted at the end of this epistle that: “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia” (2 Timothy 4:10).

Though Crescens and Titus might have left him to continue the mission, Demas did not leave for any such noble reasons. He not only deserted Paul but also abandoned his faith and hope for the world to come. His reason was spiritual apostacy, so he decided not to continue with Paul anymore. He overlooked the truth that, “do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).

But Demas was with Paul when he wrote the letter to Colossians in the early part of his present imprisonment. Paul wrote that, “Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas” (Colossians 4:14). After penning Colossians and before writing the second letter to Timothy from the same prison, Demas had left Paul’s team. When he dumped his faith and his close associate, Demas overlooked another truth that, “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17).

We can relate with Paul, especially those in ministry. I have had so many people I mentored, not only turning enemies but also leaving their faith that I nurtured them in. When we score, they cheer us up, but in the first sign of losing they will start packing their bags to leave. Not only in ministry but also in all aspects of life, this occurs. That is part of the way of life. Parents may abandon newborn babies, children may desert their aged parents, spouses may leave sick or jobless partners.

It is not the first time that people deserted Paul. John Mark who set out with his uncle Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary trip left half-way. When Paul insisted on travelling deeper into the country over the difficult terrains, John Mark backed off. Since he deserted the team to return to the comfort of his home in Jerusalem, Paul refused to take him board on the second trip. The result was a rift between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36—41).

But unlike Demas, John Mark did not leave his faith. He was with Paul later. Even in this letter Paul urged Timothy, “get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim 4:11).

People may not always share our big dreams. Once, I presented to my team the new directions that our organization should take in the next decade. It demanded sacrifice and commitment. At coffee break one of my senior colleagues warned me that I would be very unrealistic. He was reluctant to go with me. John Mark might have thought that the vision to evangelize the interior parts of Turkey was not feasible, so he does not have to own it.

When people leave us, it could not only dampen our spirits but also make us doubt our own convictions and the directions we are heading. But we must scale further as Paul did rather than consider returning to the base camp.  Paul went ahead with his mission although John Mark fell off and Barnabas parted ways with him.

Sometimes God call us to be the lonely voice in the wilderness. However, loneliness does not mean that we are alone since we have the promise of the Lord to be with us till the end of the age (Matt 28:18). If the task that we have at hand is from him, and for his glory then the number of people who are with us does not matter. We only need to believe as Elisha assured his servant that, “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16).

Cleavers

Though there are people who leave us there are people who cleave on as well. In the same breath as he recorded the painful words of people leaving him, he gratefully mentioned one friend determined to cling on to him. That was otherwise unknown Onesiphorus. Paul wrote,

“May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me—may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day!—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus” (2 Timothy 1:16-18).

Paul first met Onesiphorus in Ephesus where he was at Paul’s service. Then when he heard that Paul was a prisoner in Rome, he went there looking for Paul. When those who were with Paul had deserted him, Onesiphorus was looking for Paul to refresh his life in whatever way he could.

Luke the physician

While Onesiphorus went searching for Paul in Rome and gave him company in his distress, Luke never left him. Paul wrote to Timothy that “Luke alone is with me” (2 Tim 4:11) while sighing over Demas’ departure. Luke was on his missionary journeys, on his way to Rome as a prisoner and stayed with him even when he is on the death row.

It is a secret of God’s economy that our life will never be empty. When people leave, God sends people who will cleave on to us in the most difficult stages of our life. As a pastor, I had to face what many other pastors had to face—division in the church. Once more than half of the church left with my assistant. The few who stood with me even began to leave one by one because they did not see any future in the new venture. There came a point where I had no one to preach to. But I continued the ministry because it was God’s plan.

The last member I had one Sunday morning told me that his wife does not want him to hang on to the wreckage of the ship with me. So, this would be his last Sunday with me. My wife, my son and I would alone make the congregation next Sunday. But when I was about pull out of the carpark, he came running towards the car, asked me roll down the glass and said: “go ahead pastor, God has a purpose for this church.” He walked away; I have never seen him again. But his words ring in my ears even now, especially in every time of crisis that pops up. That gave me the strength to continue, and God gave the growth, it keeps growing though we had hit ground zero at that point. Though he was leaving at the crisis point, he left a word of encouragement. God sent in his own time, his own people and the congregation continued to grow. Though over the time many people left, God kept on sending his people so that we could continue to serve his purposes.

Though the early believers had been through a lot of persecution, they were deeply committed to their fellow believers in prison for their faith. They “had compassion on those in prison” (Hebrews 10:34).

Believe in People

Desertion should not weaken our faith in people. God counterbalances the leavers with cleavers. Demas, Phygelus, Hermogenes, and many others on whom he counted on left him. But God brought Onesiphorus to him and Luke stayed on. So, Paul did not lose his faith in people’s integrity.

Paul’s opinion of John Mark had changed over the years. He asked Timothy to join him in Rome and to bring John Mark along since “he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). This is the same Mark who refused to travel through the difficult terrains to the interior of Turkey on the first trip. On the second trip, Paul refused to take him on board since “Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work” (Acts 15:38). But Paul knew very well that people change over the years. Later, he went back with Paul in his ministry and proved to be useful. At this final leg of his journey, Paul longed for the company of his youthful companions besides Luke the physician—Timothy and John Mark.

Conclusion

Never lose your energy, never surrender your vision, never dampen your love for the Lord because of deserters. Leaving and cleaving is part of the game of life. God in his economy has people who will remain steadfast in our life and our ministry. Thank God for them. Satan always has his secret agents planted in all turns of our life. We must be aware of that. But also count on God’s lieutenants who would stand steadfast with us. We serve God’s purpose with them.

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