Note: this was originally posted on September 6, 2016.
Back in February, when Terry Maples asked me to write a Bible study based on “Christ’s Love Compels Us” for the CBF of Virginia’s Ministry Planner, I immediately said yes! What I didn’t tell him was that I had no idea what I was going to write about, and I had apprehensions about the word “compel.”
My discomfort with the word “compel”
I’m uncomfortable with the word “compel” because it sounds authoritarian. I’m biased against this word because of my religious upbringing and seeing the damage done by willful and authoritarian leaders who compelled followers to think, believe and act in certain ways. We might think of authoritarian leaders who have basically turned churches into cults, and we can all think of political dictators who have upended entire countries with the force of their will.
On a more personal and benign level, this word also conjured up bad memories of being forced to clean up my room and or be nice to my sister. But the last laugh is on me, now that I’m raising teenagers. There’s very little that I can do to compel or force my children to do anything, especially now that Thea is a freshman at VCU.
As you can see, I have a negative bias against the word “compel,” at least the way I’ve understood it. Agreeing to write this Bible study really led me to reflect deeper on what it means for Christ’s love to compel us.
It’s actually a little surprising to find a word like “compel” associated with Christ. We all know that willfulness or political force can compel…. but love? Can love really compel us to anything? As I attempted to write this study, that question drove me . . . compelled me you might even say . . . to the Bible.
So I did a study of the word “compel.” What I found was that this word . . . sunecho . . . is used in three general ways in the New Testament. The first way, the word is used in the context of being taken with sickness and fear. When we get sick, we don’t usually choose our symptoms… We’re compelled to do so. In fact, just thinking of this reminds me of some good family friends. When one family member gets a stomach bug, the rest of the family catches it faster than you can say “Pepto-Bismol.” They are compelled.
In its second meaning, sunecho referrs to the physical pressing or holding something or someone tightly, like the crowds pressing against Jesus or the soldiers holding Jesus down to mock and hit him. While I hope nobody here has ever been held down like that, I think we all have had experiences in crowded spaces when we’ve felt people pressing in on us. This summer, my family was in Greece on a standing-room-only bus. There was no room to move – not room to even reach into your pocket to pull out the bus fare. Again, we weren’t choosing to mix so freely with the locals – we were compelled.
So what does getting sick or being squeezed have to do with this passage? How can it possibly relate to Christ and His love? Then I started reading a third passage, one that also evokes and uses the word “compelled,” or sunecho. In chapter five of 2 Corinthians, before the passage we just read, Paul contrasts our lives here on Earth with our heavenly dwelling. He writes that here on Earth while we wait for heaven, we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling. . . .” He goes on to say that we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
And then it dawns on me…Paul himself was sick as he was writing this passage. Oh, he’s not physically sick. He’s home sick, and not for his home back in Jerusalem. He was homesick for heaven. He was longing, groaning for his heavenly dwelling.
Which leads me to the final use of the word sunecho. If you remember, this word can mean being taken with something, like an illness. It can mean being pressed on all sides. Finally, this word can also refer to being drawn to something. It suggests the power of irresistible attraction, like a moth to a flame. For me, one power of irresistible attraction is Doritos chips. For you, it might be chocolate after a long day (or anytime really). Apparently, for most Americans, it’s cat videos on the internet. These are lighthearted examples of being drawn to something, but I think that at one time or another, most of us have shared this sense of being homesick, of being drawn to people or a place that is far away.
Paul was irresistibly drawn to the eternal house in heaven not built by human hands. He wanted to go home! But for him, it was not time yet. So, while still at “home in the body,” Paul channeled that energy to the people around him. While he waited for heaven, he was feverishly, irresistibly drawn to partnering with God in bringing heaven to earth. He was drawn to the vision of Jesus’ prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And as he continues this passage, he uses the word sunecho: He writes, “For Christ’s love compels us.” It compels us to reach out to others or to serve as Christ’s ambassadors with a ministry of reconciliation.
Paul was irresistibly drawn to the Kingdom of Heaven. His first choice was to actually go to heaven; but he was nearly equally drawn to the power of Christ’s love to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven right here on Earth.
For us, may that same power draw and compel us to do the same.
It is Christ’s unconditional love that is infectious and contagious.
It is Christ’s affirming love that holds and presses us together as one body.
It is Christ’s boundless love that draws all to him and to the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is what “Christ’s love compels us” is all about, and I hope the Bible study will do it justice.
As CBF celebrates our 25th anniversary, we are no longer a people compelled to leave the SBC, which was a home to many of us.
No, we are a people compelled by Christ’s love to a better home, and to share the infectious vision and promise of this dwelling called the Kingdom of Heaven.
During this anniversary year, may we be a people who long for a new creation, where we no longer live for ourselves.
In a divided world of factions and friction, may we no longer see others from a worldly point of view.
Rather, may we be ambassadors for Christ, advocating justice and embodying a message of reconciliation . . . where love goes viral, joy infects all hearts, and hope is contagious.
THIS, my friends, is compelling! May Christ’s love compel us all.
I preached this homily at Hampton Baptist at the CBFVa General Assembly to introduce the Bible study I wrote for the CBFVa Ministry Planner.
You can download the Bible study here.