To say that the last four or five years have been a bit of a blur would be to put it mildly. Since the Summer of 2014, our family has moved three times (each time to a new city), sold two homes, bought two homes, changed jobs several times . . . it has been a whirlwind, to say the least. But while the process has been a little unsettling, it seems like it is in the midst of being unsettled that God often reveals the most precious realities—hidden areas of our heart that He wants to bring into the light, aspects of His character and love that we haven’t previously encountered, new challenges to conquer, and fresh direction for the future. The lessons aren’t comfortable, but they are crucial. They allow us to move forward and escape bondage we might not have even recognized. God doesn’t mind shaking us up a bit in order to disturb the dust that has settled on certain aspects of our life.
In my case, the dust had literally settled on a large cardboard box jammed in the back corner of a dark closet for close to a decade.
Some quick background . . .
While I was certainly not the top student in my class during my school days, I was always one of the highest performers. I’m not sure if it was for any reason other than that my mother and grandmother demanded it, but excellence in the classroom was paramount for me. I graduated high school with a GPA of 4.35, 15th out of a class of around 550 students. Throughout my eighteen year educational “career,” I racked up numerous awards, from perfect attendance certificates to a diploma from Texas Tech University with the Latin phrase “summa cum laude” inscribed upon it. I took great pride in every piece of paper and every plaque that was created in my honor. Most of them went on a wall somewhere, providing a daily reminder of all that I had accomplished. They were a source of pride and identity for me, each one indicating that I had great value and that I stood out from most of my peers. In a world that values accomplishment and accolades, I was on the path for great success!
Not only did I enjoy academic success as a child and young adult, although you would not know it by looking at me today, I was also a decent athlete. Well, at least until I hit high school and watched my teammates continue to grow taller and stronger, while I apparently topped out during the Summer before my Freshman year. That aside, throughout the years I collected numerous trophies and medals for the three sports in which I participated—baseball, football and soccer. As with the academic recognition I had received, for many years I gazed upon these awards sitting on my shelf and found such significance. Such meaning. Such value.
Then, at some point in the process of life and several moves throughout my time in college, they all ended up in a large cardboard box with the words “KYLE – MISCELLANEOUS” inscribed on top. Obviously this box had been packed by a well-meaning, yet clearly naïve friend or family member. Miscellaneous? Really?!?! These items were the treasures that represented my life, and someone had the nerve to label them with such a trivial designation? If you have moved around much, you know what happens to boxes identified as “Miscellaneous.” They are the last to be unpacked, if they get unpacked at all. And sometimes they get jammed in the back corner of a dark closet for close to a decade.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2014, as our family began packing our home in Lubbock, TX, to prepare for a move to the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. As I was cleaning out the closet in my home office, I ran across a heavy box that looked completely unfamiliar. It had my name on it, which piqued my curiosity, but given the pronouncement of miscellany and the fact that the box was clearly full, I was tempted just to move it to the garage with the rest of the cardboard jungle of boxes waiting to be loaded on a truck. The only reason I opened it was because it was so heavy that I just had to know if it was really important enough to haul to our new home, or if it should instead be donated or added to the garage sale stack. As I cut the tape that kept it sealed and opened the lid to the box, I saw countless items that had defined my life for almost two decades. I had lived for collecting awards and accolades, for being deemed “successful” in the eyes of man. For so long I had gazed upon the items in this box and felt so proud, so fulfilled, so accomplished.
This time, as I looked at these trinkets, I just felt a little silly.
I confess, that wasn’t my initial response. As I first cracked open the lid, I once again felt pride begin to well up in my heart. I reflected back on several of the most significant awards as I sifted through them, remembering the sense of accomplishment I felt when I received each one. However, the longer I spent digging through this long lost time capsule of my life, the emptier I began to feel. Everything that defined my life for such a significant portion of its duration had been crammed in a box that hadn’t been missed for almost ten years! Sure, I had thought about the awards occasionally and had wondered where they had ended up, but they obviously weren’t important enough for me to take the time to hunt them down. And given that they weren’t all that important to me, what meaning could they possibly have to anyone around me? This realization hurt. A lot. But as He often does, God redeemed my pain and years of misplaced focus in mere moments. Suddenly, a box that I hadn’t even known existed just an hour earlier had become a teachable moment, an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to do His thing.
I didn’t hear God audibly. He certainly didn’t appear in the room with me or send an angel to proclaim His message. But somehow, however this sort of thing works, I just knew that my value was not wrapped up in a box filled with plastic and paper. I knew that God’s evaluation of my life had nothing to do with my awards and accolades. The Holy Spirit brought to mind the passage of Scripture found in Mark 12:30-31, where Jesus sets forth the great commandments—that we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. I felt His reassurance that my life is not measured by the number of certificates or trophies in a dusty cardboard box, but by the degree to which I learn to love Him and those around me while still on the earth.
To summarize, I grabbed my high school and college diplomas out of the box and then deposited the remaining contents in the dumpster in the alley behind my house, trying not to break into a fit of laughter as I did.
While it is certainly admirable to pursue excellence in every area of life (Paul tells us in Colossians 3:23 to do everything as unto the Lord), there is ultimately only one arena in which excellence truly matters. Learning to walk out Jesus’ commandments to love God and others is the foundational key to all of life, and the degree to which we learn to do so determines our lasting impact on the world around us. Loving God and others brings the kingdom of Heaven to earth in a real and tangible way, and when we love according to His definition, it also carries a ripple effect that extends into eternity. For this reason, when all is said and done, love is all that truly matters. The Apostle Paul makes this reality quite clear in 1 Corinthians 13, which is referred to by many as “the love chapter”:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Prophecy. Wisdom. Knowledge. Faith. Generosity. Selflessness. All important, yet all of no profit if not accompanied by love.
Paul continues by expounding upon what real and lasting love looks like:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
If this passage is familiar to you, please fight the temptation to blow past it without truly considering what Paul is saying. This is one of the single most precious verses in all of Scripture, for in it, Paul tells us how our lives will look if we are truly loving God and those around us. It should be a jumping-off point for hours of meaningful prayer and meditation for anyone who desires to follow in the footsteps of Jesus!
First, Paul tells us that love “suffers long.” This is the passive aspect of love’s character, as it entails showing mercy rather than giving others what they deserve. It speaks of perseverance and patience, bearing with others no matter how difficult it may seem. He then describes love as “kind.” This is the active aspect of what it means to love: giving to others what they do not deserve. We come in contact daily with plenty of people who may not “deserve” love, but Paul (and Jesus) tells us to give it anyway. Be kind, even when the situation doesn’t seem to call for kindness, because every encounter calls for kindness. Let’s face it, there are plenty of times when we are the ones undeserving of love. It’s nice when someone shows it anyway.
Then, as if he knows there will be folks like me who still don’t really get it, Paul gives us specific examples of what love is—and is not. Love is not jealous. It is neither boastful nor proud. Love is not rude, and it does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable. It does not dwell on evil, and it is not excited about or indifferent toward injustice. Instead, love rejoices when truth triumphs. Love never gives up and never loses faith. Love is always hopeful and endures through every circumstance.
After outlining in detail everything that love is and everything it is not, Paul concludes with this simple phrase: “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). Does this imply that love is always received by others or that it is always effective in the eyes of man? Of course not. The ultimate act of love was demonstrated on a Roman cross on a Friday afternoon on a lonely hill just outside of Jerusalem, and countless numbers through the centuries have dismissed it without so much as a second thought. So what does Paul mean? Love never fails because every movement of our hearts in love is remembered and rewarded by God forever at the judgment seat of Christ, whether it is received by people in this life or not. No investment of love is forgotten, wasted, or lost in God’s sight. This is precisely why Paul tells us in the passage above that if he were to operate in every spiritual gift on the list and give everything he owns to the poor, without love, it would still “profit him nothing.” The only thing that “profits us” is what God sees and remembers, and what God sees and remembers is love according to His terms.
When my day comes, I am convinced Jesus will not be impressed with any abilities I may have demonstrated while on the earth, no matter how “spiritual” they may have appeared. He will not ask me how I went about improving my speaking or writing skills. He will not be concerned with any prophetic abilities I might have exhibited, how much money I gave away, or whether I served on a sufficient number of mission teams. He certainly won’t care about the contents of a large dusty box I found in the back of my closet—which is good, since that box now resides in a landfill somewhere in West Texas.
I believe there is a single criterion by which my life and ministry will be judged, and it is my answer to this question: “Did you learn to love?” How I answer that question will summarize the entire value of my short time here on earth. If you accept that Jesus was serious when He told us that all of the Law and Prophets are summarized in His commandments to love God and love others, then I would encourage you to wrestle with your answer to that question as well. Are you learning to love? And assuming you are, don’t be surprised if nobody hands you a trophy, plaque or certificate. But rest assured, there is coming a day when you will receive a crown instead.