Upward, Inward and Outward in Words and Deeds
We have used the phrase "upward, inward, and outward" to describe our Christian lives. "Upward" refers to our relationship with God. "Inward" refers to our relationship with fellow believers. "Outward" refers to our relationship with nonbelievers. Let’s look at some of the ways these three areas can be expressed in words and in actions.
Our upward relationship is the most important, and I will have more to say about it shortly. But I’d like to begin with our inward responsibilities – the relationships Christians have with one another.
There are two major ways in which we relate to fellow Christians. One is through fellowship, and the other is through ministry, or service. In other words, our relationships are expressed in words and in deeds. Sometimes our words are simply "small talk" – chatting about the weather, sports results, jobs, and other facts. Other times, as relationships develop, our conversations go beyond that, so that we are also discussing opinions, feelings and matters of the heart.
Christian fellowship includes spiritual matters, too – not just doctrinal facts, but the practical issues of the spiritual life. Small group fellowship is designed to bring out discussions on such a level, because sharing such things as the people of God helps us grow spiritually. That’s why I encourage church members to find a small group in their congregation that they can link up with, or even to help form a new small group.
"Encourage one another daily," Hebrews 3:13 tells us. Such encouragement as this is a two-way process. It involves both the giving and the receivingof encouragement from one another. I find that sometimes I am up and can encourage others, while other times I am down and need to be encouraged by others. Frequent fellowship with other believers gives us an opportunity to help and to be helped in this way. God designed the church to be like this, with people helping, strengthening and lifting up one another.
"Encourage" is a translation of the Greek word parakaleo, which comes from roots meaning to be called alongside, or to stand with. God has called us to stand together, so that we might continually give hope, courage and support to one another. Hebrews 10:24-25 gives that purpose as a major reason that we should meet together: "Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another."
How can we spur one another on in attitudes and in actions? In a variety of words and ways, all of which require that we continue meeting together. Otherwise, we will drift away (Heb. 2:1), slowly and unconsciously getting further from Christ to the degree that we neglect Christian fellowship.
Our relationships need to involve more than words, of course. We are exhorted to have brotherly love for one another, and that means more than lip-service. It means action. It means helping people who need help.
The New Testament says a lot about mutual sharing. The earliest disciples held their goods in common (Acts 2:44). Later, collections were taken to help the poor (Acts 11:29). The believers often ate together and helped one another in practical ways.
Service can be person-to-person, or it can be toward a group or even toward the entire congregation. Setting up chairs for the worship service is one example. It serves the whole church and fills an important practical need. It is a type of ministry.
Each member is most "at home" in the body of Christ when he or she is involved in some type of ministry or service to others. Some serve by giving encouraging words. Some encourage by giving physical helps. Some minister to individual needs, and some minister to the congregation as a whole. God takes joy in the wonderful variety of ways in which we can fruitfully interact with one another.
Just as ministry applies to our relationships within the church, it also applies to our outward relationships. We minister to our neighbors, to our relatives and to the people we work with. On our jobs, we work not just for the money, but also to be able to help others. In our families and neighborhoods, we do not just do the minimum, but we try to make a positive contribution. Because we are God’s children in the world, we want every place we live, and every place we go to be better because we have been there. This is not because we are so great, but because God has given us his love and called us to do the kinds of things he would do if he were you or I.
We do this as individuals, and sometimes we do it as whole congregations, too. Working together, we can make a positive difference in our neighborhoods. It is so inspiring to hear of the wonderful inroads being made by many of our congregations, such as we read in Sonny Parsons’ report in the June Cross Road, as well as in the stream of such articles in The Worldwide News.
Our outward relationship also includes words. Words can be a powerful force – not in a magical sense, of course (even though some Christians in the word/faith movement seem to ascribe them some inherent power), but in their potential to influence people. Words can give strength, or they can destroy. They can honor, or they can debase. "The tongue has the power of life and death" (Prov. 18:21).
As God’s people in the world, as ambassadors of Jesus Christ, our words should be wisely chosen to build up the people around us. Our words need to be truthful, filled with things of good report, avoiding obscenities and coarse jokes (Eph. 5:4). We are to be good stewards of our tongues.
One way to be a good steward of words is through evangelism. The gospel is a powerful message that we have been given and told to share. This is the pearl of great price that we are to keep and give at the same time. This is the word of truth, the message of good report, the word of life we can give others. Paul says we have been "entrusted with the secret things of God" (1 Cor. 4:1), the message of salvation.
Perhaps a diagram will help illustrate. Here’s a simple circle, divided into thirds: upward, inward and outward. Each third can be divided into two parts: words and actions.
So far, we have discussed fellowship, ministry and evangelism. But I do not want this schematic diagram to imply that everything we do can be neatly categorized into slices of a pie. Our words and our actions work together. As we seek to encourage other Christians with our words, we also need to give them practical help when needed.
The same is true for the words we say to non-Christians. If we are living like unbelievers, it is unlikely that the gospel will have any impact on their lives. If we lie and cheat, gossip and gripe, people won’t tend to believe us when we share the gospel, no matter how convincingly we say the words. If we ignore their practical needs, they will be skeptical that we really care about them at all.
There is also an overlapping of inward and outward activities. Small groups are not only inwardly nourishing, but they are also an excellent entry point for people interested in Christianity. Certain kinds of inward service can also open doors for evangelism.
For example, I think of children’s ministry. The volunteers serve the children by sharing the gospel, serve them physically in their needs, and at the same time, give parents a practical service so that the parents can take part in the worship service. Several types of ministry are being accomplished at once!
Children’s ministry serves those within the church – but just by being there, it provides an avenue for evangelism, too. Children can invite their neighborhood and school friends to join them for church, which in turn creates a relationship between the church and the friends’ parents. Members can also feel free to invite friends and neighbors to church, knowing their children will be cared for, given good teaching and have fun during the service.
Now let’s talk about our upward relationship, which I labeled "worship" on the circle above. Upward may also be divided into words and actions. Our words with God may be further divided into two kinds: God’s words to us, and our words to him.
How does God speak to us? Primarily through Scripture. These are the words he has inspired to be written and preserved for us today. These writings tell us how God has spoken in the past, and how he has been perfectly revealed in his Son, Jesus Christ. As we read these words again and again with spiritual openness, God speaks to us afresh, helping us apply the words to situations in our lives. Bible study is part of our worship response to God, who has revealed himself and his Word to us in the Scriptures.
God speaks to us in sermons, too. Anyone who speaks to the church should seek to speak "the very words of God" (1 Peter 4:11). It is appropriate for us to listen, then, with the expectation that words of God will be spoken. Of course, not every sermon is a "thus saith the Lord," but we still need to listen attentively, for this is one of the ways God has chosen to speak to us. We judge what is said by Scripture, our ultimate authority, but we still listen for what God may be saying through the imperfect speaker. "The others should weigh carefully what is said" (1 Cor. 14:29).
Elders have the responsibility to speak "the very words of God." That is a formidable challenge! It underscores the need we all have to pray constantly, and to prepare thoroughly. We want our words to be words that Jesus himself would approve. We know that teachers will be called into stricter judgment (Jam. 3:1). That is another reason that we encourage exegetical sermons: messages that explain the written word of God. A message that conveys the sense of the text will indeed be speaking the words of God.
God speaks through sermons; he may also speak through any member of the church. As we are called to exhort one another to good works, we are called to speak God’s words of encouragement to one another. We often learn from one another what God wants us to do. Through fellowship, through small group discussions, we can come to know his will better.
These words from God to us are part of our upward relationship: our worship. When we listen attentively, willing to obey, we are worshipping God. The sermon is part of our worship service. Our worship does not stop when the "worship leader" sits down – rather, our worship changes from speaking to listening. Our discipleship, our willingness to learn, is part of our worship.
Our worship includes the words we speak to God, too. In prayer and in song, we speak to God. This is part of our upward relationship. We are telling him what we think about him, about ourselves, and about others. Praise is widely recognized as a form of worship, but even our requests are a form of worship when we recognize that God is the one who has the power to grant all our requests (and the wisdom and the love to not grant them all!). "In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Phil. 4:6). The Psalms give us examples of worship songs filled with great emotion – fear, frustration, anxiety, even anger, as well as joy, hope, peace and love. In our relationship with God, we do not hide our true thoughts – it does no good, since he knows them, anyway.
Last, I want to comment on actions that we do in our upward relationship. The Old Testament religion stressed actions of worship: sacrifices, rituals, times and places. The New Testament has little of this. Our rituals include baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Some Christian traditions have more rituals – they may carefully follow a liturgical calendar, recite creeds and prayers in their weekly liturgies, have a more prominent place for communion, etc. Such rituals are not wrong, but neither are they commanded. Christian traditions vary, and each of them can be respected for the particular strength it brings to the fabric of the body of Christ.
What other actions form part of our worship? We offer our "bodies as living sacrifices" – that is a "spiritual act of worship" (Rom. 12:1). Everything we do is part of our worship, our service toward God. God doesn’t need anything from us, of course, but we serve him by obeying him and by seeking (as our motto says) to make a difference for his kingdom. In our words and in our actions with other people, we want our life-style to be one of submission to the One who is all-wise, all-powerful and all-loving.
When our actions are done in obedience to God, they are an expression of our worship of him. When we use our time for his glory, to advance his glory instead of ourselves, we have actions of worship, actions that strengthen our upward relationship. When we use money for his glory instead of for ourselves, we have actions of worship. In our words, in our time, in our finances, in our spiritual gifts, we want to use what God has given to serve him. Stewardship in all these areas is a life-style of worship.
Now we can fill in some of the "upward" details of our circle:
As a denomination, we want to be good stewards of what God has given. We want to be good stewards of the gospel in our local churches and in our publications and preaching and teaching. We want to encourage and edify our brothers and sisters in Christ. We want to be good stewards in our physical and financial assets, too.
"So, as the Holy Spirit says: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts’" (Heb. 3:7). Let us look to Jesus, our apostle, our high priest, the author and perfecter of our faith. Let us strengthen our arms and knees, and run with endurance the race set before us. For we have not come to a nation that will fade away, but to a kingdom that cannot be shaken, a kingdom of incomparable glory. Therefore, "let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe" (Heb. 12:28).