What believers do for each other, according to Hebrews 10:24:
Kai katanoōmen allēlous eis paroxysmon agapēs kai kalōn ergōn
katanoōmen allēlous: Let us focus our attention and our intellect on each other in such an intense way that we achieve insight and come to understand each other accurately
eis paroxysmon: so that we can stimulate, irritate, prod each other sharply, so as to provoke
What are we aiming to provoke? . . . wait for it . . .
kai kalōn ergōn: that issues in noble and admirable action.
Christian love: it’s not for the faint of heart—for those who are unwilling to engage and be engaged, to examine and be examined—for those who expect to just do, think, and say whatever without being challenged and challenging in return.
Where did anyone ever get the idea that love means just letting everything slide?
I also kind of doubt the next verse is referring to failing to get dressed up and go to church on Sunday to hear the cool music and feel good about ourselves: mē enkataleipontes tēn episynagōgēn heautōn, kathōs ethos tisin, alla parakalountes. Don’t quit getting together but—what?—exhort and urge each other.
OK, so the above seems maybe a little bit overly—I don’t know—rugged? Isn’t “provoking each other to love and good works” a little oxymoronic? (paroxymoronic?) Doesn’t it make you a little tired even imagining Christian fellowship as a setting in which people are always watching each other closely and challenging each other?
Doesn’t that seem kind of intense? Even obnoxious? Who wouldn’t prefer an ethos more along the lines of “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in his place, and I know it’s the Spirit of the Lord”? Or “Love is patient and kind . . . it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful”? Or “We proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children”? Or maybe “He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench”?
For me the key word in the passage that I begin with from Hebrews 10 is paroxysmos. That’s what really caught my attention here. And yes, it’s where we get our English word “paroxysm”—defined (New Oxford American Dictionary) as “a sudden attack or violent expression of a particular emotion or activity.” I think the most common use of “paroxysm” is probably in the phrase “a paroxysm of rage.” Or would it be “of coughing”? (If you like having fun with Google’s ngram viewer—a tool for checking the frequency of various spellings, words, or phrases in published literature—check out https://tinyurl.com/ya3swwcb). If you’re experiencing a paroxysm of anything, you’re kind of out of control in a contorting, frightening way. So “paroxysm of love” really caught my eye.
But Greek paroxysmos doesn’t mean “paroxysm” any more than Greek dynamis means “dynamite.” A speaker of English can’t help notice and be affected by the etymological relationship, but the English word will mislead you if you are wanting to understand the Greek.
Did you notice that I threw in “irritate” in the expanded translation of paroxysmon above, along with “stimulate” and “provoke”? If you have the tools to do a bit of word study, you’ll learn pretty quickly that paroxysmos doesn’t ever mean “paroxysm” but it does switch-hit pretty easily between stimulating or stirring up in a positive sense and in a negative sense: could be “encourage,” or it could be “irritate.” What makes the difference? Could be the manner of the one doing the stimulating, or it could be the teachability, or lack thereof (irritability?), of the one receiving it.
“Teachable.” The older word is “docile.” That’s supposed to mean “teachable.” We can’t use it in that sense anymore because now we think that docility means being passive, in a shameful, doormat sort of way, letting people push you around without reacting.
And there are definitely forces at work in our society that tell us that if anyone tries to teach you anything, it’s because they’re being arrogant, and the appropriate reaction is to—counterpunch. And you should characterize their attempt to teach you—or to stir you up to whatever they’re trying to stir you up to—as some kind of paroxysm. If you experience their suggestion that you should think or speak or act differently as (God forbid!) a criticism, then by all means portray them as out of control, as enraged, as bleeding from their eyeballs (or their “whatever”). You don’t have to take that from them!
The Preacher said, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. . . a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.” So it is with biblical wisdom, and with wisdom in general. Wisdom lies in discerning the times.
Proverbs says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” But then the next verse says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
So what time is it right now?
Jesus on one occasion says, “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” On other occasion he says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” Is Jesus right on one occasion, but un-Christian on the other?
Here is what is troubling me these days:
Many of my Christian brothers and sisters chose a president in 2016 of whom one of their pastors said, “Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find. And I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals.”
And if you challenge them sharply (the oxy in paroxysmos means “sharp”), pointing out the incontrovertible truth about who and what this person is whom they elected, they are so quick to accuse you of being unkind. Of being mean.
Well, that’s a bit too precious for me.
Why does chapter 10, drawing toward the end of the extended and complex logos paraklēseōs (“word of exhortation,” or oration to stir people up) that is the Letter to the Hebrews, so urgently press believers to keep getting together—to persist in mutual engagement—for the purpose of examining each other and prodding each other toward living the kind of love that issues in good and noble action? Is it because the writer knows the human tendency to not want to be disturbed? The tendency to prefer to be affirmed rather than challenged? To be babied and fed milk from a bottle rather than expected to eat solid food and grow up (chapter 5)?
The writer to the Hebrews challenges and provokes because he or she knows this:
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
If we insist on hearing only some other, gentler word, that does not cut us to the quick, we may be rejecting the only word that can prepare us to stand finally before the One who sees all—and will require an accounting.
Brothers and sisters, let us submit ourselves to diligent mutual examination for the purpose of spurring each other to authentic, fruit-bearing love.