By J.R. Miller
Among Paul's salutations to old friends at Rome, is one to Persis. "Greet Persis the beloved, who labored much in the Lord." There is not other mention of this woman in the New Testament. We do not know where Paul had known her. Her whole biography is given in the one little sentence. Probably she was obscure, though no one who works for Christ is obscure. When we live a pure, true, unselfish life, though it be in a most quiet way--we cannot know the extent of what we are doing, how far its influence may extend, how much good it may do, how long it may be talked about. Persis labored somewhere, in some quiet way for Christ, nineteen hundred years ago. Her work was not much talked about then by the neighbors--but Paul told its story in a few words, and here it remains in immortal beauty.
Persis lived without fame, and after she had been dead a little while--she was forgotten. But we open one of the New Testament pages, and there the story of her life lies in shining beauty.
Persis is called "the beloved." We are not told why she was so universally beloved. No doubt her character was beautiful. Every Christian woman should seek to be lovely in her life. Beauty of the face and feature--is not the highest beauty. There is a story of a girl who was so homely that even her mother said to her, "You are so ugly, that everybody will dislike you, and you will have no friends." The girl accepted the fact of her homeliness bravely, without being discouraged by it. "I will make my life so beautiful," she said, "that people will forget my face." So she set herself to cultivate her mind and spirit. She opened her heart to receive the fullness of Christ's love, until all the graces of the Spirit blossomed in her character. She grew so like her Master, that people no longer thought of the homeliness of her face--but only of the loveliness of her character, the sweetness of her spirit, and the helpfulness of her life. She became an 'angel of goodness' in the town where she lived.
Beauty of face may win admiration; only beauty of heart, of diposition, of character--can win love. Persis was called the beloved, not because of any merely physical attractiveness--but because she had in her the qualities of heart, which made people love her.
A legend tells of the origin of the lovely moss rose. Once on a time, an angel came down to earth--the angel of flowers. Busied all day in his ministry here and there, he became weary and sought a place to rest, finding it under a rose. There he slept, and was refreshed. Before returning to heaven he spoke to the rose, grateful for the shelter he had enjoyed, and offered to bestow upon it some new gift of loveliness. So soft green moss grew round the stem, making the beautiful moss rose, the loveliest of all the flowers. In like manner, the life that gives the most gracious hospitality to Christ, receives new charms, new gifts of loveliness.
It is said also of Persis that she "labored much in the Lord." She was not a beautiful saint merely, living in holy seclusion, cherishing devout feeling and cultivating lovely qualities of character; she was a saint who sought to do all she could, in advancing the cause of Christ. She labored, "labored much." That is, she was not content to do little easy things for her Master--but was eager to do all she could do.
It is said further that she labored "in the Lord." Does this mean that she labored as in the atmosphere of Christ's life? Paul, in speaking of God, said, "In him we live, and move, and have our being." God is about us as the air is, and we live in him as we live in the atmosphere that surrounds us. It is said that one of the finest orchids in the world is found in England--but, owing to the inclement climate, it grows in dwarfed form, destitute of beauty, and is of no value. Climate is everything for fine plants. Spiritual climate is everything in the growth of heavenly graces. It is a great thing to live and work with the very atmosphere of Christ's love about us, with the very life of Christ for climate.
But that is not all that is meant, when it is said that Persis labored in the Lord. It means that there was such a vital relation between Christ and Persis that wherever she spoke, Christ was in her words, that when she loved, Christ's love mingled in hers, that whatever she did in trying to help, bless, and save others, Christ's power wrought in and through her feebleness, making it effective. That is what Paul said about himself to the Galatians. "It is no longer I who live--but Christ who lives in me." A distinguished scientific man believes that the seeds of living things now growing on the earth were first brought to our planet by meteoric stones. The thought is very beautiful. But whether true or not--we are sure that the seeds of the beautiful things of spiritual life which grow now wherever the gospel has gone, the plants and flowers of grace and love, have come from heaven, not borne to us on meteoric stones--but in the life of Jesus Christ. Every true Christian is a new incarnation--Christ lives in him. When it said of Persis, that she labored much in the Lord, the meaning is that she had Christ in her, and that it was Christ who did the things that Persis did. The much labor she wrought for Christ, was divinely inspired.
It is when we let Christ live in us, and work in us and through us--that our lives begin to count for God. We cannot be a blessing to others, until we are blessed ourselves. But when Christ lives in us, we cannot but be a blessing to every life we touch. There is an immense difference between your doing something, teaching a lesson, preaching a sermon, visiting a sick neighbor, training a child, seeking to comfort one in sorrow--between your doing the work yourself--and Christ doing it in you and through you. In the one case it is a piece of beautiful human service; in the other case it is human service filled with divine love and grace. In the one case it is you working, teaching, preaching, visiting, striving to make a life better; in the other it is you and Christ working together.
There is another suggestive word in Paul's salutation. In the same chapter he speaks of Tryphaena and Tryphosa, "who labor in the Lord." The tense is present--they were still active. But Persis had "labored." Her working time was over. She was still living, for Paul sent a kindly salutation to her--but she was no longer engaged in activities.
We are not told why Persis had ceased to work. Perhaps she was an invalid, unable longer to carry on her former activities. Or she may have become old and infirm. Some people chafe and are greatly discouraged when they become broken in health. They used to be strong, able for anything, undaunted in the presence of the greatest labors, laughing in the face of all obstacles. They responded to every call of duty with alacrity. The labored much. Now they can only lie on their bed, or sit in their wheel chair to be rolled about--they cannot do any work. It takes more grace to keep patient and sweet, to be joyous and cheerful, in this broken condition, than it required in other days, to be busy in the field of service. Yet we are no less the Lord's servants when we cannot work--any more than we were when we were most active.
"They also serve--who only stand and wait." If standing and waiting are all that we can do, we please our Master just as well, and serve him just as acceptably, as we used to do when we were most active, that is, if we do not spoil all by chafing and fretting. Our work is not all doing things; we need also to have things done in us. There are lessons to learn which perhaps we never could learn, if in the midst of unhindered activities. Certain song birds, when they are to be taught a new song, are shut away in a darkened room for a time, and the song is sung or played over and over within their hearing until they learn it. May it not be thus with us ofttimes? Our Master wants us to learn a new song--the song of contentment, of peace, of uncomplaining joy--and we are called aside from our rushing activity, that in the quiet we may get the song into our heart!
We think that the world cannot spare us, that things will not go on at all--if we cannot go back to our place and our activity. We think that even Christ's work will suffer--if we have to withdraw from it. Have you ever taken notice of the way the world goes on--when a busy man is suddenly called from his desk, stricken down, his place left empty? Does anything stop? Does his withdrawal leave a great unfilled gap? The first day or two there may be a little confusion--but in a short while, the great system of work that he had organized and was conducting, and which he and his friends thought could not be kept in operation without the guidance and skill of his master hand--was going on just as before. Have you noticed that when some wise and active Christian, with hands full of great tasks which it was thought no other one could do, was called away by death--there was but little disturbance or interruption in the progress of the work? By the time the friends returned from the funeral, all was going on in other hands--as if nothing had happened. We think we are far more important to the world, even to our Master's kingdom, than we are.
So we need not vex ourselves about our duties, when we cannot do them any longer--they are not our duties at all any more! Yesterday they were, and there would have been a blank if we had not attended to them. But they are not ours today, when our hand has no longer the strength for them. We should learn the lesson of contentment and trust--when called out of action. Yesterday it was our duty to attend to our work; today it is our duty to lie still and be quiet, and to keep sweet. Instead of active service, our part now is to endure patiently--to cultivate humility, gentleness, and patience.
When the Jews celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, they make their booths of branches so light and thin--that they can see the stars through them. Through all interruptions and disappointments, through all suffering or pain, all breaking up of plans--we should be sure that the stars are not hindered in their shining upon us, into our lives. Nothing must shut God out of our view. When we are called aside from active duty by illness, by invalidism or by old age--we should obey the Master's new call to come apart and rest a while, and be quiet and still, just as cheerfully as we ever were--when we responded to a call to glad work and service. When our working time is over, the form of duty changes for us--that is all. Before, it was diligence and faithfulness in strenuous work; now it is patience and joy in keeping still. The one is just as much a duty as the other, and obedience pleases God just as well.
Then we must not think that we are useless--when we cannot work as we used to do. No doubt Persis was doing just as much for the honor of Christ, for the up-building of his kingdom and for the sweetening and enriching of the world in those quiet days, when she was able to labor no more--as she did in the days now gone, when she labored much. There was a work going on in her in the quiet days--she was mellowing and ripening in spirit. Then she touched the friends about her--by her peace, her contentment. If she was a sufferer, she suffered in patience, sweetly, submissively, songfully. Then she could still work in prayer--and no work we ever do for others is as effective as what we may do on our knees!