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Pastor Glenn McDonald: The Last Word


Students in a class taught by Dr. Dallas Willard remember the day that one of their number was moved to a display of sheer arrogance.

 

Until his death in 2013, Willard – a professor of philosophy at USC and the author of a number of books on Christian spiritual formation – was widely regarded as one of the world’s sharpest minds.

 

The student, trying to pick a fight, raised his hand and attempted to rekindle a trivial argument he had had with the prof.

 

The rest of the class held its collective breath. They waited for Willard to demolish the young man’s position, and no doubt leave him humiliated. As one observer later wrote, “I joke sometimes that I never get into an argument with Dallas, because I’m afraid he will prove I don’t exist.”

 

Willard’s response surprised everyone.

 

He said warmly, “Well, I think that’s a good place for the class to end. Let’s just stop there, and then we’ll pick it up next time.”

 

After the class another student approached Willard. “You could have let him have it! Why didn’t you do it?”

 

Dallas responded, “I’m practicing the discipline of not having the last word.”

 

Most of us could rattle off a list of spiritual practices: prayer, worship, contemplation, and service come to mind. But rarely do we consider restraint – intentionally holding ourselves back in a spirit of humility – as a way of loving others and imitating the character of Christ. 

 

The power of not getting the last word is obvious. It represents a decision to turn down the flame of a disagreement or conflict.

 

The apostle Paul makes a direct appeal in one of his letters to a pair of female disciples who are apparently struggling to do just that. He writes in Philippians 4:2-3:

 

“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

 

Aside from these few words, we know absolutely nothing about these two women. But that hasn’t kept people from trying to guess. Over the centuries, commentators have had a field day.

 

Some have proposed Syntyche and Euodia were deaconesses arguing over a point of theology. Others have suggested one of the names was originally masculine, which implies this might have been a husband-wife quarrel (as if that sort of thing ever happens).

 

A few exegetes have speculated that Paul is using coded language. One of the names represents Jewish Christians, while the other stands for Gentile Christians. He is thus urging these two ethnicities to figure out how to peacefully co-exist.

 

Most scholars, however, believe that Paul is addressing two real individuals mired in some kind of personal conflict. Some have even speculated that the entire letter to the church at Philippi – with its timeless verses on anxiety and prayer (4:6-7), being able to do all things through Christ who gives us strength (4:13), and Paul’s call to forget the past and press on toward the goal of knowing Christ (3:7-14) – are just peripheral “window dressing” for his real purpose in writing: Ladies, please figure out how to get along.

 

My best guess? Euodia and Syntyche were co-chairs of the committee to remodel the church kitchen.

 

Regardless of the specifics, imagine being publicly “called out” by name in holy Scripture for all time.

 

Paul’s point is that fighting doesn’t fit those who are fit for God’s kingdom. And one practical way forward is to surrender our need to “come out on top.”

 

This week, choose to let someone else have the last word: at home, at work, and in that argument that never seems to end.

 

And if you find you just can’t do it?

 

Well, there’s one sure-fire way to always have the last word:

 

Apologize.

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