The following full-length article first appeared in Discipleship Journal (a discontinued publication of NavPress). You’ll find a condensed version of this article (with Ann Voskamp’s excellent photography) at Ann’s place today. Don’t miss it!
Have you ever sunballousa-ed? If not, you should try it. Our Lord’s mother, Mary, did. It characterized her life.
The word sunballousa is Greek for “placing together for comparison.” In Lk. 2:19, the word is translated “pondered.” The Amplified Bible translates Lk. 2:19 this way: “But Mary was keeping within herself all these things (sayings), weighing and pondering them in her heart.” Later in that chapter, Luke says that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart” (v. 51, emphasis mine).
What things? The words of the angel Gabriel. The words of her cousin Elizabeth. The words of the shepherds. The words of the Old Testament about the coming of the Messiah. Every developing event, every new word, might yield more light to this astonishing unfolding. So she kept adding to her treasure store. She held all that was happening in a precious bundle. Over and over again, she unpacked it and spread it out on the table of her heart. Each time she would arrange the pieces anew, placing the various elements in fresh configurations. Today she would, perhaps, place the shepherds’ words beside a passage from an Old Testament prophet. Tomorrow she might place the shepherds’ words beside the words of Gabriel. On Thursday she might consider the words of the shepherds as they related to Elizabeth’s greeting. Mary reverently held each word to the light and compared it with the other treasures in her bag. Her pondering shaped her mind and her days.
Mary’s pondering might be compared to the actions of a broody hen. The dictionary says the word brood means to warm, to cover, to spread over. One definition is “to have the mind uninterruptedly dwell a long time on the subject.” Another definition: “to mature anything with care.”
Recently, I was gathering eggs for a friend who was out of town. One hen was conspicuously broody. The other hens came running when I brought greens, but she remained hunkered down on the nest. As I picked up the eggs from the other nests, she observed me with a “don’t even think of reaching under me” glare.
And I didn’t She seemed so intent, so determined, so fixed on one thing. Perhaps this is what pondering does for us. And we, who lead such “flitty” lives, could learn from that hen how to dwell uninterruptedly for a long time on a subject and how to mature a thought by brooding over it.
Some words of the Apostle Paul have helped me to understand further what it means to ponder or brood. Paul exhorts the Colossian church and us to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
What does it mean to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”? I think Mary gives us a model. Her practice of pondering is typical of Hebrew thought patterns, which are circular, in contrast to Greek thought patterns, which are linear. Her thought pattern would look more like ascending a spiral staircase (always finding larger and more splendid rooms) than filling out an outline. She would rotate through the same ideas over and over again, gaining insights as she gave them another turn.
What insights can we gain by pondering Paul’s words to the Colossians?
A seminary professor once asked his students, “What is the most important word in the New Testament?” The students’ responses varied: “Love.” “Salvation.” “Redemption.” “Forgiveness.” The professor shook his head at each. He contended that the most important word is “let.” Three letters held together with an electrical charge.
Throughout the New Testament, this little word precedes great possibilities, opportunities to know more of God and His fullness. “Let” is a word that pleads with us to throw open some door inside ourselves to what God wants to do in us and for us. “Let” is an invitation, an appeal to the heart, an appeal to the will. “Let” in Col. 3:16 doesn’t stand alone in the Greek. It is one word with “dwell”: letdwell. Allow the Word of Christ to dwell in you richly. Practice sanballousa-ing.
There are no surprises in the meaning of “dwell,” only in the audacious reality. The Word of Christ will inhabit my life if I permit it. The believer’s life is the intended home, the settled abode, for the Word of Christ. Eugene Peterson in The Message renders the verse this way: “Let the word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives.”
“The Word of Christ”
In all the Bible, this phrase appears only here. Commentators agree that this phrase can mean either the words spoken by Christ or the words spoken about Christ.
But Paul himself clarifies his intended meaning of the phrase early in the book of Colossians. He speaks of “the word of truth, the gospel” (1:5). This good news was obscured in the shadows in the past but now is “disclosed to the saints” (1:26). Paul says he serves believers by presenting the “word of God in its fullness” (1:25). Each truth in the book of Colossians reveals that the Word of Christ encompasses more than a message of forgiveness and heaven, as wonderful as that is. The Word of Christ is the complete “package” available to us when we believe. He who is the Word imparts Himself and all that He intends, purchases, promises, and fulfills to us in the written word. In the Scriptures, God reveals Himself to us, shapes the life of Christ in us, and extends the work of Christ through us. Let that dwell in you richly.
Jesus took a body: “The Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14). Now He calls us to let the Word of Christ be incarnated in us. The Word of Christ living in us reminds us that we are forgiven and must forgive others; that Christ lives in us to express His life to us and through us; that we are new creatures, beloved of God, bought with a price and not our own. This indwelling Word keeps setting the trash by the door, keeps throwing open the windows to let in fresh air, and keeps leaving notes on the bathroom mirror—reminders to love, to trust, to give generously, to speak kindly.
It helps me to remember that one reason Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians was to confront false teachers who divorced spiritually from everyday life. Paul says twice in this letter that every area of a believer’s life should feel the pressure of the gospel truth (Col. 3:17, 23). The effect of Scripture is not distant, abstract. It is personal and deeply relevant: “in you.”
The Amplified Bible reads “dwell in you [all its] richness.” The Greek word refers to God’s rich provision for His people. In Jesus Christ, a treasure trove beyond our imagination or comprehension is available to us—provisions of every sort for every need. The Word of Christ reveals and bestows God’s fullness to us.
My friend was not yet 40 and the mother of two adolescent girls when she was diagnosed with a particularly virulent cancer. Facing life-and-death issues, she asked God big questions. What does it mean to live well? To die well? What is health? Is there a difference between being healed and being cured? Lord, what do You want to say to me at this time?
My friend placed her questions beside the Scriptures. Seeking God’s mind and ways wasn’t new to her. But as she focused the laser beam of God’s Word on her questions, God unfolded more of Himself and His truth to her. At this time the doctors detect no cancer, but I think her greater treasure is in letting the Word of Christ dwell in her richly.
The circumstances of our lives can choke the Word or propel us to listen for God’s voice. I’m startled as I read these words of David: “The wicked are waiting to destroy me, but I will ponder your statutes” (Ps. 119:95). David, like Mary and like my cancer-stricken friend. sunballousa-ed. He put his worries beside the Word of God and allowed the Word to give him direction, courage, and joy.
Treasures During Trials
As I write this, the first anniversary of my mother’s death approaches. During her long fight with terminal illness, I traveled from my home in Colorado to care for her in Maryland. A month or more in Maryland, and then home to Colorado for a month, repeated again and again. I still can’t unravel all that was happening inside me during that time. The struggle didn’t take the form of grief I expected. I think my greatest grief arose from my inability to love my mother as I knew she needed me to. I knew that real love must come from God’s life expressing itself through me. I prayed for the Holy Spirit’s control in my life and surrendered to Him again and again. I confessed sin and lived in the richness of His Word.
During that period, God met with me day by day. In my quiet times, I felt His nearness and the relevance of His Words. I carried a stack of memory verses on walks. Some days I’d pull out the ones that spoke of joy and pray over them as I walked. Sometimes I’d place one card beside another so that one verse could shine light on the other. This radiance kept me going in the darkness of confusing emotions.
For four of the months I was at Mom’s home, the Lord impressed a different theme each month: joy, love, thankfulness, humility. I think God did this to remind me that I was under His training and in His care. I was a caregiver, but I was also a disciple learning at the feet of my Lord and Teacher.
Although this period has been one of the most painful in my life, I don’t think that the Word has ever ministered to me on a deeper and more profound level.
For example, one morning in my quiet time I read: “Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:7). The phrase “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” touched my spirit. “Lord,” I asked, “am I being overwhelmed by my feelings of failure to love my mom?” The King James Version uses the phrase “swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.” As I pursued the thought I discovered that overwhelmed is the same Greek word that Peter uses when he says that Satan seeks to “devour” us (1 Pet. 5:8). “Lord, is my grief over my failure excessive sorrow? And does it make me vulnerable to enemy attack and accusation?” I asked.
I thought of dear Peter, our favorite failure. His denial of the Lord is recorded in every gospel. Peter “wept bitterly” over his sin. His remorse was deep and agonizing, but it did not overwhelm him; it did not swallow or devour him. The next mention of Peter finds him in the midst of the fellowship. It encouraged me to see that although Peter was a weak and fearful failure, he was still following Jesus. Peter was there in the upper room when word came that Jesus had risen; Peter was there at the tomb as well.
These thoughts came upon me as a flood, not to drown me, but to sweep me into the arms of the Lord. Shaking with sobs, I could say, “Lord, like Peter, I’m a recorded failure. Failing, but still seeking to follow You, to be near You.”
The Word continues to speak to me regarding my time of caring for my mother. I have devoted a notebook to recording what God says about that period. His Words are like a flourishing vine growing inside me, attaching tendrils in dark crevices and on healing wounds. His Word dwells in me richly, and I am grateful.
But in God’s scheme of things, riches are never for hoarding. Were we to focus only on what sunballousa-ing can do for us individually, we would miss an important aspect of what it means to let the Word inhabit us. Thankfully, Paul did not neglect that aspect either. He speaks of letting the Word of Christ dwell in us richly and corporately: “As you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to the Lord.” The indwelling Word produces an environment in which mutual edification and warning flourish amid joyful worship. John Henry Jowett wrote in Things That Matter Most: “When the divine life possesses the soul, it flows over in gracious ministries among our fellowmen. The affluence becomes an influence importing itself to others.”
A life enriched by the Word enriches others. Those who have tasted God’s grace can administer it to others. Those who have been warned by God’s Word can warn others. Where the gospel dwells richly, believers acknowledge their common heritage, their shared treasure, their common calling and task.
We have yet to see, I suspect, the impact of a group of believers who are pondering God’s Word, letting it inhabit their lives, and allowing the affluence they receive to flow out in influence upon others. may the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, and may it richly overflow to all those who encounter you.
“The Practice of Pondering” first appeared in the NavPress publication Discipleship Journal, May/June 2001. Copyright © 2001, 2014 Jean Fleming, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the author.