During the seminar one of the participants, a North American, shared about a time when he was in Africa as part of an international group, on a 3 hour drive, sharing a small, packed, windows that didn’t open, non air-conditioned minivan. For this person, the strong smell of body odor in the van was almost unbearable. However later, when the storyteller was talking with a fellow passenger, the fellow passenger stated, “It was so difficult for me to sit next to you on that trip, the smell of the cologne you had on was unbearable.”
For those of us from North America, we work hard each day to make sure we smell good when we leave the house for work. I have a 15 year old son who thinks it’s appropriate to use a half a can of body spray every time he passes his bathroom (ok, maybe not half a can, but you get the picture). We can smell him coming before we see him most times.
Thinking of how we “smell” reminded me of the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 2:14b-16a.
Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. 15 Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. 16 To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume.
I really like this text even though it troubles me too. I like the idea that believers in Jesus bring not only words and deeds but also a “smell” when interacting with others. I hope and pray that the smell I bring will be one that is easily recognized as a sweet, life-giving perfume.
At the same time the passage troubles me because I know from college biology classes that sometimes a flower or substance needs to be broken and crushed in order to release a smell. I don’t know about you but I don’t like that possibility; like most of us, I want an easy life. But if we were to read further in the book of 2 Corinthians one would see that for Paul, suffering, beatings, and persecution was not the exception, but the norm. Could this be why he “smelled” so good?
The text is also clear that we can’t control how people respond to our smell. For some, it’s life-giving and sweet. For others, it’s the smell of death and doom. I was thinking about Paul’s historical context a bit this week. Imagine the scene with Caesar conquering a country. A victory parade is given using flowers, incense, etc. For those who welcomed the conqueror, the parade would be a joyful time, but for those enemies who had fought against him, the parade coming down the street may smell completely different, instead it is the smell of an upcoming execution.
We can’t control how people respond, but we can control how the “smell” reaches them. We can treat each person as unique, loved, and special. A number of years ago, Tony Campolo wrote a book titled, Following Jesus without Embarrassing God. Campolo’s basic premise is: if we’re honest, we Christians sometimes behave in ways which must make God look ridiculous to those outside the faith. If the book were being re-written today it might be re-titled: “How do you smell?”
May we be people who bring the perfume of life into every situation we encounter.