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2 Corinthians 2:14-16 ESV But thanks be to God, who in Christ Jesus, always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? 

One of my favorite things to do with my husband is to ride on the back of his motorcycle on country roads in the early evening. My enjoyment of the experience involves all of my senses: the myriad of colors in the farm fields and woods; crisp clean air tingling my skin; the wind’s music in my ears; and the pungent smell of freshly tilled soil rich with manure and compost additions.

That musty, old-barn, tangy smell unique to a healthy soil always makes me smile and breathe even deeper as I savor it and respond in gratitude to God for it. This is because I know this smell indicates a healthy soil diverse in microbial populations and rich in organic matter additions. That distinctive smell is only present when all is right in the soil. It indicates the soil pH, moisture content, and nutrient availability have all converged into making an ideal environment for bacterial and fungal populations to thrive symbiotically with each other and their soil ecosystem. That smell indicates the microbes are happily growing and producing multiple specific gaseous compounds as byproducts of their activities.

When I take my students into the woods on a field trip for soils studies, I often comment on how wonderful this smell is when we’ve just dug a soil sample for analysis. However, many of my students don’t have the same appreciation for this aroma—they commonly say “eewww!” or “yuck!”; crinkle up their noses; or sneeze and turn away. This same smell produces vastly different reactions—to a farmer, “now that’s the smell of money”; to a soil scientist, “all is well”; or to another, “that’s this side of disgusting.” Similarly, the looks I receive when talking about liking this fragrance can be vastly different—it’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

The varying reactions of people to the distinctive smell of a healthy soil makes me think of 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 ESV: But thanks be to God, who in Christ Jesus, always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?

This same fragrance of Christ from 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 brings life to the saved and, conversely, is offensive (if not disgusting) to those who are perishing. The only difference is the perspective of the one encountering the fragrance. This fragrance means life or death, joy or rejection, humility or arrogance, grace or judgment, strength or failures, or hope or despair. The condition of the soil of the soul of the person receiving the fragrance determines whether or not he perceives it as lovely or as repulsive.

Just as the aroma of a healthy soil is most pungent when the soil is freshly tilled or dug, the fragrance of Christ is most distinctively apparent in and from a devoted Christian’s life when his or her life has been cut into or plowed up by suffering. Plowing unearths that which was growing beneath the surface before and during the suffering. Further disking and cultivating then exposes a rare and quiet singular John 15 abiding in Christ layer of a soul’s soil. This layer previously lay hidden, waiting, and ready to be revealed by the end-over-end deep plowing of suffering is now at the surface open to planting of even more mustard seeds of faith.

A deep layer of abiding and devotion cannot be replicated or reproduced in the soil of a soul. The proper soul’s soil conditions of humility, trust, and faith can only be cultivated by constantly taking up of the implement of the cross of Christ in obedience (see Luke 9:23). As the cross is taken up, the essence of following Christ is implanted further in, thus creating more and more layers of obedience and faith. In turn, this abiding devotion naturally produces life choices which are also unique and characteristic in their differentness contrary to what is accepted, expected, or explained by those not familiar with the beauty of a life lived unto Christ. The result is not only distinctively fragrant but abundantly rich soil of the soul of one who keeps choosing to abide in the hope of glory, our Christ (see Colossians 1:27).

For if the life of Christ is actively thriving and growing in one’s life, then trust, faith, and obedience will be distinctive and piquant in her life, especially in suffering. This response of hope and faith in God, while trusting Him in and through the pain, is both extraordinary and inspiring to those in her life. Even those on the fringes of her life want to know why and how she can remain faithful to the One Who brought the pain and doesn’t choose to take it away, even after years of prayer. Such a Christian is often questioned, by non-Christians and Christians alike, “how can you know joy and peace in this?” And her response of “Jesus is here and He alone is enough”, is confusing and convicting, to Christians and non-Christians alike who just don’t know that the bedrock of such faith is summed up in the trusting found Proverbs 3:5-6.

The conventional, logical perspective towards suffering is to resist, deny, or do anything to eliminate hard circumstances with every available resource (see 2 Corinthians 2:13-14). Anger, denial, frustration, or defeat are often common accepted responses to suffering. Therefore, acceptance, much less joyful acceptance, is an otherworldly perspective characteristic of trusting God as the Sovereign One Who is stronger than any and all circumstances (see Jeremiah 32:17), be they temporary or seemingly without end.

As a chronic illness patient who has lived in constant pain and other challenging circumstances for ten years now, the thought of another day of the same is overwhelming, if not for the presence of my Jesus here with me as the One Who doesn’t leave or turn away (see Hebrews 13:5). Only my Jesus is the One Who is my strength and portion as my heart and flesh are failing, both literally and figuratively (see Psalm 73:26). My strength and my will to keep moving forward in hard circumstances dried up years ago but thankfully, that’s when His grace took over in that power made perfect in weakness (see 2 Corinthians 12:9). Only His power is strong enough to change pain into opportunity for praise and weakness into willingness to be formed into fertile soil for His purpose of a harvest for His glory and the good of His people.

Similarly, nothing can hide the distinctively sweet aroma of choosing joy in suffering as it wafts out of the life of a Christ-follower from a soul of deep, rich soil committed to bearing much fruit for Jesus. Even the wafting of joy’s unique fragrance is from the Holy Spirit breathing life into that Christ-follower clinging to her God with every particle of the soil of her soul. This is seen in Romans 8:18 (ESV), For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed. Perspective shapes everything.

Most days choosing perspective is the first hard choice I have to make in the mornings. Do I embrace the pain or do I embrace my Jesus in the pain? Do I give up to the difficulties or do I give over my will for His display? Do I see myself in the frustration or do I see myself being held firmly by my Christ? All hard questions demanding the choice of my perspective, not just first thing in the morning, but over and again, minute after minute of this day and then again, tomorrow and the day after.

This slow and stubborn soil scientist is finally starting to learn this truth – if suffering can bring glory to my God and is for the good of His people by displaying more of the fragrance of Christ from me, then plow my life, my soul even deeper, Jesus, so that even more may know Your unmistakable grace! (see Romans 5:3-5) May my life be tilled up, dug out, or plowed under in sacrifice and offered as a pleasing aroma to You in worship (see Leviticus 2:2). And then, only then, will all of this be an offering worthy of You (see Romans 12:1-2).

Book excerpt from Good Ground, Volume 2 coming from Northeastern Baptist Press in Fall 2022 by Beth Madison.  Reprinted by permission

Beth Madison

Beth Madison, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Science, School of Adult and Professional Studies, Union University, Jackson, TN