In Proverbs 14:4, Solomon writes, “Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, but much revenue comes by the strength of the ox.” While perhaps he is simply giving advice about livestock, I tend to think Solomon is talking more about our relationships with other people than our barnyards.
Let’s face it: people (and relationships with people) can be messy. As we lay down our lives and our time and our energy and our emotions (John 15:13), sometimes we’re going to get stepped on. When that happens, it can be very easy to say, “That’s it! No more oxen! No more relationships! I want a clean manger and an orderly life, and these people are just too hard to handle!” But did you catch the second half of the proverb? “Much revenue comes by the strength of the ox.” To put it another way, people are worth it. Great things happen in God’s Kingdom when His people are willing to be stable hands for each other, loving and serving no matter how messy it gets.
A great example of this commitment to service is Barnabas in Acts 9:26-28. The text says,
“When he [Paul] came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. And [Paul] was with them, moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord.”
Despite Paul’s poor track record, despite the justifiable fears of the Jerusalem congregation, even though it was probably uncomfortable and definitely a lot of work, Barnabas took Paul under his wing. He decided that the effort of the relationship would be worth the outcome in the Kingdom, and because he did so, the church’s opinion of Paul changed, Jerusalem got to hear the Gospel, and we have 13 more books in our New Testament. If that’s not “much revenue,” I don’t know what is!
Barnabas was an excellent stable hand for the Lord’s sake, and we would do well to learn from and imitate his character. Here are three brief ways to follow Barnabas’s example and be an excellent stable hand no matter how messy the manger gets:
- Feed people with the truth of God. When Barnabas reconciled Paul and the church, it wasn’t by his own authority. He reminded them that Jesus was the one who had spoken to and commissioned Paul; if anybody had a problem with that, they needed to take it up with the Lord. Our opinions and perspectives rarely change people, especially not for the better, but God’s Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Nourishing people on His Word is the healthiest thing we can do to help others grow.
- Water people with prayer. While we don’t have a record of Barnabas’s prayers, perhaps he prayed something like Epaphras in Colossians 4:12, who was “always laboring earnestly…in his prayers” that others might “stand complete and fully assured in all the will of God.” Even if there’s nothing we can do to change a situation, there’s always something God can do. So pray for others—and let them know you’re doing so! Just like a drink of water can refresh us when we’re tired, knowing someone is praying for us can give us the strength to endure.
- Clean up after people with love. Nobody had as much baggage as Paul, yet Barnabas didn’t focus on Paul’s past failings: he focused on Paul’s potential to serve God and strengthen the church in the present. Barnabas lived the words of 1 Peter 4:8: “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.” If God has let it go, we must do the same and encourage others to move forward, past the mess, into a more effective future.
When it comes down to it, we’re all messy people; we all trample on each other every once in a while; we’re all sometimes difficult to handle. With this in mind, let us resolve to follow the example of Barnabas—and the ultimate example of Jesus—and be stable hands in our relationships, encouraging each other with Scripture, refreshing each other with prayer, and forgiving and loving each other like God has forgiven and loved us…no matter how messy the manger gets.