Ah, the aroma of supper cooking over the campfire mixed with the odor of students’ bodies drenched in sweat! There’s nothing quite like the smells of a wilderness expedition, smells that will transport me back to the adventure every time I encounter them for years to come. Then there are other scents that I would prefer to avoid forever.
A recent trip began with the air full of a pleasant mixture of excitement, anticipation, and adventure, laced with a hint of anxiety. As we settled into a routine, my nose welcomed the familiar scents each night—dinner, fire, and sweat—until one night. Amid setting up camp, I noticed a stench wafting into my nose, and my brain awoke to something different about this campsite. What was the source of this putrid smell, unpleasant but not completely overwhelming? It was dark, and we were tired. When a cursory search offered no sign of its source, we continued to set up camp with the limited beams of light from our headlamps, eager to get into our sleeping bags.
In the morning, the smell was worse, and we had an answer. As we were breaking camp, someone stumbled upon the stench’s source: a rotting deer carcass lay no more than 15 feet away from where we had slept. Confronted with this reality, I felt the smell become overwhelmingly horrendous and wanted to vomit.
As we hiked briskly away and clean air refreshed me, words from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians struck me, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God 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…” I have to be honest, it caught me a little off guard. But as I continued to reflect on that passage, I realized that smells are no insignificant thing.
In 2 Corinthians 2:14-17, Paul uses the imagery of a Roman triumph to convey his message. Whenever a Roman general would secure a great victory, the senate would declare a day of procession and pageantry to honor the conqueror. The conquered enemy would be paraded down the streets as the soldiers reenacted battle scenes and publicly humiliated the captives, marching toward their deaths. People would gather from many different places to celebrate the victory and fill the streets with aromas—burning incense, dousing themselves with costly perfumes, and feasting to their hearts content. For the Romans, the smells were associated with victory, but for the enemy, the smells signaled death.
Paul’s point was that we Christians have joined Christ in His triumphal procession, knowing that it will lead us to life. But for those who remain enemies, the procession is not as sweet for it will lead to death. Paul calls us to live in the victory of Christ, spreading the aroma of the celebration to all those we come into contact with.
As the trip went by, another peculiar smell began to accost my senses. A mixture of challenge with complacency arose from the stench of spiritual stagnation. The students became content with half-done tasks and were unwilling to discuss the deeper issues of the heart. The smell caused me to ask questions of my own life: Was I allowing the aroma of Christ to be strong in me? Was I living in the victory of His triumph over the enemy?
Near the end of the trip, the students spent twenty-four hours on a solo, separated from one another and in communion with the Lord. When we all gathered back together, the aroma of the group had changed. As the students shared their reflections one by one, an eagerness seemed to be contagious as the stench of stagnation was replaced with the vapor of victory.
When we climbed on the bus to return to camp, I got a whiff of strong body odor resulting from twelve people going a week without showers! I just smiled, knowing that these students would soon shower and enjoy being clean again. I also knew they already had a different spiritual scent, the aroma of Christ as they lived in the victory of Christ’s triumph over the enemy.
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.