| More

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Brawling in the Church

My favorite way to work out is on a machine with a television or ipod to distract me. Yesterday, I had the treat of working out on a fancy cool elliptical machine with a built-in fan and television. As I started my workout and turned on CNN, I was sad to hear a headline about a church congregation that erupted into a physical brawl over church governance. While the outrageous footage rolled, the broadcaster laughingly asked, “What would Jesus do”?

These words of Jesus came to mind:

John 13:35 “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”


While this news story made me cringe, it also made me think of some of the other ways we Christians (I) sinfully misrepresent Christ to each other and to unbelievers. For most of us, our contentious behavior does not look like the brawling footage I saw on CNN, instead it looks like quarreling, not speaking to each other, avoiding each other, being cold, ignoring, shunning, shaming, being apathetic towards, and generally engaging unloving behaviors between husbands and wives, parents and children, and with our brothers and sisters, the person sitting across the aisle in church from us, or the person in the church down the street from us. Rather than an all out fist brawl, it looks more like being selfish and petty with my husband over something stupid, being overbearing with my sisters, being disrespectful or impatient with my elderly parents, not working through conflict or suffering long with my brothers and sisters in Christ, etc.

The Lord has had me meditating on this verse for the past few days:

1 Peter 3:8-9 “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”

This is Jesus’ vision for His church—for our marriages, for our parents and children, for our brothers and sisters, for our churches, for those brothers and sisters who worship at the church up the street from us, and for those brothers and sisters who worship on the other side of the world from us.

Unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind is a tall order when conflicts and injustice arise. Interestingly enough, when Peter gives this exhortation, he is actually speaking into the context of Christians who are experiencing conflict, injustice, and persecution. These things still arise for us today in a world where we all still sin against each other and damage to one another still ensues. When these things happen, unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind are not natural to us! Do you think they were natural to the brawling church in North Carolina? Do you think they are natural in even less dramatic conflicts within the church? Do you think they are natural to me when I am in an argument with my husband and I feel like he has treated me unfairly?

In these moments, unity of mind is hard to fight for. Although the mind of Christ is available to us by the Spirit and through the Word, in moments where we are in conflict we can quickly rely instead on our own hot emotions, instincts, rights, and desires—after all, we have been wounded, and we want to wound in return or at least retreat. In these moments, we often do not stop to pray, and we often do not stop to remember and apply what we know from God’s Word. And sometimes we do not even know how God’s Word would apply because we have failed to study it out of misplaced priorities or our selfish desires to do our own thing. (Hebrews 5:11-14 “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”) Then, when moments of conflict come, we are left without our arsenal in the battle against our own flesh (in particular think sword of the Spirit, which is the Word according to Ephesians 6:7). In fact, when we don’t know the Word of God through continued prayerful study on our own and with other believers, we can hardly tell the difference between our own instincts/worldly philosophies and the way of Christ. And there is a way to us that may seem wise, but is in fact worldly:

James 3:13-18 “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

When we aren’t operating from the mind of Christ, we do not have unity of mind. Sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind do not follow because these things are the opposite of what the world and our own fallen hearts tell us to do when we experience conflict and injustice. We have no sympathy for our brother and sister because we are so wrapped up in protecting our own comforts, interests, desires, joys, concerns, struggles, ambitions, and missions that we do not consider the interests of those with whom we experience conflict. Sometimes we even justify our sinful behavior as a means to an end in our service “to God” or “to others” in our life. This is like when I have snapped at my husband for asking me to do something for him while I am busy trying to prepare for guests in our home—I was being ungracious to my husband in the interest of being gracious to others. This is not honoring to God, even though I am deluding myself into thinking that my snapping at my husband is a necessary means to the end of serving God through showing hospitality to guests in our home. While I am called to show hospitality, the heart and the means matter a great deal to God—as we see in Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees who frequently stepped on others in their attempts to “serve God” and further “His mission”.

In our conflicts with believers (family, friends, church members, or other Christians), we can forget that we are members of one another--as Christ’s precious Body, and so instead of brotherly love, we easily insist on our own ways at the expense of others, disregard one another, give one another the “ice treatment” and even cut one another off. We fail to suffer long with each other—growing impatient with the slow growth of others or the slow grieving/pain timeline of others. When sin rears its ugly head as it inevitably does this side of heaven, we fail to do the hard work of love—working through conflict by beginning with prayer, humbly examining our own hearts, confessing our own sin, pursuing the person with whom we have conflict, involving a trusted mediator if needed, involving a pastor/leader if needed, continuing to steadfastly pray when all of these steps have been exhausted, and then eagerly welcoming it if the day comes when our brother and sister desire reconciliation. When our brother or sister has counsel for us that we do not like, instead of having a tender humble heart and praying about it, consulting the Word, and involving other believers, we ignore this counsel or fight against it and we allow our hardened response to come in between our relationships with our brothers and our sisters. Resentment grows. We start to consider our friends our “enemies” and “critics”. Whether they are right or even if they are wrong in their counsel, we would rather not engage with our brother and sister anymore.

In these conflicts, we are not willing to die to ourselves, instead, we wish harm on our brother or sister, or we withhold forgiveness, or we are content to move on rather than continuing in brotherly love. We part ways through apathy, resentment, or anger, and we do this sometimes quietly and sometimes loudly. We quietly forge our own path way from each other or we forcibly steamroll right over each other. Or sometimes we do attempt to walk through conflict with our brothers and sisters—but we manipulate and maneuver our way in fear and desperation, rather than seeking guidance from God about the steps He is calling us to take in these specific situations in faith. Or we compromise the truth for a quick fix, setting ourselves for growing distance, distrust, resentment, and bitterness. While it is not always our sin that causes us to part ways with our brother or sister, sometimes we are content to forget about our brother and sister—not persevering in love, not praying for them, ignoring Spirit brought opportunities to bless them, or allowing bitterness to creep up. Or we mercilessly reject their imperfect attempts to pursue reconciliation and relationship with us. In all of these scenarios, we have lost our spouse, our parent, our child, our brother or sister, our friend. This grieves God and should grieve us.

Sometimes our sin in conflict is a result of weary and broken hearts. Most of us have experienced betrayal, abandonment, rejection, and mistreatment from our brothers and sisters in Christ. We have wounded and been wounded by believers through careless words and actions, malicious words and actions, and through what feels the worst of all sometimes—ignoring and being ignored. Instead of seeking forgiveness, healing, and empowerment for obedience at the feet of our Savior through prayer, the Word, and the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we disengage. We become afraid of the pain. We become afraid to tell the truth. We become afraid of how others will see us and what will happen to us. We become afraid to die to ourselves and to live to Christ. We become afraid of whether Christ will be enough as we expose ourselves to more betrayal, abandonment, rejection, and mistreatment.

So what is the answer? The gospel is still the answer. The gospel still works. It is finished. Jesus died for my sins once and for all. Jesus did the same for for the believer with whom I am experiencing conflict too. Jesus has promised that He will not leave me the same—that He is transforming me from one degree of glory to the next by His grace. This is true for the believer with whom I am experiencing conflict. While I was still rejecting God—dead in my sin—Christ demonstrated His lavish love for me with forgiveness and grace, not returning reviling for reviling. He calls me to do the same—to love and forgive and bless even to those who have wounded me the most. Jesus removed the barrier between me and God, so that now I can freely go before the throne of grace to receive every help that I need with no shame. I can confess my sin to Him and receive forgiveness. I can continually take all my sorrows and wounds to Him, as He cares for me and He is the Great Healer and Comforter and Peace Giver (the kind of peace that surpasses understanding—that defies my circumstances). I can ask Him to fill me to the brim with His Spirit so that by His grace my mind can be united with His, and so that I can be filled with sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind towards others, even those who have hurt me. By His empowering grace, I can do the hard work of love because it no longer matters what others think of me or what will happen to me. Christ is gain, all else is rubbish in comparison. And while it will hurt, the suffering of this life does not compare with the inexpressible joy of knowing Jesus now and the eternal weight of glory that awaits us. Jesus has given me His Word, and I can read it and pray through it and find comfort and guidance there. As the Word tells me about the mind of Christ, the Spirit also convicts my heart through it. Jesus has given me the gift of being part of the church—of having His grace administered to me through His people and through the gifts that He has given them. I can humbly confess my sins to them and receive help from them because I have nothing to prove. And because I have nothing to prove and because it is Jesus who has done all the work in saving me—I can walk in the light before unbelievers. I can be real with them—not having to pretend that I am better than I actually am. God’s power and glory and goodness can be displayed through my weakness. And by His grace, they can see His love in me—through what He has done for me and through His enabling of me to love others. And they can joyfully partake in it too.

Heavenly Father, Thank you for your Word and all that it reveals to me about who you are are! You are the God of love. Thank you for showing me such extravagant love. Thank you for humbling yourself to save and bless me, even when I rejected you. Thank you for still pursuing me, even as I still sin against you and your people. Thank you for not giving up on me. Thank you for your long suffering. Empower me to love like you do by your grace! Help me to be humble. Show me the ways I sin against you and your people, and help me to repent to you and to them. Protect my heart from being hard. Protect me from being wise in my own eyes. Help me to submit to accountability among your people. Teach me your Word in such a way that I would recognize and rely on it even in times of trial and temptation. Give me a hunger for it and help me to prioritize knowing it. Help me to be a doer of your Word. Show me the specific ways you want me to bless those who have cursed me—show me if there are actions you want me to take and show me if you want me to simply wait patiently. In either case, fill my heart with love for them. Work in their hearts and in mine. Whether you call me to act or to wait, help me to persevere in prayer, not out of duty but out of love. Help me to display your love to everyone I encounter—by letting others see the way that your love is working in my life through my own weakness, by demonstrating the kind of love that returns blessing for reviling, by honoring the Body of Christ for which you gave yourself up, and by blessing and serving those to whom you have called me—believers and unbelievers. In Jesus Mighty Name, Amen.