Why you need to be around people who let you down
I wasn’t ready the first time it happened. I was a (very) young youth pastor, ready to take on the world. I had been teaching, preaching, and pastoring since I was 18. Now I was newly married and ready to become a full fledged church staff person. Or at least a part time youth pastor. My wife and I moved to a (very) small town of under 600 to lead these youth, and I was ready to start a revival. Before we left for summer camp, the music minister ( and local banker) told me that he needed to “put a bug in my ear about something.” That something turned out to be about the way my wife and I were doing things. There were some people that didn’t like they way we did things and they thought we should know better. So they talked to each other about it, and then finally someone talked to the music minister so that he would to talk to me. I was completely caught off guard. My wife and I were severely hurt by the way these people gossiped and made accusation against us.
I wish I could say that was the last time I was hurt by somebody in the church, but it was only the first of many. You will be let down and hurt by people in the church as well. So why do we keep going back? Why choose to be around people who have let you down? Why should we be a part of this institution that has given us so much hurt and disappointment? I’ve lost count of the gossip, of the second guessing, and of the ways I’ve been let down by the gathered body of believers. My back has borne many knife wounds from people I thought were friends. I could also tell you about the people that I loved, cared for, and shepherded only to have them walk away from the the body of Christ and sometimes from God altogether. I’m sure you have been hurt by the church as well. After time the hurts and disappointments we have gathered in the family of God begin to pile up. Anyone who has served in the local body of Christ or has even just been a part of a church for any length of time can tell you the same thing. Wouldn’t it be easier to start over, to walk away, to find another way? No matter if you are a member at the oldest church in America or the newest hippest church plant you will be let down by the people who are a part of it. How can people who profess to be godly act so ungodly? We need to be a part of the family of God because it is a place that teaches us forgiveness, makes us intimately aware of the best and worst of life, and gives us hope for the future. When we choose church, especially in the day we live in, we are saying that we have something to learn and that the church has something to teach us.
There is a special kind of sanctification that can only happen in a family. When you live in close proximity to each other you have to quickly learn to forgive the person in the bed across the room or down the hall from you. It’s also because we live so closely that we often see the best and worst that mankind has to offer. Even those in the best of families will acquire hurts and disappointments over the years. But it is in the family that we learn to look past those things, to love people for who they are, and to work together for a better future.
It’s not a mistake that the Bible paints a picture of the church as the family of God. Paul writes to the family of God in Ephesus that they are “no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household,” and tells those gathered in Galatia that we should be good especially to those who are of the household of faith. John writes that God loves us so much that he has made us children of God and goes on to say that all who believe in God’s name are the sons and daughters of God. Why would God choose such a difficult institution as the family to express how we receive the inheritance of God? There is no other place where we are forced to live in intimacy with those so different than us. Living in families, both physical and spiritual, teaches us certain lessons.
We need to love people regardless of who they are or what they have done.
The lesson we first learn in our physical families is taught to us on a deeper level in the family of God. In a family that we learn to love each other regardless of how imperfect they are or how imperfect we are to them. Maybe you work with people that you tolerate, but you get paid to do that. It is only in family that that we are freely choose to live with these people and seek their good. It is only this kind of intimacy that can teach us true forgiveness. The household of faith that Paul talks about is the only place in the world where you are voluntarily around people that you don’t like or have let you down. As John Mark Yeats put it, “many of us do not mind a family reunion for a couple of hours every year or so, but do we really want to hang out with crazy Uncle Fred every week?”
It needs to be said that this understanding of family has its limits. No one should stay in a situation where they are not safe, either physically or mentally. It is unfortunate that this needs to be said, but each day the news carries more grim tidings of our fallen world. The church is sadly not exempt from the effects of sin. We all know to well that there are physical families who abuse, exploit, or hurt the members of that family and there are spiritual families that do the same. The very word family has taken a black eye, and rightly so. It’s not many pages into the Bible until a family turns on each other. It is a privilege as Christians to be an example to the world of what a beautiful thing a family can be. The true family of God is a safe place that is free from all the evil that this world brings. When it ceases to be that we must use wisdom and discernment to know when to step away for the safety and health of ourselves and those we care about.
We have to be around people who have let us down
How do you worship in the family of God when the person across the aisle has let you down? How do you sing praises when you are mad at the way someone treated you? When we choose to be a part of a gathering of believers, we are often choosing to stay in relationship with people and structures that have hurt or disappointed us. But we will only learn to truly forgive if we stay in relationship with them. It is for this reason that Jesus instructs us to “leave our gifts on the altar” and go to our brothers (or sisters) and repair that relationship with them. The restoration of our horizontal relationships will make our vertical relationship with God richer and fuller. We can only learn that type of forgiveness in the intimacy of a church family.
When we stay in the family of God with people that have let us down, we learn humility by learning to prioritize what is important and what is not. When we only care about ourselves then our decisions are only based on how we feel and what is important to us. But when we are part of a group like the church we have to learn to put our feelings aside and put others first.
We can clearly see the effect of sin
When we live closely with others in a church family, it becomes easy to see the effects and consequences of sin, both ours and others. When we see it in others then we are able to see it more clearly in our own lives.
The news stories about the effects of sin are so many that we become numb to them. We can watch about tragedy across the world and just shake our head in sorrow. When the story hits closer to home it is harder to ignore. If a story comes on the news about a tragedy involving kids the same age as mine, I quickly turn it. I don’t want to think about the cruelty of this world. It’s easy to avoid some things, but living in the intimacy of a local church family doesn’t afford you such privileges. When we sit week after week and pray for those struggling with cancer, when we shed tears over wayward children, when we call out the names of the lost, we are becoming acutely aware of exactly how sin affects this world. When we take a meal after a death, or when we share an extended hug on Sunday morning that is full of meaning and history and understanding, we feel the damage that sin causes by seeing its effects in the family of God every week. When we celebrate the birth of a baby, or attend a 50th wedding anniversary party for an older couple we are then reminded of all the good that this world has to offer as well.
Living closely with others in a church family allows us to see the good and the bad of this world. Walk into the foyer of any local church and take a look at the prayer sheet. It’s full of broken families, addictions, deaths, disease, births, celebrations, and more, no matter the size of the assembly. If we walk away from church we lose the ability to see the good and bad of life play out in others lives. We don’t get to share in their sorrow or their joy. To give up on church is to give up on a place that teaches us what life is all about by seeing it lived out every day.
We are reminded of our need for something greater than ourselves
We don’t gather with the bride of Christ to see perfect people who have it all together. We go to church to see people from all walks of life come together to admit their need for something greater. The disparate individual parts of a the family of God are not much, but in Christ we are built up to be the body of Christ. The church is an eternal entity made up of temporary people, a timeless body made up of people living in the moment. The church gives us hope that even though the world is falling apart, there is something that will stand eternal. The family of God gives us hope that in an increasingly divisive world there exists a place for people who are different to come together. In the small gathering of local believers the liberal activist sits across the aisle from the fiscal conservative, who is down the row from the homeschool family that takes a meal to the local elementary teacher to let her know they are praying for her. The leadership of the household of faith might be composed of barbers, farmers, professors, bankers, teachers, but ideally a mixture of all of them.
The church is one of the few places that we regularly go in our society to purposefully be around people different than us. Not just to be around them, that happens at the grocery store. Church is where we go to become something more than our parts, to be made into something that matters. The internet allows people to come together to find people who are just like them, but it is only at church that all groups come together. When we gather as the bride of Christ we put aside differences to care for people not like us, love on those who see things differently, embrace people who don’t share every same value we do.The local church is one of the few places that we can intentionally choose diversity in our weekly rhythms of life. When we come together to do this, the church is the “wisdom of God made manifest in the world.” Only God could do something like this. Only God could bring these dead parts together to give them life and make a new creation. The differentness of the church is one of the reasons that people need it. We need to be around people who are different than us. Where else are we going to find this intimacy with people who are different than us? When we can so easily surround ourselves with people just like us, we need to choose the diversity that the local body of believers forces on us.
This diversity that the family of God gives us should give us hope because it is their that we can see the medley of people, races, and experiences that God intends to be the future of the church.
That doesn’t mean all of this will be easy. The church can be the greatest source of pain in our lives. It can also be the greatest source of blessing. That people like you and me make up it’s membership ensures that fact. To choose church is to subject ourselves to the kind of sanctification that only happens when we live closely with each other. To choose church is to choose to rejoice and laugh with people as well as to choose to hold them when it all comes crashing down. In church we have a brief glimpse of what eternity will be, minus the tragedy and disappointment. We must choose church because we believe that someday soon we will all be together. So let’s start now.
Photo by Nikko Tan from Pexels
Photo by Nikko Tan from Pexels