Intolerant. Hypocritical. Phony. Judgmental. Cliquey. Mean. Exclusive. Unloving.
Those are just some of the words I’ve heard non-Christians use to describe us. The word “love” is mentioned more than 600 times in the Bible, but when people think of us the word ‘love’ isn’t even on the list. In theory, the church is comprised of people who are spirit-led and kingdom minded. Many of us are. The rest of the world doesn’t see that in action as much as it sees our nastiness. Instead of us extending the right hand of fellowship to outsiders, we give them the backhand of condemnation. There’s not a welcome mat on the church doorstep, but there is an invisible ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. (When we’ve been disturbed, we’re not shy about saying so.)
We say we want ‘whosoever will’ to enter our fellowship as a brother or sister in Christ. However, when they show up, we venerate the ones we like, and ignore the ones we don’t. Should we fire our image consultant for misrepresenting us? Or should we scrap whatever agenda we have and follow Christ by loving one another as he loves us? This issue is one that is close to my heart because I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a condemning Christian backhand, and it hurts like hell. (In both the figurative and the literal sense.) When I hear people use the eight words at the top of the page to describe us, I can’t even disagree with them because I’ve experienced it firsthand. I expect to be an outcast from the world because Jesus warned that I would be hated for his sake. I did not expect hostility from the body of which I am a member. But, I’ve had to get used to it nevertheless.
The pastor of the church I serve once said that Christians are one of the few groups who purposely shoot their own troops in the midst of a battle. (He’s a military man by trade, but if you think the combat analogy is out of place, you’re in the wrong faith.) Some of the old saints used to say, “The devil is busy” whenever strife and offenses found their way into the church. (And that was all the time.) I’m of the opinion that the devil doesn’t need to be working as long as he has a gang of Christians who are open to his suggestions. We unknowingly do his work for him whenever we devalue one of our brothers and sisters in Christ–or anyone else for that matter. The poor reflection the secular world has of Christianity points directly toward us because we’re its ambassadors. We’ve lulled ourselves into a false sense of security by thinking that we’re doing a good job of following the greatest commandment to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, and mind.
We may succeed at loving God, but our success rate with loving our neighbours is mediocre at best. We’re hurting because we do not know how badly we’ve missed the mark. The love, mercy, and acceptance that the world needs are the kind that only the Spirit of God can give. I think we’ve got it, church, but we are so reluctant to share it that it’s obvious to everyone. On the other hand, we can heap judgment on with a shovel. If you need criticism, we can do that too–especially that of the destructive, soul-crushing variety. If you want to be gossiped about, we’ll either disguise it as a prayer request and call it a day, or not disguise it at all. If you want love, you’d best take comfort in the fact that God loves you because we may not be able to give you what you need. Or we hate your sin, but we love you. Or we love you, but only if you’re just like us.
In the book, War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy writes, “Someone dear to me can be loved with human love, but an enemy can only be loved with divine love.” If I make any claim to being led by the Spirit of God, his leading must be evident in how I treat other people. If I want to love as Jesus loves, I must be sincere. In my nearly 14 years as a retail worker, I learned that it is impossible to encourage, empower, lead, or mentor anyone if I believe I’m superior to them. In order to be effective and authentic in my walk with God, I had to shelf my invisible pedestal; put my high horse back in the stable, and get back down to earth where the real people are because that’s where God needed me to be. God is no respecter of persons, but, unfortunately, we are.
A few months ago, on another social media site, a story went around about a pastor who dressed up as a homeless person to see how his new church congregants would respond. He asked for change, but no one gave it to him. Most people refused to make eye contact, and when he sat down in the back of the pews, all he got were scornful, dirty looks. When he was introduced as the new head pastor, people clapped with joy and enthusiasm…until he stood up. Wild clapping turned to stunned silence. His sermon text was Matthew 25:35-40, and many of his congregants cried or bowed their heads in shame because of their actions.
Matthew 25:35-40 is a popular sermon text because it teaches us that by serving the practical and spiritual needs of others, we’re serving God. The irony is that we’re not as good at putting this into practice as we are at teaching it. I can’t claim to be a Christian then refuse to abide by one of the most basic laws. I cannot love everybody of my own power. I can barely love myself of my own strength. My prejudice limits my capacity to love, and my personal preferences determine who gets more or less of the love I give, but if I love with the love of God, my ability to love is limitless because He is limitless.
I am nowhere near where I need to be in this regard, but it is becoming glaringly obvious that God has given me His heart towards outcasts. I find that I cut them a lot more slack than those of us who are in the body because we should know how behave, but we (and I am including myself) frequently choose wrong. Whereas they choose wrong because they’ve never been taught to choose right. One thing that my non-Christian friends made clear to me is how well they can see through all the disingenuous displays of love. They know it’s a put on even as we deceive ourselves into believing our hollow pleasantries and fake smiles are reaching them. I don’t believe it’s possible for us to be perfect, but it is possible for us to love one another as Christ loved us. We just need to stop getting in his way with our own petty egos and agendas.
A well-organized essay this is not. I’m not sure if I’ve made my point clearly or if my emotions have gotten in the way of me articulating how important this is properly. We [in the body] have singled out political power, prestige, and our ability to influence the culture as our greatest sources of strength. The real source is the love of God. It is the one thing we have that the rest of the world does not. Instead of using the love of God to build, we’re tearing each other down and dragging the rest of the world into the battle. Rather than honouring the gifts we see in others, we dismiss the people whom we find the most threatening to our own success, and devalue the ones who aren’t essential to us.
I am hopeful because, through it all, God will still be in control. He can reverse any of the damage we’ve caused by our unwillingness to put our needs and wants aside to serve the whole. He’s the only one who can heal the hearts of those we’ve broken in our quest for preeminence and recognition. Occasionally we need to be reminded that serving God means that we must also serve others. We do not get a choice in whom we serve, and ranking people based on status is still a sin in God’s eyes.
I’ve rambled on for long enough, so I’m going to end it with the word of God:
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God.” Philippians 1:9-11
“I give you a new commandment–to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples–if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35