Journal entry, 2-3-2015
To be honest I really don't have time to be journalling right now--my first mock exam is today and there's a stack of folders looking at me, waiting to be revised! I wish I could take my time to write my thoughts out, and pray about them, today.
As Search the Scriptures for Philippians 1:12-26 indicated, Paul's reaction to life and assessment of it was how it would enable or detract from loving, knowing, and serving Christ.
I need that.
Too easily I see life in terms of how it affects me physically and emotionally. When my peace is disturbed, when I'm stressed, dissatisfied, unhappy with someone, discouraged, helpless, the last thing I'm thinking about is how what I'm experiencing now will affect my relationship with Christ.
I just want it to stop hurting.
I wish I could see life in this way--its challenges, its uncertainties, its joys.
I wish I could see Christ in this way. Intimately connected to every detail and emotion and experience of my life.
This thought was echoed, though slightly modified, in a passage from Ken Sande's The Peacemaker (don't sigh. It's a pretty thick book, and I'm only about halfway through. It's probably boring for you seeing him tirelessly quoted here but really, it's far from boring reading for me. I believe that when you find yourself struggling with forgiveness and guilt it will be just as meaningful and significant to you. Thank God for book friends; who are always there, who transcend time and culture, who speak truth from the objective perspective of their pages, yet with a startlingly personal intimacy as direct as a wound.)
He says, '...I realized I could not consistently weave the gospel into my conversations with others until the gospel was woven deeply into my own heart. God showed me that I am a natural 'law speaker;' I bring judgment much more easily than I bring grace. When I saw this, I began praying for God to give me a major heart change, to make the gospel central to everything I think, say, and do...'
For Paul, someone who had indeed made the gospel 'central to everything I think, say, and do,' jail and rivalry didn't have any personal sting. He was even able to give thanks for them. This attitude kept him not only from discouragement and bitterness, but from self-pity, and even from pride; whether in himself or his hardship (yes, we're messed up that way.)
I want to be able to value Christ so much that He naturally comes first to my mind and heart whenever something happens, instead of being the after-thought--which sometimes only hits me years later in retrospect.
To see Him first in every shade and shaft of sun.
Draw near to God.
What exactly does that phrase mean, anyway? Besides being a popular line for countless worship songs, of course?
The problem about beautiful but vague and abstract phrases is that they're good for thinking on but not always for acting on. As I explain symbols and parables to my Sunday School children (why are we the light of the earth? why is Jesus the Lamb of God? why not goat?) I am reminded that they lose their significance if we merely treat them as nice set phrases or ideas, failing to discern the concrete application of truth behind them. As adults we too often take these symbols, metaphors, or expressions for granted, and in doing so we strip them of their power and purpose.
Perhaps it helps to think of the opposite--feeling distant from God, feeling disconnected and cold towards Him. The sort of feeling we have towards the real world after binge watching several seasons of our favourite show, for example...touché!
What do we do when that happens--how do we 'draw near to God?'
Believe me, I've been there so many times. I know I will continue to find myself there. When I'm busy. When I've got something on my mind, and heart; when I'm overwhelmed; but far more often, when everything is going smoothly and I'm all engrossed in everyday's self-centered quota of achievement and pleasure.
And I want to suggest two things which have helped me whenever I've fallen into that stagnant, lukewarm zone, found myself trapped in what felt like a spiritual syrup of diffidence.
Humility. We need to pray for His perspective with which to see ourselves. Pride is what keeps us from the truth about ourselves and the truth about God--and the fact that we need Him, desperately. Without humility, we don't know who we are, and we don't know who He is; we're only working on a false god we've created. A false or perverted perception of God is an idol we've made, whether we realize it or not.
Without humility, we fail to see why we even need to 'draw near to God' in the first place.
Worship. Whether alone, or with others. Just as we can't rescue a failing relationship without actually talking and spending time together; even if conversation lags, even if it feels awkward, even if you don't know what to say, or feel horribly insincere and pretentious. When was the last time praying felt like that to you?
Group worship, even if you feel disconnected from everyone, even if you feel no one cares if you're there; even if you don't particularly like the preacher or the style of preaching, is important. All those reasons highlight the other secondary things we go to church for; to have friends; to feel wanted; to agree; to be impressed. Good things, definitely. But also definitely not the main reason for going to church in themselves. Gosh, just get a dog or a ticket to a magic show for that.
The purpose of preaching and teaching is to discover truth about the person of God. And that starts with ourselves, with our heart. We could be served the world's best seafood but if we don't particularly like seafood in the first place we're obviously not going to appreciate it as much as we ought. If only for the simple reason that God has promised to bless our participation in group worship, that it is a means of grace, we should be there. Expecting and waiting to benefit, not because someone is in the pulpit, or someone remembered to greet us at the door, but simply because we trust God will bless, that our weak effort of coming despite the struggle we're in, is precious to Him.
And that, in essence, is perhaps what is most important of all. Knowing what we are, and knowing what He is like. Knowing that He will not leave us on our own, that He will draw us back.
The idea that the church reflects and witnesses for God to the world is something you probably hear in church at least eight times a year.
However, focusing too much on this may not--actually--be the best way to bring people to Christ.
Insert standard disclaimer--please don't automatically jump to the conclusion that I'm advocating the other extreme; that we ought to dissolve our churches and focus only on our own spiritual lives, reject the idea that the communal group identity of a church is at all important to being a Christian.
Of course it is.
Of course it is.
(I say that twice in case you blinked.)
Perhaps for some of you this isn't the case. Maybe in your churches now you're struggling with the opposite challenge, where people are too self-centred and unwilling to reach out, unwilling to love. If so that definitely is a bad witness, leading people to form a wrong idea of the God we profess to worship and live by (unfortunately don't we all misrepresent Him at one time or another?) and in that case you may not need to read this post at all in case you get the wrong idea, and take my thought out of context.
But the basic fact is that faith is a personal thing. It's not something that we can grow in someone, or that can spillover from others, nice as that would be; if that were the case there would be no heartbreak for Christian parents whose children have grown up to reject their parents' beliefs. Faith is something essentially personal, and essentially between God and the soul through Christ. There are no other interceders or parties concerned. If someone's professing faith depends on how kind you are to that person, if you think that you being able to remember everyone's birthdays means they will keep coming to church, if how bonded the youth group is is a direct correlation to how close they are to salvation, stop and think. When did salvation become so heavily dependent on our social interactions? As if the Holy Spirit took a backseat in His all-important work, and we somehow became His substitutes, trying to use niceness to convict and move hearts.
The witness which the love of God shining through a Christian can be to someone who does not believe is surely, in a world like this, truly beautiful, truly a glimpse that there is an ideal we've fallen short of, but an ideal that mercifully still exists in heaven. I have seen that in other lives. I have experienced it myself, and know how it helped me before and after becoming a Christian. And I believe that it is the very high, but inexpressibly beautiful calling of all Christians, to love. All the more beautiful for the contrast that it makes to the headlines we wake up to everyday, to the evil and hatred and incredible selfishness and cruelty we see in ourselves and others.
But when this becomes out focus, when we unconsciously equate 'being nice to people = bringing them closer to professing faith' then we've messed ourselves up. We set traps for ourselves. Thinking we are giving and caring unconditionally as Christ would have us, but actually building up expectations or a sense of entitlement (very naturally! aren't all other human relationships wired like this after all?) which cause us to recoil in hurt and anger when things don't turn out as we thought. When they are never able to believe, to see their need, to repent. When they hurt us. When they leave. When they backslide.
And we get angry. Struggle with resentment and bitterness, confused and bewildered where all those black emotions came from when we thought we'd been busying ourselves doing what was right. It becomes so easy to fling the blame on them, to accuse them of ungratefulness or--worse--hard-heartedness. I tried so hard, I did so much...it must be your fault.
And there it goes. Our nice image of a unified loving church, 'so close' to the vision of the body working in perfect harmony and beauty under its glorious Head in 1 Corinthians. Disillusion and cynicism follow the hurt and bitterness, maybe. Or long festering grudges we know we shouldn't have, but have grown so close to our hearts and egos that we can't bear to cut them out, knowing we have to radically rebuild ourselves if we do.
I heard once of someone who lamented, exactly with this attitude, about longtime visitors who had had 'years of meals with us but they still haven't believed in Christ!' I find this attitude in myself as well when I let myself get consumed by the enslaving assumptions that Christianity=niceness and being nice to people=part of the process of them becoming Christian. If this kind of attitude is present in how you look at or think of someone today, perhaps we need to stop being so unthinkingly 'nice and kind', and instead reconsider why we think it's so important to be 'nice and kind' in the first place.
In 2014 I wrote on this idea, if from a different angle, the idea that Christians = nice people.
It's worth taking a look at again, if I may say so, because it gives additional perspective to the same idea. (Looking back at that article I'm actually rather amazed I wrote it at all, and how I was bold--or thoughtless--enough to think I could discuss such a sensitive and tricky topic without being misunderstood and lashed out at! After all, I very nearly didn't post this, wondering if I really could explain and express myself clearly enough to avoid stumbling anyone.)
I hope I'm expressing my thoughts accurately because again, I recognize it may seem disturbing; yet, if you look back at the Bible, should be based on truth.
Likewise, we don't judge other Christians for not caring in the same way we do, or judge ourselves for not caring the way someone else does. All these petty details matter--if we're talking about people and how they respond. They don't if we're talking about God and His eyes which look not as men see, but at the heart--whether our heart, or the hearts of others.
Salvation by faith, not works.
The just shall live by faith.
Not by being nice.
The focus always ought to be Him--the why always ought to be Him. If our focus becomes 'so that they will believe', then we are no longer loving selflessly. Even though, and I stress this, it is and should doubtless be our desire that they do believe. But it should not be the underlying reason why. If it is, our actions become manipulations, like it or not. If it is, that explains why we don't actually love disinterestedly, unconditionally, but feel personally hurt and betrayed or offended when things don't work out as we assume they should ('after everything I've done.') If it is, then that explains why we're so shocked and dismayed when it becomes obvious that our church isn't perfect after all, that Christians aren't actually all nice, always nice, to each other or unbelievers.
If it is, then that's why we're so paranoid about preserving the appearance of a perfect church, why we feel a (unnecessary) personal pressure and pain when people don't come to faith or behave a certain way.
If it is, then we've subscribed to a cult of niceness that is most definitely not Christianity, even though Christianity is supposed to revolve around love. Because, though we may have gotten confused, the two are not the same thing.
We love because He first loved us. Not--even--because it can make others love Him.
'We love because He first loved us.'
Loving Christ can be vague. Sometimes a rush of nice warm fuzzy feelings convinces you that you're aglow with love, like the tangible flush of emotion when you emerge from a hug. Sometimes you feel so impossibly distant, as if you're staring at a static name on a piece of paper, trying to remember why it was once so important to you, trying to remember how it made you feel so much, wondering why nothing within you flickers when you read it anymore.
And we think confusedly, I need to love God more--but how? And we try confusedly to cultivate that warm fuzzy feeling. And we feel guilty when we fail, and we get discouraged, and we get disillusioned.
I am learning to see my love for Christ, not in the terms of how much I feel I love Him--which is how we tend to think about loving people--but how much I love other, lesser things more than Him.
I don't love Him more than I love my anger and bitterness, my sense of self-righteousness, my pride. I don't love Him more than my desire to hold grudges, to hurt those who hurt me. I don't love Him more than my desires for emotional fulfilment, for pleasure, for self-gratification, for security, for affirmation.
This sobers me and shows me, from a different angle, the major idols or obstacles in my spiritual growth, with a startling clarity that doesn't miss out or blur anything. Those things are more significant than I think they are. Some of them are truly good, yet keeping me from the Best; some of them shouldn't be there at all, as they are in direct opposition to Him. And yet I cling to them with a fierceness that surprises me, now that I compare it to the weakness with which I love You.
Do I really love You so little, when You have loved me so much?
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are