image by Nani Williams from Unsplash
continued from part 1
In his book True Community, Jerry Bridges points out the special privilege that our friendships with other Christians (especially those in the same church) should be. We should treasure what we have in common, what our union with them is based on: our common status as redeemed sinners, seeking to serve and be more like Christ. We should be eager to talk with them about Christ, the joys and struggles of following Him, our daily experiences of being in a relationship with Him; what we cannot talk about with our other friends.
The irony, as Bridges adds, is that all too often we talk about everything except that. During refreshments, we chatter determinedly on about exams, trips, the best coffee, work life balance, sports news, and what a spectacular disappointment the new MacDonalds’ salted egg yolk fries were. We reduce ourselves—unknowingly, from sheer habit, or because we’re not comfortable to go further—to another club, another social interaction in the broadest sense of the word. Trying to find something in common that we can relate to, from hobbies to celebrity crushes to music genres and whether or not we’re fellow Starbucks/Star Wars fans, so we can “bond.”
When we never really needed to. Since all along we already have something—Someone—in common.
Bridges challenges us to rethink the purpose and content of our conversations in church every Sunday. The whole perspective, in fact, with which we see our church friends and family.
Even as older Christians, we tend to have the wrong mindset towards our relationships in church. We need to “touch base” with so-and-so. Catch up. Hear about your week. Make friends with the new visitor. Not wrong, granted, but very much secular social interaction behaviour. All about maintaining that very superficial, uncertain first level of friendliness.
Granted, this probably isn’t a new concept to you. If you’re like me, you’re uncomfortably aware that yeah, we’re supposed to have more spiritual conversations—but it’s terribly awkward and feels so contrived…but it’s really hard if you’re not close enough, and don’t you need to develop the friendship more first--
Yes, there is a point to that. Most of us would squirm if someone you didn’t know very well did the *awkward cough, even more awkward attempt at eye contact:* “So, how’s your spiritual life?”
I remember when a sermon was once preached on the need for "more spiritual conversations" in church. For about two weeks, we all tried manfully, if horribly awkwardly--after which everyone unanimously gave it up with a sigh of relief.
I think the key here is the perspective. Instead of seeing “spiritual conversation” as a dreaded duty, we need to start learning to see it as a privilege. As something we probably don’t get to talk about much during the rest of the week. As something we’re interested in, and which we know they are too. As something we can mutually relate over.
A bit like the fun of meeting up with any specific friend group—old classmates, cousins, colleagues etc. You can relive stupid private jokes and rehash ancient memories without coming across as that hopelessly nostalgic person trying to convince others how fun and happening they used to be. Or how you can look over old family photos with your mom without becoming that annoying person who forces guests to look through albums of ancient baby photos, expecting them to be interested when they can’t see any difference between all the yellowed and expressionless babies.
Perhaps the best example is how, in any field of specialization, you can "talk shop"--whether with old classmates, colleagues, or someone you've just met who's in the same line (regardless of whether that means bone density and the twelve functions of the liver, or Freud and psychoanalysis in Edgar Allan Poe.)
Whereas in contrast, if you tried this with someone who didn’t share the same experiences/knowledge, you would probably end up alienating them and creating an awkward awareness of how they can’t relate (and probably also look like an unbearable snob showing off a lack of EQ.)
In this case, you don't come across as contrived, awkward, or dutiful in dwelling on your shared common experiences/interests. In fact, it becomes a natural opportunity to seize, a natural means to bond over, to affirm old relationships and build up new ones.
This makes all the difference between that short-lived and woefully unnatural attempt, and what Jerry Bridges pictures here. Rather than dutifully asking each other “How has your spiritual life been this week” (ugh) it becomes a natural sharing/outpouring of our common experience (“did you see the match last night?”/ “you know how Bible memory seems like such an impossible challenge?” In the same way we gravitate to the standard topics we relate over.
“Oh I watched that movie last week and thought it was really good, did you like it?”/“I didn’t get the last point from the sermon just now, did you?”/
“I’ve been trying to exercise more haha, any tips?”/“recently I’ve been struggling to focus when I pray, my mind just keeps running off to the things which need to be done, and I dunno…do you have that too? or any ideas how to help with that?”
(okay, yeah that’s rather corny, but I don’t want to be uselessly abstract, so I made myself include some examples, just to get the ideas rolling)
We need to be more intentional with--not just our conversations, but ultimately our relationships in church. We need to start by seeing them as the support group--fanbase--whatever flawed analogy from millenial culture which helps to start changing your perspective of the otherwise inane coffee breaks and superficial weekly hi-byes.
We don't appreciate them, cultivate them, or utilize them as we ought.
And until we do, we miss out on a significant means for spiritual growth and support, one that God uses to bless us with the comfort, guidance, encouragement, love, and joy which godly relationships--even between sinners--have the capacity to offer.
image by Chang Duong from Unsplash
How many close friends of yours are from church?
Church friends can be just another opportunity for (more) small talk and superficial banter, kept alive by private jokes and the occasional fun outing and of course, being friends on social media. ("#youthgroup #smallgroup #fellowship")
Or they can breed stifling expectations and external pressure to conform to a certain image. Do I feel uncomfortable if my church friends see my social media feed? do I dread bumping into someone from church during the week, because of the friends I'm with, or the shade of lipstick I'm wearing?
However, they can also be an incredible platform for building friendships which have the potential to be more honest, reliable, personal (and sustainable!) than what we can expect elsewhere.
Because here--regardless of how badly we have warped this into the exact opposite of what it should be--we have the most conducive foundation for strong friendships: honesty, vulnerability, a common love and purpose which binds us, and forgiveness.
G.K. Chesterton said that the church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. As such, we should be free to relate to each other without constantly labouring to keep up our Nice Person facade, having to hide every crack as it appears. Free to share struggles and needs. Free to forgive, and ask forgiveness, because we already admit that we need to (though ironically, we've somehow managed to give the church a reputation for hypocrisy, superficiality, and judgment despite all this.)
I'm always amazed how Kpop fans from vastly different cultures, languages, and personalities can instantly and effortlessly click once they discover they love the same bands. As Christians, with a common overarching passion that shapes our life and identity, we should experience the same magic.
We see our church friends regularly, every Sunday. Whether we spend this time with them chatting over coffee break about their upcoming exam or trip, the best places for authentic bak kut teh in Singapore, and the latest meme trending on Instagram; or whether we hardly see each other, busy making drinks, talking to the visitors, tidying up the worship room or preparing for Sunday School/Bible Study. Maybe we even see them at prayer meeting or small group during the week. But I want to argue--from my own years of experience and after reading several books on Christian friendship by a variety of pretty different authors--that this may not be enough.
We all want solid, strong, and sustainable friendships; and as Christians especially we want friends who pray for us, encourage us, help us to grow spiritually. Friends who can lovingly hold you accountable. Friends who support you as you try to grow in godliness. Friends who give us Biblical guidance and insight when we need it. Friends who share our heart for Christ and His work, and His people. Friends who will listen, when you confess, with love and gentleness and respect.
And the list goes on.
For the longest time in my teen years I used to pray that God would give me the "good Christian friend" every Christian parent and teen hopes fervently will appear miraculously in their church. Someone fun and lovable and godly all at the same time! Wouldn't that be nice? Then I would definitely be growing spiritually, instead of stagnating or drifting like I am now.
The problem is that ideal friendships like this very rarely--if ever--appear miraculously in your local church as a nice finished product all ready for you to enjoy, as obvious and fuss-free as if Gabriel himself decided to come and be your "good Christian friend." Gets on really well with you from the start, no bad habits, similar family culture, likes soccer/Marvel movies/fill-in-the-blank too; nice personality, good manners, fun to be around, helps out in church, can't wait to start a youth Bible study, is halfway through memorizing the Shorter Catechism...
Or to be more accurate, perhaps the real problem is that we expect them to come about this way.
We don't passively drift into strong Christian friendships in the same way we don't passively, accidentally drift into glorifying God. You can organize camps together, lead worship, pray together, and see each other every Sunday for year after year; but it doesn't mean that you automatically fall into the powerful, life-changing, God-centered friendship David and Jonathan had.
We need to see the relationship we have with our church friends as potential for this kind of friendship. We may not be near that level now, but without active and intentional investment, we will never be *newsflash of the century.* And this doesn't just mean aimlessly but happily hanging out every night/weekend (the approach we ordinarily would use to build closer friendships.)
We need to see that Christian friendships are about growing together--closer to Christ, and in the process closer to each other.
Jerry Bridges' book True Community address this in the first chapter, by discussing the concept of union and communion. Every relationship can be seen in two aspects: union, or the objective aspect, the basis of your relationship; and communion, or the experiential aspect, the quality of your relationship. Just like how an estranged parent and child would still have the objective aspect of their relationship (they are still inevitably related to each other) though they may lack the experiential aspect (the emotional and personal quality of the relationship.)
These two aspects apply to both our relationship with God, and our relationship with other Christians.
And these two aspects, Bridges argues, are intrinsically related to each other.
How well we understand our union with Christ affects the quality of our communion with Him.
How well we relate with Christ affects how well we relate to other Christians, since our relationship with Christ is the objective basis for our relationship with them.
~to be continued in part 2
image by Nik Shuliahin from Unsplash
2 with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; 3 giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
"...forbearing one another in love."
Everyday, opportunities for forbearance abound. Whether it's a difficult person, a sinkful of dirty dishes, or that person walking maddeningly slowly in front of you, those moments when you draw a deep breath and feel your jaw muscles tighten are everywhere.
Forbearing is something that hopefully we each strive to do each day. In our families. In our churches. With our Christian or non-Christian friends. With that cranky bus driver who pretends not to see you waving your arms wildly, and drives off. To be patient, to be long-suffering, to keep our temper. To keep silent, when bitterness is strong within us. We learn to control ourselves, to count ten, to endure, reinforcing what we learned since childhood and which seems to be such a big part of adulthood, in order to cope at work, with our families--with people in general. It's nothing new, after all.
But Paul raises this commonplace standard of simply forbearing by the second half of his sentence. "...in love."
Love! Possibly the last thing on our minds when we're struggling not to throw punches!
It was a sobering realization that simply keeping quiet, simply controlling myself from not demonstrating outward signs of anger, is not the ultimate purpose, is not the point of being longsuffering, of forbearing in a Biblical definition. We're just doing a better job at hiding the bitterness and anger--burning inside us, damaging us. And thinking that we're doing well because we didn't break any dishes or noses simply feeds our pride and makes it worse. We feel good for not having demonstrated any of the bad feelings inside; and it makes us feel justified in entertaining them further. I've experienced it myself; you are tempted to brood over it, nurse your grudge for longer, because you feel entitled to it since you didn't vent it. That's unhealthy, even from a secular point of view. From a spiritual point of view--we've missed the whole point. This is the same Bible that tells us God judges hatred within the heart as well as the external action of murder.
Paul says: "forbearing one another in love." Those two words at the end change everything. We forbear, we endure, because we love them, because we are willing to for their sake. Like a longsuffering parent cleaning up vomit for their cranky toddler. We bear with them, out of love. Out of wanting their good. Out of being able to see beyond their weaknesses, to have sympathy and patience. Out of having Christ, and the truth, free us from the parallel yet opposite extremes of people-pleasing and self-centredness.
image by Brigitte Tohm from Unsplash
I used to complain that of all my siblings, my parents gave me the most difficult name. The Chinese character for慈 (ci) has exactly 13 strokes--just for that character alone--and is a rather unusual one that is not easy to pronounce, even for some Chinese people. Over the years I have learnt to endure it being butchered in a mind-baffling multitude of ways, some of which almost come close to ingenious, without any facial muscles flinching. Chi. Chee. Zee. Zhi. Zzz. Jrrr. Qi. Si. See. And the list goes on. I even got called "Silk" by a class of kids I taught once, because the teacher I was assisting couldn't get it right and I was too embarrassed to correct her.
What gets lost is the meaning behind that difficult character; love--to be more specific, mercy/compassion; love from a higher being to a lower one. Just like how the Greek words agape, philos, eros differentiate between different types of love. God's precious and enduring love, if you want to take the complete meaning of my full name. Not easy to pronounce, maybe, but not easy to comprehend either!
I remember many years ago thinking about this, and feeling how apt it was that my parents chose this name for me, as my personality could be pretty well described by that Audrey Hepburn quote: "I was born with an enormous need for affection, and a terrible desire to give it." People categorized me (and I accepted it) as kind/loving/tender-hearted; I hated violence or conflict, I loved animals and children, I was easily moved when I saw suffering of any kind--I remember crying inconsolably once because an old man on a bicycle pulled up along the bus I was on, and as I watched him cycling precariously with his skinny legs among the big cars and flashing lights of Orchard Road I was suddenly, terribly aware how vulnerable he was, how easily he could be knocked over by one of the cars, how his bicycle didn't have any lights and it was late at night...
Which all sounds very sentimental and sweet, perhaps, (or maybe just a morbid and hyperactive imagination haha) but doesn't actually come under love. Let's be honest. English, though my favourite language and the strength of my being, has some deceptive limitations. We use the word "love" way too easily and too carelessly. When we talk about learning to live out a Christ-like love, we sometimes end up reducing it to a warm fuzzy inborn capacity to be tenderhearted; that sensitivity, that empathy, which is just innate in some people's personalities, right? Well, that's not enough. In fact, it's painfully inadequate.
Peter broke down the process in a way which reminds us how real love--far from being a natural, spontaneous, simple thing--is rather the product of spiritual discipline and maturity, of godliness, the fruit of the Spirit, the labour of studying the Word, of knowing God. It ought to be all those things, granted, but in our fallen world, it just isn't. Our hearts are still in the process, and painfully so, of being transformed.
2 Peter 1: 5-7:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
Love, from the very overuse of the term and concept, may have been reduced to a deceptively simple concept--or at least a seemingly straightforward one. But in this list we see the progression through other different virtues, finally only culminating with love.
Being able to truly love someone isn't just something that has to do with how nice a personality you were born with, or how nice a person you usually are. It's something we work at. Something incredibly hard to achieve as it's not only a progression but also a culmination of the other aspects of our spiritual life.
Think about why Peter chose each word in the verses above, and why they came in that specific order. We need hope to love, or cynicism and despair and human limitations would kill us. We need to know what perseverance and hard work and self control are, to love. We need to be wanting to obey God, desiring to obey God, actively seeking to obey God. And--I love how mutual affection comes right here, a perfect balance--we need to love the other person as an individual, to understand and embrace who they are, to affirm their strengths even as we recognize their weaknesses.
Here Peter is not describing a condescending generic love for the masses, for the "unworthy lost," for humanity in general but divorced from the actual gritty reality of loving individual, imperfect people.
Remember how Jesus, in all of the hundreds of people He ministered to, never once lost sight of them as individuals, never treated them as just another needy person, just another applicant. He stopped to heal those who would have been passed by and ignored, like the lepers. He affirmed the potential in those who were labeled unworthy, like Zacchaeus. He comforted the outcasts, aware of all their sins, all their struggles.
Are you struggling to forgive someone? Are you trying to love someone, to love wisely and well and selflessly as Christ did? Don't sit there expecting God to magically take away your irritation, and fill you with a warm fuzzy desire to "be nice to them." We can only truly love when the Spirit is working hard within us, when we are dealing with our own sin, when we are seeking God in our everyday life.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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