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Ezekiel is a book about God's holiness and judgment, just as surely as it is a book about God's mercy and compassion.
The theme of restoration, specifically the comprehensive, holistic restoration of God's people--in their relationship with God, in their sin-damaged hearts and natures, in persecution by their enemies, in their relationships with each other--is a central one, which unites those two aspects of God's character.
In Ezekiel 36 and 37, the picture of perfect Christian unity is depicted as one of the most beautiful blessings we have to look forward to in Heaven.
But do we agree?
Many of us, far from seeing Christian community as a blessing God gave to us and a foretaste of heaven, associate it with legalism, unlovingness, miscommunication, and failure to give us what we want or need (more on that in another post.)
In Ezekiel, however, the Messianic kingdom emerges, not as a place, or a system, but a community. Its first defining feature is the perfected unity of God's people; a true and lasting unity for eternity.
Likewise, in What is a Christian Worldview? Phillip Ryken points out that the New Heavens and the New Earth are described as the City of God. Why not garden? Or world? City implies and foregrounds community. The most basic defining characteristic of a city is people, living together in close proximity. One of the main elements of God's New Earth will be Christian unity, perfected. If we shirk from Christian community, if we like to emphasize that our spiritual walk is something exclusively between God and ourselves, we might need to reconsider just how ready we are for the City of God.
There are so many possible reasons, some passably legitimate if not taken to an extreme, others downright disturbing. And only we know which one is ours--if we're being honest with ourselves.
We're unwilling to make ourselves vulnerable and accountable to others. Perhaps there are petty sins and unhealthy habits we're reluctant to acknowledge or confront.
Being critical and intolerant of differences/weaknesses/mistakes constantly prevents us from loving others, as we always decide that they're lacking or undeserving of our effort and involvement.
We're pathologically afraid of getting hurt, perhaps from some past traumatic experience (whether in the church or outside.) We don't want to get too fond of anyone or feel obliged to anyone, and we view any attempts to grow closer with suspicion and wariness.
We make excuses that there's no one "compatible," as if this were a dating site. Different personalities, different backgrounds, different opinions--too much to handle. We believe that the answer lies in another denomination, in the next church, in a better pastor or Sunday School teacher, in a demographic group or income bracket more like our own, in a dress code, in a more vibrant and spiritual-minded youth group or a more participative Bible study group (this was me years ago.)
Our crippling insecurity and need for validation--and our unwillingness to admit it--makes us too proud to make advances. So instead we wait for others to approach us, feeling entitled to their initiative, because otherwise doesn't it reflect badly on this church, that they're "unloving" and "self-centered?"
Granted, the unity and relationships we experience here on earth cannot escape from being tainted by sin. We will experience betrayal, heartbreak, disappointment, miscommunication, bitterness, loss--as with any other relationships between sin-stained humanity on this sin-stained earth. But that very process, as so much else of what we experience in life, is part of God's plan for our sanctification. We persevere, looking forward to the New Earth and the City of God, where these relationships will be perfected, and we will experience unity as God intended it to be.
Christ's love for His church is something we would do better to emulate, out of all the many areas we seek to emulate Him in.
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.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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