This is Chapter 6 in a devotion-style coronavirus isolation diary entitled Discovering Joy, which I am posting chapter-by-chapter on Wattpad. Enjoy!
Today, I am thinking about the global church during the oppression of the virus, and how the intentionality we must put into fellowship now suddenly makes us so much more aware of who we choose to spend time with.
One of the most powerful things about the church is that it forces us to love people that we would never have chosen to love. We live in an age in which church shopping is normal. While I do believe there are legitimate reasons to choose to fellowship in one church over another, and that it's important to worship in an environment where you are truly being built up spiritually, I also suspect that we approach church with far too much self-focus.
In the early days of the church, you didn't have your pick of churches. You just went to the church that was in your city or local area because there was literally nowhere else to go. There was one church in Corinth. One church in Philippi. One church in Galatia. Travel was long and tedious; you couldn't church shop in a fifty-mile radius. You had to make do with the church you had. This is partially why Paul and Peter constantly addressed divisions in the church and urged unity. The believers of these fledgling churches had to get along or there would be no churches to go to. While church discipline was important to keep truly divisive and heretical people from tearing the church apart, many of the cases involved situations under the category of "She rubs me the wrong way."
I have seen over and over the incredible God-power of unity grown from the tenacity of believers who refused to give up on one another, despite differences. We talk about "iron sharpening iron" so glibly (Proverbs 27:17), like all that is involved is a good bracing theological debate with people we already like. In reality, iron sharpens iron by scraping, chipping pieces off of one another, grinding one another down until it hurts. The reality is that this sharpening process involves people we don't always like, who express truth in a way that grates on us, and with whom we must sometimes agree to disagree.
Heaven is going to be full of believers who tested our patience on earth, and we will miss so many incredible treasures of fellowship if we just stick with the relationships that we like.
I laughed out loud when I listened to a Timothy Keller sermon in which he made this observation: When you're a pastor, you have to love whoever God sends through your door. You don't get to pick and choose your friends. And some of them are people you would never choose to spend time with, but you're the pastor, so you have to spend time with them.
I laughed because I totally get it. In the last few years, I've learned that those personality differences or difficult-to-love people are not the problem of the pastor. They're the privilege of every single believer in the church. We don't get to drift into the doors of the church, hear an inspiring message, and then grab Sunday lunch with people that we already approve of and enjoy being around. I mean, sure, if we want to stick in our little comfortable bubbles to the exclusion of the outreaching heart of the Christ, we can do so. But we'll miss out on treasures we didn't even know existed.
This comfortable Christian used to be me. I wasn't a pastor or ministry leader, so I figured that if a particular fellow believer rubbed me the wrong way, I didn't have to spend time with them. Then God sent me a few people who really tested me, and who I couldn't get away from without being incredibly rude about it. I complained to my family privately even while acting sweet publicly to the people who tested my patience. I wrote out my frustrations in my journal. I asked God to give me wisdom on how to escape these draining relationships without hurting feelings.
What I didn't ask God for was a change of heart, but that's exactly what He gave me.
He kept forcing me into those situations with those difficult people until--one day--I realized I didn't dread those phone calls or those visits. Perhaps I wasn't "bosom buddies" with these friends but I was suddenly aware of bright glimmers of what Tim Keller calls the "glory self"--the future, glorified person that God was transforming this believer into. Had that process been going on the whole time, and I was just too blind in my prejudice? Or was God changing them and strengthening them even through my reluctant friendship? I still have no idea. It doesn't matter. I just know that those relationships are dear to me because they connected me to the heart of Christ in ways I ever expected.
Today, I facilitate a women's ministry through my church. The women come from many backgrounds and display many personalities. Some of those backgrounds and personalities just mesh instantly with mine. Others have stretched me. I hesitate to write this because I know all the ladies will now ask, "Is it me? Am I the one who stretched you?"
Dear, incredible, precious women of God, that question has no meaning. I'm not just being "nice" and trying to spare your feelings with "churchy speak" when I say that you are all special to me. I am grateful for every single one of you in ways that I can't even put into words. For the ones who have stretched me spiritually, I started out practicing patience with you because I wanted to know you as Christ knows you, to glimpse your "glory self." In the process of doing so, God transformed my friendship of patience to a friendship of delight. You have inspired me, grown me, and challenged me with your unique gifts and the authenticity of your walk with the Lord. If I had stayed in my comfortable bubble and held you at arm's length, I would have missed out on a friendship that I now truly treasure. I love you not in spite of your perceived flaws, but because of your actual beauty in Christ. I look forward to being friends with you for years and years to come!
And for those women to whom I have been the undesirable, hard-to-love friend: Thank you for your patience and your Christ-like love to me! When you felt drained after a visit with me, you didn't say, "This is the last time I ever do that!" When I was that clingy, exhausting personality that you wanted to pass on to someone else, you took the responsibility on yourself to continue seeking my welfare. You answered my phone call--again. You set up a visit--again. You listened to my long ramblings--again. You invested more into me than I was capable of giving back to you. You modeled love and acceptance and non-judgment, while provoking me to deeper trust and commitment to the Lord. While I may never be able to be to you what you have been to me, I can be to someone else what you have been to me, and I can pay that Christ-love forward. Thank you for the treasures your patience and investment sowed in my soul for eternity.
This is the essence of Christian fellowship. As Jerry Bridges points out in True Community, we are in an intimate relationship with every true believer on this planet, whether we are conscious of it or not. Their pain is our pain. Their success is our success. When we minimally invest in people we don't like, and lavishly invest in people we do like, we are telling God that we want to be involved in the welfare of the hands, but we don't desire to look to the welfare of the kidneys. But it is the welfare of the whole body that ensures our own welfare and advances the kingdom of God. Who are we to choose who is "worthy" of our investment? Are we worthy of the investment of other believers? Are we worthy of Christ's investment?
Loving hard-to-love believers is not the exclusive duty of the pastors. It is the God-given privilege of every believer. Partiality isn't just about showing preference to believers from one socio-economic status over another. It's about making a distinction between those believers who meet our preferences and conditions of friendship and those who don't. Such distinctions are not supposed to exist in the body of Christ.
It is popular today to talk about "healthy boundaries," and I agree that such things are important, but the point of boundaries is to build a healthy environment in which real relational growth can happen, not to avoid the relationships that we'd rather not be bothered with. Put another way, the motivation behind boundaries must be for the ultimate good and growth of the church as a whole and of that sister in particular, not for the ultimate protection of my comfort zone. I admit I don't always know that distinction myself, but that is when I offer continual prayer and ask for a heart attuned to the Lord's will and not to my own preference. He always answers such a prayer with wisdom.
This process is not just about sanctifying us to be more Christ-like. It's about discovering those unexpected friendships that stay with us for a lifetime and enrich us in more ways than we can imagine. It's about the genuine happiness that God knows we would have missed without His intervention. It's about investing in the ultimate good of the entire Body of Christ, with the same empowerment of the Holy Spirit who daily invests in us and our individual good.
Father, teach me during this isolation not to just reach out to those people who fill my emotional and spiritual tank, but to reach out to those who are themselves longing to be filled. Give me the heart of Christ to love, not only beyond the borders of my own nation and community, but beyond the borders of my own preferences and personality and comfort zone. Fill me so overflowing with grace that it spills over onto everyone around me. May your worldwide church emerge from the grip of the virus more victorious and united than ever before!
None of my life has gone the way it was "supposed to go," but I don't love my life any less because of the hardships and new directions. I see so much unexpected good in it, and I want others to see the good in theirs.