|Book: Creating a Secure Church: BOOK TWO
Part 1 : Objectives & Obstacles
Part 2 : Secure in Relationships
Part 3 : Secure in Ministry
Part 4 : When Things go Wrong
Part 5 : Concluding Thoughts
Chapter 4: Imperfect People!
“ Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have
against one another”
In the previous chapter we said that reasons we find relationships difficult to work out sometimes may be:
and where they aren't, or when the rate of change is slower than we expect, it is then that we struggle to maintain good attitudes towards those people.
In that chapter we looked at the fact of our differences. In this chapter we'll look at the realities of the truth that people in our church are always imperfect. Not only that we want them to change, and we find their slowness to change difficult!
4.1 Church is made up of such imperfect people!
We'll start with the difficulty of people whose behaviour we really question, these less than perfect people we so often encounter in church. At one end of the scale is the child who talks loudly in the service, at the other end is the elderly man who insists on sitting in the same place every week and complains out loud because he can't hear properly – and a lot worse things in between! Yes, there are those whose language sometimes misses the mark of holiness, or whose timekeeping is on a different scale to everyone else, or simply those we've been told about whose lifestyle leaves us wondering!
Our struggle is very often focused on the fact that the Bible tells us that we are supposed to be righteous – and some people don't seem to be! It also tells us that we are in a constant process of change – and they don't seem to be changing very much, or if they are, it is very slow!
Sanctification is a Gradual Process
We often want the difference to come instantly. ‘Sanctification' (being changed into the likeness of Christ) is both a one-off thing (e.g. 1 Cor 6:11 you were sanctified) and an ongoing process. Most of the New Testament references to ‘sanctify', ‘sanctified', etc. refer to what has happened to us.
We have been set apart as holy to God. That is the position that we have, we are holy, i.e. we have been declared the possessions of a Holy God, and are therefore holy by our contact with Him.
Yet running alongside that there is also the very clear acknowledgement that in practice, in daily living, we are being gradually changed to be more and more like Jesus (e.g. 2 Cor 3:18).
This sounds so very simple and so very obvious, but when it comes to relationships in the church, it is a fact that we so often forget, or choose to forget! In the remainder of this chapter I'd like to stay with this subject of accepting that the Christian life is all about change, and that change is often slow.
4.2 Fundamental Truths about Change
Christian and Non-Christian
Just a minute! Before we move on into this we need to note something that is very basic and very important. We can expect Christians to change, but if you have non-Christians attending your meetings, then we have no grounds to expect them to change! So far they haven't seen their need, haven't met God and aren't in the change business! This discussion is all about Christians, not non-Christians.
We will see later that we CAN help Christians change, after we have first taken them as they are, but for the non-Christian the change they need is to surrender to Christ. All else will then follow.
Outward and Inward Changes
All of us do change on the outward, Christian and non-Christian, to become more socially acceptable when we want to fit in. If the non-Christian who attends our meetings finds benefit from them and from the friendship they find there, then there is quite likely to be an outward change, as they seek to conform to the norms of our gathering. They will want to be like us, but this is purely an outward, cosmetic change.
Real change is change on the inside, and this only happens when a person truly repents and puts their trust in Christ to save them (from their past, present and future failure and guilt). Jesus' teaching clearly indicated that a religion that was only concerned with the outside, was not what he and his Father were looking for (e.g. Mt 23:25-28). When there has been a heart change (i.e. on the inside), then all else will change (on the outside).
Who Brings the Change
So the Christian life is about change. Who is it that brings that change?
Phil 2:12,13 continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (i.e. YOU do it), for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (i.e. HE is working in you)
So the change in our lives is a combination of God working and me working on my life. Now God may use you to help bring changes in me, and this book is perhaps all about that side of it, but if He does use us, it is to be as HE motivates, guides and directs us, not as we decide we'll do it. One of the key ways that I am to be “working” is to put on the character of Christ, then God will move through that.
An Example of the Divine-Human Partnership
This is perhaps seen most clearly in the New Testament in respect of believing wives with unbelieving husbands. In 1 Pet 3:1-6 the apostle Peter encourages Christian wives to let their gracious, loving behaviour be the greatest factor of change in the lives of their husbands. Our natural tendency is to badger or berate others who we want to change.
Nagging wives are the epitome of someone wanting (perhaps for very good reasons!) to change another. From the outset, we must come to a place of accepting that WE do not change other people - God does! That's why Peter refers to the women of the past (in the Old Testament) who “put their hope in God” (v.5)
The new Christian has little knowledge of what is required of him or her by God. Some things they 'instinctively' know (by the Spirit within them) are now not for them. Many of us forget that when God prophesied through Jeremiah about a new covenant (Jer 31:33,34), it included Him putting His law within us. This is what happened when the Holy Spirit indwelt us at conversion. Therefore the Holy Spirit tells us what is wrong.
Many of us get frustrated with people and, if we were able to be honest about it, feel we need to help God out in the process of changing others. We'd like to DO something to change them, but unless we're a leader called to a particular ministry, our means of changing other people is simply to love them and leave the rest of the work of change up to God, i.e. we're to let the character of Jesus shine through us, and God will do the rest.
God works in different ways
I remember this happening so very clearly to a man who is now a good friend. When he came to the Lord he smoked a lot. My temptation was to tell him, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16 etc.) and smoking is doing it harm. You should give up smoking”, but I didn't. I knew this man now had a living and vibrant relationship with his Saviour and that he would know the truth about it.
On the day of his baptism he determined to give up smoking. He did it the human way, he chewed gum. Five days later his face ached so much from chewing that he went to his house group and asked them to pray for him. As they went to pray, the power of God hit him and knocked him down. Not only was he instantly delivered from any desire to smoke again, but he was miraculously healed of a major knee injury that he had had for years. The point was that he knew he had to give it up; he didn't need me telling him and making him feel worse.
In this instance I allowed the Holy Spirit to speak to him, and when he'd heard it, God turned up and brought the required change in a dramatic way.
But it's not always the same with every person or every situation. My mother was approaching sixty, didn't know Jesus (despite the fact that I had told her all I could about him) and smoked constantly, had a smokers cough and frequently suffered from bronchitis. One day when she was coughing particularly badly, I casually said, “You ought to give up smoking, Mum; it's not doing you any good”. When she replied that she had tried dozens of times I found myself saying, “You know, you ought to ask the Lord. He could help you.”
To cut a long story short, I was back home a few months later (I was living away from home by then) and noticed there was something different in the house. Eventually I realised Mum was not smoking and when I mentioned it she confessed, well, yes, she had spoken to Jesus and well, yes, she had become a Christian, and well, yes, her desire to smoke had gone, as had her cough – and she never had bronchitis again!
What am I saying here? I'm saying that God communicates with His children, does things for them - and in different ways for different people. When I became a Christian I instinctively knew it was wrong for me to swear, but abusive language had become a part of my life, so much so that it was six months before the last swear word passed my lips. Today I have no need to swear, so why swear? There was a difference between knowing the thing and achieving it. I wanted to stop but it was months before, for whatever reason, the Lord enabled me to stop.
And with our people
When we look at some of the people in our church we often know when something is not right in their lives, and quite often it's just that they don't know how to deal with it. The best strategy is to love them, share when asked, pray continually – and watch God work in them – and sometimes it may be through us! At other times He'll do it without any reference to anyone else.
The key to change is something I said above in the description of my friend - he had a living and vibrant relationship with his Saviour. Therein is half the answer. The other half is our loving and caring acceptance of others. Those two things will bring the change. We may not be able to do much about the former, but we can certainly take our responsibility for the latter.
Conclusion? God is much better at changing other people than I am, and He uses a variety of way to achieve it, mostly by simply loving them and blessing them, but sometimes He comes in sovereign power! Our role is to love people and let God be God!
4.3 Gradual Change, a Reminder
As we said in the previous chapter, it's easy to hear these sorts of examples and say we accept the truth of them, but when it comes down to the practical reality of people, there in church alongside me, that's different. If we are to create a secure church, a church where everyone feels secure, loved and accepted, it means we have to take them where they are and at the pace they are changing (which is slower than we'd like!).
We need to face these two things. These are the things that get to us, these are the things that upset us. We expect people to be instantly changed, glorious, lovely, caring, perfect Christians, fully mature, able to respond graciously in every adverse circumstance.
Why? We weren't like that when we came to Christ, and in fact we may not be like that now! So why expect other people to be like that?
Accepting them where they are today
Let's keep on saying it and be honest about it: we expect people to be further on in Christ than they are. They come to Christ, and we expect instant change. They've known Christ five years, and we expect maturity. In so many ways we expect Christians to change - and in some ways that IS a right expectation - but first we must accept people just where they are today .
Over the years in our church we've done every sort of Course possible: commitment courses, discipling courses, growth courses, evangelism courses, counselling courses, warfare courses, preparing for revival courses, all aimed at taking people on in Christ. Yes, they have all benefited the people on them, they have all grown in some measure, but does it mean that every person who has been on one of these courses is now fully mature? No, because maturity involves far more than mere knowledge. It involves obedience to that knowledge, it involves learning to be sensitive to God, it involves letting Him work the fruit and gifts of His Spirit into us, it involves a change of heart, a change of life, and all of that takes time.
We live in this ‘instant' society where people take courses at work and are then expected to be experts. I said earlier in Book One that I was recently browsing in a well known book store and was amazed at the number of self-help books that there are around today. There is this deceptive belief that you can be instantly changed by taking a course, by reading a book or by listening to a sermon.
Please hear me correctly. There are good and helpful things to read but they won't cause instant transformation. There will be those times when we will find books etc. having a profound influence on us, but it is more that it helps the process of change along than creating instant transformation.
Conclusion? Changes in us take time plus knowledge plus love. That's true for others as well as me!
4.4 Change is so often slow
But, we said, not only do we expect people to be further on with Christ that they are, but we expect them to be clearly changing faster than they are! Look, we'll come to how we can help them later on, but for the moment, can we lay down our expectations that we have of the pace of change we want to see taking place in them? We need to keep on saying this until we take it in.
Why are some of us slow changers? Perhaps it's because of the way we are, perhaps it's because we feel insecure and we're frightened of change. Perhaps it's just that we've never seen the need, nobody has explained it to us. Perhaps it is that we've got so much ‘baggage' from the past that we feel we can't move on like we'd like to.
Let's look at that some of things in more detail. Perhaps it's easiest to see them in people.
A Slow Learner
Here is ‘W', a middle aged lady who came to the Lord a couple of years ago. She's single but has a number of children. She's received a lot help and a lot of counsel which seems to have been well received. Yet she's not a lot further on. Various people who've been helping her feel frustrated. The fact is that ‘W' finds it very difficult to learn. She has more trouble coping with life than most of the church put together - but Jesus still loves her! What is the answer? That we love her and accept her just as she is and get the wisdom of God to help her through. Will we succeed? Only the Lord and ‘W' knows.
There's a question mark you may have at this point: is her heart given over to the Lord? Yes, that is a very important question. We believe that that is an essential requirement for someone to receive from the Lord all that He wants to give them, but perhaps the most honest answer we might receive is, “Yes to the best of my knowledge.”
If that is an honest and genuine answer, there is no more we can ask of this person. All we can do is be there for them, loving them, encouraging them, helping them. Yes, at the end of the day the responsibility for change is down to them as they work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), but we can be there alongside to help them move on – if that is what they want.
But suppose they cannot say they have given over everything to the Lord? Do we give up on them? Well, did we give up on them before they came to Christ? No, we had the goal of their salvation in mind. Now we have the goal of their ongoing sanctification in mind but, as we noted earlier, that is a gradual process, and part of the process is coming to the point of surrender – and that may happen again and again and the Lord works through our lives picking up on issues.
The reality is that we may think we've surrendered all to Him, and yet a while later we find there is an issue that has risen to the surface that we hadn't realised was there and which needs laying down before Him, and we may struggle afresh with that.
In some circles I hear talk of “we're wanting to be more surrendered”. For some of us this is an easy issue – we just lay down our lives and that's the end of it. An issue comes up and we put it down straight away. Isn't that how it is for everyone? No, it's not. For many it is a case of regular laying down new issues and each one is a struggle. Why? I don't know, I just rest in the knowledge that the Lord knows and He loves this person, so I'd better be there for them with all the grace He gives me!
Here is ‘X', a man for whom life went very badly wrong when he was younger. As a result he finds it incredibly difficult to trust people. He'd love to share his inner anguishes but feels nobody will understand, so that when they find out what he's like he's sure they'll reject him, and he's had enough of that.
What's the answer? That we love and accept him just like he is, pray for him, bless him and bless him again, and one day perhaps he'll feel there's one of us there to whom, just perhaps, he can open up. At that point we'll either be Jesus to him, or he'll have his mistrust reinforced and stay even more clammed up. It could be a long haul!
For ‘X' to come out from behind his mistrust it will probably need a combination of prayer and constant reaffirming. Why does the Lord wait until we pray. There are probably a number of answers, but let's just rest in the fact that He wants us to pray and He seems to move when we pray. If we want ‘X' to feel secure, we're going to have to pray, but that is only part of it. ‘X' is going to have to experience our acceptance, our love, our care and our compassion – again and again!
If we've never walked the same path as ‘X' we may think he's in unbelief, that he's slow in believing all the things in Book One, but that's because we haven't got the scars or maybe even the inner pain.
I saw this once in respect of someone like ‘X'. The Lord showed me that if ‘X' had just badly burnt his arm and I reached out to unthinkingly touch it, ‘X' would jump away at the anticipation that I would hurt him even more. Now apply that to an inner hurt that hasn't yet been healed up, and the same thing applies. You see the hurt that ‘X' has, because the Lord has showed it to you. You go to reach out to minister to it in love, but ‘X' shies away. In fact he flees.
So what is the answer? You love him and accept him and care for him without yet going near the pain and as you pray, maybe, just maybe, the Lord with anesthetise him with your love and enable him to speak about it, be open about it, and receive healing words and a healing touch from the Lord.
Maybe the Lord, in His love, will do it without you. Maybe, in His love for you, He'll allow you the privilege of being part of the healing process, because “perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). Is that taking that verse out of context? No, it's just another application of it, because it goes on, “ because fear has to do with punishment ” and you and I believe punishment has to do with pain and ‘X' believes you touching him on this so tender spot will in fact be punishment, it will in fact be more pain!
So ‘X desperately needs someone who will be there for him through thick and thin, someone who will be consistent in their acceptance, love, care and compassion. ‘X' needs you!
Living in Ignorance
Here is ‘Y', another middle aged man who recently gave a testimony and who said as part of it, “I think I was just waiting for someone to tell me. I didn't realise it at the time, but I just needed someone to tell me”. Somehow we often assume people know. We think we've told them but, for whatever the reason, they haven't actually taken it in.
It's one of the things we've been realising as a church, that actually people often don't hear what you're saying, and so it needs to come again and again until they do ‘hear it'! What's the answer? That we love them and accept them as they are and keep on patiently sharing the truth until they do see and do respond. We all respond at different rates. We've got to hang on in for one another until the message gets through!
Why don't people ‘hear'? Sometimes it's just a psychological thing. I used to teach Law at one point in my life to Construction Students. They weren't there to be lawyers and they were told that they needed some knowledge of the Law for their careers. So they turned up at my class and written all over their faces was, “This is going to be difficult. Law is hard. You have to be clever to be a lawyer!” Part of my task for the hours ahead with them was to show them that, at their level at least, it was OK, it was something they could do – and enjoy!
So it is in the Christian world; some of us have come into God's kingdom and the enemy has told us that we've got to be good, we've got to be religious, the Bible is hard to understand, the Christian life is all “you must not” things. Just in case this is you, the truth is that NONE of this list is true!
You can't be good, only Jesus is, and so him in and through you will be good.
You don't have to be religious (my definition of 'religion' is man-made approaches to get on God's good side), you just have to be real.
The Bible isn't hard to understand when you ask God to help you understand it.
The Christian life is actually all about positive things. Yes, there are the “Do not” things (e.g. Col 3:9) but they are more than balanced by all the positive things (e.g. Col 3:12 -17).
Yes, the truth is that many of us have a bad feeling about the Christian faith either because we've come from a background that constantly denigrated it, and we haven't got rid of all that negativity, of we haven't received good teaching, or we haven't had good role models.
If we have people with us who have come with this sort of baggage, let's show them how wonderful it is being one of God's kids, let's show them how wonderful God's word is, and let's be as good a model as we can with God's grace, of acceptance, love, care and compassion!
Now here's ‘Z'. She wants to go on, she wants to change but she's got a history of failure. She's tried and tried working at different areas of her life but she seems stuck. Frankly she's given up. She's resigned herself to being like she is for the rest of her life. Awkward, unloved and a nuisance. That's how she sees it, and the church reinforces it, because she is awkward, unlovely and a nuisance. So what is the answer? That we love her and accept her like she is until, in the environment of Jesus' love through us, she catches a glimmer of hope again and the word impacts her and she's released to go on.
In Book One, I gave a chapter over to how secure Peter must have felt in Jesus' presence. The picture of Peter that comes over in the Gospels could, not unfairly, be described at least as awkward and a nuisance. He's the classic example of the guy who only opens his mouth to change feet – and yet Jesus loved him! And the result of that love? He became a great leader!
Why is ‘Z' still like this? Possibly because she's been focusing on the negative areas of her life, maybe she's been doing it in her own strength, maybe she hasn't fully surrendered to Jesus – oh, the list of things we use as “assessment criteria” is endless and when we do that, we're often joining her in the boat of “A,B,C Religion.” You don't know what that is? It's religion that is reduced to nice easy principles or rules, a bit like a machine – so we don't really need God! You know the sort of thing: if you do A and then B, then C will follow. Who needs God with a mechanical religion?
But that's exactly what it isn't! This faith thing of ours is all about relationship with God, about interacting with Him as a person, it's all about loving Him and loving one another. The 'rules' are only there as helpful backup.
Any relationship that I have with my wife or my children isn't based upon rules. I don't say to my wife, “I'll love you if you…”. I just do, regardless of what she does. The same is true of my children. Yes, we can be hurt when our children disregard us, do their own thing and even go the wrong way against our advice, but we don't stop loving them because they are doing that.
If when my children were teenagers we had a rule about being in by a certain time in the evening, our love wasn't conditional on that. The rule was an expression of our love to protect them, but we didn't love them any the less if they broke the rule. Upset? Yes! Hurt? Yes! Not loving them? Definitely not!
So somehow we've got to convince ‘Z' by our constant acceptance, love, care and compassion, that our love for her (and God's) is not dependent on her keeping ‘our' church rules. When she's able to grasp that, change will come. Suddenly the areas of failure will no longer be a problem because the positive sides of her will blossom. As God shares His heart with her more and more, through us, she'll start to see her potential and believe the possibility of what God has made her to be, and she'll start reaching for it.
4.5 Breaking the Barriers of Isolation
So what have we got in all the cases we've considered so far in this chapter? We've got a lot of people who, in reality, are so often separated off from the main body because of their past or their present foibles. There are people who are isolated because things in their past impinge on their present and make them less than whole people. There are people with character defects who are unable to realise God's love and relate to others. And there are the rest of us who give way to the temptation to hold them at arms length and leave them in the prison in which they find themselves.
Christians are made for ‘fellowship' which is that Greek word koinonia which means communion or sharing in common, which is that closeness that you find when you suddenly encounter a Christian on the other side of the world. But in each of the cases we've considered, fellowship is missing because we hold the person at arms length, we allow something to act as a wall between us.
Yes, it's usually as much in them as it is in us, but until we're willing to lift the wall away by our total acceptance, they won't be willing to allow it to be removed either. All the time while God is wanting to minister into their lives and bring change, we allow the enemy to thwart His will, and they remain unchanged – and we're remaining unchanged!
The truth very often is that people remain the problem they are because we have not created the environment of love through which Jesus can reach to touch and change them. Whereas we simply saw them as the problem, we are actually part of it ourselves - and never realised it!
One of the results of isolation is that it makes us prone to wrong thinking about other people. The enemy sows thoughts that are lies in our minds and we allow them to settle there and grow. When we aren't close to someone it is so easy to misunderstand them. It's only when we meet with them, talk and share together that we come to understand and realise that they are nothing like we thought. It is so easy to fall into the temptation of judging people - when we don't know them!
The verse at the start of this chapter is pertinent to this subject: Bear with each other. Some versions say forbearing one another, or enduring one another. In Eph 4:2 Paul said the same thing: bearing with one another in love , which has a sense of “Hang on in with one another, despite the temptation to give up on each other. Stick with one another.”
It doesn't matter what they look like, what they sound like. It doesn't matter what problems they appear to have, what their background is, how fast or slowly they change – they still have the same needs, to be loved and accepted, by Jesus in you.
4.6 And so?
We'll continue considering relationships in the next chapter but for now let's pick up on the things we've considered in this one.
Have I wrongly assessed and shied away from people in my church because:
they didn't live up to my expectations of what they ought to be like by
they didn't live up to my expectations of how fast I thought they ought to
What can I do to love and accept these people and to show my love and friendship?
Again, these are very real questions about the basics of relationships in our church which, if we are to progress and create a genuinely secure church, we need to honestly work through.