I have an acquaintance who doesn’t seem to receive much joy from his faith. To watch his unhappiness truly distresses me. I see a defensive and confused soul. I don’t want to judge him; merely understand his situation objectively, and see if there might be some way for me to help him. His life might be an example to us all, but as a cautionary tale
As I have thought and prayed for him, I have understood some things which I need to apply to my own life, and I only share them because I think these things contain some universal truths.
To describe him: he is basically a kind, well-meaning person, but he has very strong opinions and expresses them so intensely that he makes others uncomfortable. He comes across as bombastic and self-righteous ~ the very epitome of “pompous”. People are polite, but only a few have the courage to stay long in his presence. He is getting older now, and he finds that he is lonely, but he has no idea why he has few friends.
He considers himself to be a devoted Christian. I would never question this, but his faith doesn’t give him much comfort. He is relatively knowledgeable in the Word, and is puzzled as to why he has never been approached to be put into positions of spiritual authority. He doesn’t recognize that head knowledge is best tempered by grace and humility.
As I pray for him, I try to figure out what he believes which makes his interpretation of grace so different from my own understanding. His interpretation of the Gospel seems to run along very legalistic lines. For him, the life in Christ is always about what you do, what is “right”, and judging people who don’t see things exactly as he does. Life is always black or white; there are no shades of grey that can invoke compassion. He batters those around him with scripture. He has alienated some and, because of his example, reinforced their doubts and sabotaged their own search for faith. Still, he justifies his point of view, and never seems to question if, at any point, he might have been more loving.
He wanders from church to church, looking for some place where things are done exactly to his liking, and never finding it. He cannot compromise or recognize that no church, populated by diverse people, is going to be perfect, and that you may have to give up some preferences in favor of the other good things which are present. In one church he might not like the choir; they sing too much modern music, and he prefers the old anthems. In another church, he may not like the minister’s preaching style; or he may disagree with one or more sermons. In another church he may feel that his comments and suggestions are not received with the gratitude and immediate compliance that he feels they deserve. Once he finds a “flaw”, he leaves. He must be right, and he is never happy for long.
All of this makes me wonder about his understanding of God’s love and how we are to go about reflecting it in the world. He is full of anger and contempt for those who “don’t care” as much as he does about these things. Instead of eventually wondering humbly if the difficulty may be in him, he adamantly assumes that he is right and continues telling others how things ought to be.
As I think about his situation, it occurs to me that he really doesn’t understand the spirit of grace. He doesn’t seem to reflect the gentleness and patience which demonstrate a heart at peace with God, or embrace the scriptures which teach us to love one another. He seems oblivious to the concepts of forgiveness or humility or having a servant’s heart. I can’t help but remember the Lord’s words after He has been teaching about forgiveness and humility and turning the other cheek: “How is it that you call me Lord, Lord, and yet do not what I ask of you?”
I wish I found my friend’s attitude to be unusual. However, I know a number of folks whose understanding is very similar to his, and whose faith doesn’t seem to help them find compassion toward others. My heart is heavy when I think of them. Am I judging them as they judge others? I need to be very careful here. What is judgment and what is discernment, and how do I handle what I see? I suspect it is not my job to confront them, but the work of the Holy Spirit to awaken their understanding. All I can do is continue to care about them, and pray.
I wish we could all understand that the message of the Gospel is about forgiveness; about love; about peace. It is about recognizing our own inability to be holy, and about needing Someone to intervene for us with the Father. It is about accepting the fact that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; that we have no claim of worth in ourselves, but that all our worth is found in Him. It is about the pure grace of God, Who sees our need and Who provides a way for us to be reconciled to Him in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
How can we truly understand that and not be humbled? How can we understand that and not respond with a desire to seek His will so that we can be found faithful and obedient recipients of His love?
It may be because we are never completely free of our old nature until we have been promoted to Glory. On this earth, if we are honest, we will always struggle with that old nature. Our Adamic sin may be forgiven, but the self remains a heavy millstone around our necks which chokes us and keeps us from attaining the perfect submission of Christ.
We need to be aware of our inner lives, and keep the lines of communication between ourselves and God open. One of the most difficult skills of the inner life is in learning to be truthful to ourselves about what we really feel and believe. If we look inward honestly, we may be shocked to realize that even though we may have known Christ a long time, we still find feelings and thoughts which may not honor Him. We recognize anger and bitterness still tucked away in hidden places and which may surface at totally inappropriate times. We find feelings of resentment, or jealousy, or echoes of the eternal cry, “What about ME!”.
Ego insinuates itself into countless situations and we don’t want to acknowledge it. We don’t want to accept the fact that we might be wrong; that we are not as perfect as we would like to think. So, we justify our actions and thoughts with excuses. We deny. We twist things around in our minds so that we come out looking good. Instead of recognizing that we are still sinning and asking the Lord for forgiveness in grief and repentance, we blot out all those negative things and blissfully coast along, telling ourselves that we are just fine. Self still corrupts, and we need, instead, to let ourselves be filled with all the fullness of God, in love and grace.
I have learned that I am never “finished”. I will be in process as long as I live; there are always deeper truths to be learned about the nature of God and the nature of man and the huge gulf between us ~ lovingly bridged by Christ at terrible cost. On earth I will never fully understand the depth and height and fullness of the love of God. I can never afford to be complacent if I am really conscientious about wanting to follow Him. I can’t judge others; I am too vulnerable myself.
I am not sure what I can do to help my friend. I am pretty sure that confrontation wouldn’t help. I do think that I could make myself more available to him in his loneliness. That will mean I must be prepared to guard my tongue. I will need to remember to draw on the strength of the Lord to be patient, and to keep my mind on being kind and not self-defensive when he attacks. I know that I need to pray for both of us to practice the gentleness of grace.
Above all, I pray that I may exercise love and remember that I am no better than my friend. I have my own blind spots to which others may be ministering. That is part of what makes us the family of God; the willingness to love one another and pray for one another, even if it may be difficult. May God grant us all His grace as we go about the business of demonstrating that we love Him by loving one another.