Monday, March 19, 2018

Third Row from the Back

You’ve all met Joe, right?

Joe’s been coming to your church forever. He and his wife sit at the end of the third row from the back, a holdover from when their kids were small and he or Cheryl might have had occasion to escort one or the other out discreetly mid-service.

It’s fifteen years later now; the boy is off to college and the daughter is about to be. And Joe and Cheryl still sit in the third row from the back.

More importantly, to all appearances fifteen years have changed nothing substantial in Joe’s relationship with the Lord, and definitely nothing about how he relates to the Lord’s people.

Shmoozing Over Coffee

Oh, he’s amiable enough. Nothing to dislike about Joe on a social level. Over coffee downstairs between meetings, he’s happy to chat about how work is going or whether the Yankees will be able to field a winner this season. But try to dig down into what he’s enjoying in his personal Bible reading or what he thought about this morning’s sermon and ... good luck. You’re not 100% sure how he does it, but the topic of conversation just changed again, and you never got a clear answer. None of the other elders have any better luck with him.

Cheryl is open as the day is long, happy in the Lord and involved in all sorts of church activities. In fifteen years you’ve watched her go from tentative acceptance of her husband’s choice of church to enthusiastic participation and increasing understanding of scripture, to the point where her Sunday School class gets uniformly positive reviews from your own daughter. She’s the first to witness to a new neighbor, first to notice when somebody’s down, and first to the hospital to visit when someone has a crisis.

Yet Joe is just ... there — smiling, chatting, saying little of substance, and nothing that would give you a reading on his personal needs, interests or spiritual state.

Our churches are full of Joes.

Penny-Diagnosing Joe

Some Joes are probably unsaved. It’s difficult to grow in Christ if you don’t actually know him, and it’s probably easier to get along at home with a Christian wife if you play her game a bit.

Other Joes have let work and family life distract them to the point that they have never really grown in the Lord, and are sufficiently self-conscious about their relative lack of knowledge about the things of God that they’d rather not get into it with you. They are not so much immoral as simply unprofitable. They would say they believe what the Bible says, and probably intend to do more to really live it out at some point, but that point never seems to come.

Still other Joes are currently compromised by secret sins. A year from now, to nobody’s shock but (maybe) Cheryl’s, one or two of those Joes will suddenly disappear from church, and you’ll later hear rumors of an online affair or a drinking problem that turned out to be more serious than anyone thought. The reason you couldn’t get below the surface in your conversations with Joe is that you were never talking to the real Joe at all.

A very significant number of Joes are almost surely saved, but have been seriously hurt by their fellow believers. I’ve met a few. You sometimes hear hints from family members who don’t know the real story and don’t want to speak out of turn, but think it had something to do with something that was said or done to them years ago by another Christian.

In-Church Defilement and Destruction

Now, apparent spiritual inertia is not a guy thing. The story could just as easily be the other way around. Joe might be going-on gangbusters for the Lord while Cheryl dozes beside him in the pew. We are all susceptible to being hurt, though some of us display our injuries more readily than others.

But that leads me to a couple of relevant warnings we find in the New Testament:
“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.”

“By your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.”
Defilement. Destruction. Our negative personal, social and spiritual interactions as believers may have serious, long-term consequences. The fact that the NT writers see fit to remind their readers about them tells us they are a genuine danger within the Body of Christ, even a common one.

Invisibly Defiled

But not all defilement is instantly obvious: “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.” Likewise, the consequences of other people’s sins against us are not always instantly obvious. Defilement can exist in places you can’t see it easily: in the intellect, the conscience and in the memory.

When Jesus was led from the house of Caiaphas to the Praetorium, those who took him there scrupulously avoided going inside so that they could eat the Passover. They were trying to avoid defilement. The irony, of course, is that Pilate’s presence could not have defiled them, and if it did, nobody would have known anyway. Their actual defilement was of another sort entirely, far more toxic than any “Gentile contamination”. The lesson, perhaps, is that the things that defile us may be all-too-invisible to both us and to those who observe us.

Invisibly Destroyed

Destruction too, is very much in the eye of the beholder, which is to say it may not be obvious to the spiritually inattentive.

In scripture, a ruptured wineskin is said to be “destroyed”, though, depending on the size and shape of the leak, it might still have looked like all the other wineskins. It would only be evident that a seam had given way once you tried to use the broken wineskin for its intended purpose, which may be one very practical reason Joe doesn’t let himself get too involved in your church.

Similarly, the disciples cried to the Lord, “We perish” (literally, “we are in the process of being destroyed”), even though nothing had actually happened to them yet except giving in to their fears (the Lord was fast asleep in the same boat, after all, so it seems unlikely he was under two and a half feet of water at the time). Still, until the Lord calmed the seas around them, those disciples sure weren’t good for much. They were paralyzed by what they expected to happen to them. Your friend Joe may be equally immobilized by anticipating that you will one day let him down like others have, or that your apparent interest in him is not genuine.

Saving the Destroyed

Luke records, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” The word “lost” there is literally “destroyed”, the very same word as in 1 Corinthians 8:11.

That’s interesting. It seems the Lord’s emphasis in that passage is less on the effects of wandering on the wanderer than it is on his own purpose in a lost world: to restore to their Rightful Owner possessions that, until he salvaged them, were worthless, ruined and of no conceivable value.

The other obvious takeaway from Luke is that, like defilement, “destruction” need not be permanent. Assuming Joe has genuinely been salvaged in the first place, knowing that might encourage him to make God’s investment in him mean something more in this all-too-short lifetime.

Consider that one a bit … whether you happen to be a bit of a Joe yourself, or whether you are just looking semi-critically at one.

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