Wednesday, October 26, 2022

One Small Amendment

My father used to stress the importance of never looking at our fellow believers without seeing them as Christ has remade them, as new creatures in him. I watched him live this out in his dealings with Christians in churches all over the province over a period of decades, more than a few of whom I would happily have written off.

Dad never would.

Boring, Tedious and Annoying

Doug Wilson takes up this theme in a recent post, writing that the gospel ought to change the way we look at other Christians:

“If we know the gospel, then we have to look at the whole world differently. Paul absolutely refused to look at anyone in the old way anymore, and this was because he could not look at Christ in the old way anymore — now that Christ had risen. C.S. Lewis once put his finger on the direct implication of this:

‘It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.’ (The Weight of Glory)

When you are dealing with someone who is being tedious, meditate on the glory that is coming for them, and which will inexorably swallow them up. How can you believe that so-and-so is boring, or tedious, or annoying? Don’t you believe Christ rose? And remember, such an exercise is the very best way for you to mortify the ways in which you are being tedious.”

Now, far be it from me to miss Doug’s point or to minimize the importance of what he’s teaching here. That other believers are now “in Christ” and therefore worthy objects of our love, respect and honor is a hugely significant matter. Understanding this truth and acting in light of it is part of our testimony to the world. This was the meaning of the “holy kiss” and why both Paul and Peter mention it so often in the New Testament: the act singled out a fellow believer from the crowd of worldlings around him and showed that he (or she) was uniquely worthy of attention; this across all cultural, racial, political and economic boundaries. It must have been quite shocking and even potentially offensive to outsiders when performed between a rich Jew and a poor Gentile, or between master and slave. It was an indiscriminate act to be applied both to fellow believers one liked and fellow believers one really … well … didn’t.

So let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. But I would like to make one small amendment to what Doug is teaching here.

Standing and State

“How can you believe that so-and-so is boring, or tedious, or annoying?” he asks. “Don’t you believe Christ rose?” Yes, he surely did. We must never forget it. But the question of whether a fellow believer is boring, tedious, annoying or outright sinful in other ways is not settled by his status in Christ. It may well be that so-and-so IS genuinely boring, tedious and annoying in the present moment, not just to me but to his neighbors, his co-workers and his wife. That needs to change, for his sake, for theirs and for the Lord’s. Worse, he may be a drunk or an adulterer who is truly saved but has gotten away from the Word in his conduct. He may be subject to temptations you and I have never encountered, and he may be in the habit of giving in to one or more of them.

Objective reality doesn’t disappear because we discover a very important theological truth, like the fact that this person is a new creation because he is in Christ. Grace does not consist in denying that the sinner is still sinful from time to time (and far too often!), but in loving him despite this, knowing that Christ is doing a work in him that will one day be complete, mature and perfect. Christian love does not require that we deny the obvious, but that we look beyond it and refuse to become discouraged when those we love who are in Christ are not becoming more like him as speedily and completely as we would like.

Reprove, Rebuke and Exhort

More importantly, it requires that we act on our observations about our brothers and sisters, especially those we make in the Holy Spirit by way of our own new understanding of the word of God.

Fellow believers have never called me boring, tedious or annoying. If they thought it, they kept it to themselves. But my brothers and sisters in Christ did not keep all their observations about my spiritual growth to themselves, for which I am immensely grateful, because they saw things about me I couldn’t see for myself. Like, for example, that I was immature and dragging my feet. In another instance, that I was excusing my own bad conduct by blaming others for theirs. In yet another, that I was making my own unrequited desires worse by talking about them all the time. Again, at one point a brother once accused me of overconfidence. He was not wrong. Another brother insinuated I was behaving jealously in a particular situation. Totally on the nose. Early in my Christian life, a fellow believer pointed out that the freedom I was enjoying in Christ in the way I was dressing and presenting myself made it inevitable I would stumble others. Then I met those others I would have stumbled, and realized he understood the dangers better than I did. In point of fact, I thought him more than a little annoying. He was also spot on.

Paul wrote to Timothy that scripture is profitable for reproof and correction. Then he told this younger man to “reprove, rebuke and exhort, with complete patience and teaching”. To Titus, he wrote that he should sharply rebuke the Christians to whom he had been sent, because their culture predisposed them to all kinds of unchristian conduct. Then he practiced what he preached by rebuking Peter to his face in Antioch in front of other believers. I would argue that he did so in love, not just for Peter, but for those present whose faith was in danger of being damaged by his inconsistency.

Bringing Out the Potential in Others

Paul wrote and did these things not because he had not yet learned the principle about which he would later write in 2 Corinthians, or because he had forgotten it, but because he remembered it very well indeed. The primary mechanism by which we become genuinely Christ-like in state as well as in standing is the abrasive of interacting with brothers and sisters in Christ who may come from different backgrounds and conduct themselves by different standards.

James points out that it is possible to read the word of God and walk away unaffected. We must not just be hearers who forget, but doers who act. I can refuse to apply the lessons of scripture to my own heart year after year, an ever-present danger for believers. But it’s a lot more difficult to avoid the truth when someone else spells it out for me in plain English.

Looking at others differently because they are now in Christ means more than just cutting them some slack because they are fellow travelers on the road to glory. It means seeing their potential in Christ and always striving to bring it out to greatest effect. And, yes, in doing so, may we be reminded to always first take the log out of our own eye in order to see more clearly to take the speck out of our brother’s.

Take it out. Not leave it there and pat ourselves on the back for our tolerance.

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