barbell-vs-dumbbellAn important step in my faith life came when I learned to interpret personal opponents as gifts from God. Rather than people who merely raised my blood pressure, they became the path by which God was working to make me holy—more like Christ.

Midway through my pastorate in Washington, we had seen solid progress. The congregation began to recognize that the church was changing from a politically-driven, pastor-centered body to a vision-driven, mission-centered one. Most embraced the changes, but a small group of the old guard grew alarmed at my influence. One described me as a “threat.” Another—until that time someone I regarded as a close friend—began to pressure me to leave. It was a painful period.

I honestly don’t know when I began to regard the struggle as God’s gift. At the time, I only knew that I needed to pastor the whole church, not just my friends. So when I could not longer reason with my opponents, I prayed for them. And God grew in me a spirit of forbearance.

A couple years later, still in Washington, I encountered a far savvier and more aggressive opponent in Presbytery. Once again I could hear God urging me not to let anger and fear prevail. Once again God called me to pray instead of hate. Because I had responded with grace to a hard situation before, I was ready to respond with grace to a harder situation then.

It was as though God had decided that I should learn to endure hostility graciously, but I could only progress in small steps. So he put a little weight on the barbell. When I had grown a little more able to endure and still be faithful, he added a little more weight. Just as a weightlifter’s body grows stronger with the right amount of added stress, my soul grew stronger in love.

A regular message on social media suggests we should purge our lives of unpleasant people. One representative meme reads: “Lift is too short to spend the time with the people who suck happiness out of you.” Such a word makes intuitive sense to people who can custom-tailor their circle of friends. It is the logical end of an individualistic, mobile society.[1]

But it is not the way of Jesus. Jesus remained in relationship with people he knew were going to betray and abandon him (Matt. 26:20-25, 31-35), all the way “to the end” (John 13:1). Jesus prayed forgiveness upon people who had plotted to wipe him out (Luke 23:34).

We might be less foolish than the blogosphere. But I often hear the sentiment that strife within the church is a distraction from the work of God among us. We lament that we cannot get on with the call of God upon our church, upon our Presbytery, upon our lives—whatever it may be—because we are snarled up in the tangles of interpersonal and institutional hostilities.

This is true, to some extent. We do impair our effectiveness for the Gospel when we descend into power struggles. But we are also called to trust God to work all things for our good (Rom. 8).

What if God wants to use the strife to work a good work among us? Might I ask you to rethink these moments of conflict, and the people surrounding them, not as sad interruptions in the life of discipleship, but as the very opportunities that God gives us to grow stronger in sacrificial, steadfast love?

Throughout the Bible, God brings good through others’ evil. Joseph’s brothers wanted to get rid of him, but God used their sin for Joseph’s success and to save many people from starvation (Gen. 50:20). Pharaoh’s stubbornness was the very means by which God showed the Israelites his glory (Ex. 7:3). When King Balak hired Balaam to curse the Israelites, God arranged to bless them instead (Num. 22-24). And so on.

Because God brings good from such situations, Jesus commands us to love our enemies, “that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45). He modeled such love even for traitors like Judas and Peter.  

So I would invite you into a spiritual exercise. Bring to mind a particularly difficult person in your church. Perhaps you worship alongside a horrible boss. Or you and your fellow elders face an alliance dead-set against Session’s leadership. Or you are the pastor, and an elder just knows you must leave.

Don’t limit your thoughts to well-meaning people who respectfully but vigorously disagree. Yes, such people fill the church. But the church also contains people who behave badly, sometimes with downright malice.

Once you have that person or situation in mind: Consider that God may have given those people to you as a gift, to make you more like Christ. Their behavior may be evil, but we trust in a God who uses such moments for our growth—and ultimately our joy.

With such a perspective, even the ugliest brawl in church (or Presbytery) might be a moment of redemption, and even hope, when we choose to love each other like Jesus did.

 

[1] For this column, we need to leave aside the question of what behaviors constitute genuine abuse and how believers should respond. That is far beyond the space available here.