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Monday, April 11, 2005

When the Gospel Works

When was the last time you got a phone call from a friend, weeping because she hurt you? That happened to me this weekend when an old friend named Lydia called to apologize.

You see, I had spoken with her earlier in the day, and some of the things she said really cut me. Now, she didn't mean to do that - she didn't even know they had that effect. So it wasn't her fault; if anything, it was probably mine. I tend to be pretty open around friends, especially in regards to my struggles. And that's usually a good thing, but the problem is when you open your heart up to others, you almost always end up getting burnt sooner or later.

In this case, I said one thing, she heard another, and we both ended up speaking past one another with very painful results. And I took it personally because I turned to a friend for consolation and felt like I got attacked instead.

Now this type of thing happens all the time in relationships, but it seems particularly frequent in the church. I think there are two reasons for this: a) people in the church are generally needy (they realize they don't have it all together), b) people in the church are generally struggling with their sin (after all, Jesus came to call sinners, not the righteous).

Put those two things together - weakness and sin - and you get what a pastor friend of mine calls "the plumbing." Its all the crap that goes on in the church - the politics, the broken relationships, the personal name it, the church has got it. And the church is often judged and rejected precisely on this account. Sin tends to make itself a public thing.

What we often fail to see, however, are the many places where the church actually works - where sinners saved by God's grace actually overcome their sin, where God restores relationships. We don't see it, because many of the triumphs happen behind closed doors, out of the public eye. If I wasn't sharing this right now, you would never, ever know about it. You might never see how God moved to restore this relationship.

You see, when Lydia's words cut me, I had two choices:
1. "absorb the blow" and pretend like nothing ever happened
2. tell her how I felt and risk further misunderstanding and hurt

Most of us tend to opt for the former, because it's less risky. When we get hurt, the last thing we want to do is go back for more. So we pull back, we protect ourselves, we put up a shell around us and make mental notes not to say certain things around certain people. And when we do that, we actually kill relationship with those around us because we begin living as if the only way they will accept is if I conform to a certain standard.

Yesterday, I risked a lot. I emailed Lydia and said, "hey, you need to know that some of the things you said really hurt; I'm not asking you to do anything about it, I just want you to know how it made me feel." And I really didn't know what to expect.

What I got completely surprised me - within minutes of reading my email, she was on the phone in tears because she had hurt me. She knew she hadn't meant to, and I knew it too, but the fact of the matter is that it did hurt (mostly because of my own sin) - and here she was, dropping everything, calling to apologize and reaffirm her friendship for me.

I probably won't remember the specific words she spoke in that conversation. But I will never forget the message conveyed in her actions, tears, and tone. She was my friend first and foremost - she was FOR me!

And that, my friends, is the gospel at work in the lives of believers. We screw up, we hurt one another, but there is always forgiveness and restoration when we preach the gospel to ourselves and care enough to be honest with one another - to repent when we are wrong, to forgive when we have been wronged. And the beautiful thing is that when a relationship is restored, it doesn't just return to the same place it was before - it's always deepened and strengthened.

So that's my thought for this Monday morning - the gospel really does work. I see it in my life; I see it in Lydia's. And God is growing us both, using these experiences to mature us in Christ and help us to better love those around us.


At 10:55 AM, April 11, 2005, Blogger Charles said...

I hate to be a party pooper, but why was it the Gospel at work here? Meaning, non-believers love their friends like this too. I know that I do. So what is the difference between when it happens with two Christians and when it happens with others?

At 11:17 AM, April 11, 2005, Blogger rs said...

Charles, there's this thing that the Bible talks about called 'common grace.' Basically it is summed up in the statement that Jesus made, "For He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."

The point is that God does stuff in his world that also bestows grace on those who don't follow Jesus. Love is a perfect example. Why can people who don't follow Jesus love? Because God has given this good gift to all men out of his abundant grace. So, there are certain benefits of just being human that all men enjoy. However, the difference is that common grace is not enough to make a person acceptable to God.

I think that the desire to restore relationships is an aspect of common grace. But I would also question whether unbelievers truly repent in the way Christian described. What Christian is saying is that Lydia was broken by the fact that she had sinned against Christian. People who don't have this framework are broken by the fact that the other person is mad at them and may no longer give them what they need from the relationship. The reason the Gospel is so important here, is that Christians do the same the Gospel is necessary so that we repent and restore the relationship for the right reasons--love for the person and a distaste for the fact that our sin hurt them. That's my 2 cents.

At 11:39 AM, April 11, 2005, Blogger Christian said...

In addition to what Ryan said, I would add this: I don't think non-believers experience relationship the same way that Christians do, and it has nothing to do with "us" (ie. in and of ourselves), and everything to do with how Christ changes us.

Theologically, Scripture says that when we are unbelievers we are fundamentally enslaved to ourselves and to our sin - people in this condition cannot experience fullness of relationship, either with God or with other people.

Now practically speaking, someone will say "Hey, you Xians don't have a corner on the relationship market - look at your divorce statistics, they're identical w/ secular culture." I think there is some truth to that in the sense that Christians aren't perfect; we still sin just like everyone else.

However, I will also say that as I consider all the people I've ever known with "deep, meaningful relationships," Christians win hands down. I know lots of Christians whose relationships are just as messed up (or worse) than unbelievers. But I've never met any unbelievers whose depth of relationship matches what I have seen in dozens of Christian relationships.

So what I am saying here is that Christians experience a greater capacity for relationship because of how Christ changes them.

This is similar to my comments on community from last week - an unbeliever can certainly get a taste of what real relationship is like (that's God's common grace which extends to all), but an unbeliever can never fully, truly experience community the way a Christian can - because part of the relationship is Christ.

Being a Christian doesn't guarantee you are going to experience the fullness of that relationship here and now (although it does give you the potential for it). But being a non-Christian guarantees you can't fully experience it (although God graciously allows unbelievers a fore-taste).

Not sure if that makes sense or not...

At 1:52 PM, April 11, 2005, Blogger Christian said...

One more thought - here's an analogy that might be helpful.

Let's say all you ever did when you came over to our house was smell Marilyn's cooking. You could probably still enjoy it, but no matter how much you savored the scents, you still wouldn't be getting the full experience.

Becoming a Christian makes it possible to actually partake in relationships that you can't otherwise apart from Christ.

The person who isn't a Christian can't experience that. The person who IS a Christian won't necessarily experience that - but they now have the capacity to do so in Christ.

At 3:01 PM, April 11, 2005, Blogger Charles said...

Ryan: You explained it well. Although, I don’t agree with what you said here:

People who don't have this framework are broken by the fact that the other person is mad at them and may no longer give them what they need from the relationship.

I had a situation where my friendship with someone was at it’s best, and to this day, it only gets better every day. In saying that, I did some soul searching and thinking about our relationship, and it deeply distressed me that I found out that I wronged him. He didn’t say, “Hey, you wronged me.” I said, “Hey, I’ve been thinking, and I wronged you. I was selfish and not there for you when I needed to be.” That wasn’t out of me not liking him being mad at me, or any of that stuff. He wasn’t. It was out of love.

Christian: I think that what you said was in line with what you believe. However, how can you truly compare relationships among Christians verses those among non-believers? I mean how many non-believers are you friends with besides me? How can you truly make a fair assessment of how deeply non-believers love, when you have your own biases? Meaning, from your world view, by definition, if the relationship is not amongst Christians, then it is not as deep as it should be. Could it be possible that people could love this way, and even taste the food, but because of your view, you couldn’t see me chowing down on deep dish in your kitchen while you were off in your world smoking a cigar?

At 3:28 PM, April 11, 2005, Blogger Christian said...

Charles: that's a fair question. The answer is, "I'm 35 years old, and having grown up, lived, and worked in a world that is predominantly secular, most of the people I've known have been non-Xians."

Now we could turn the question around and ask you how many Christians you know, but that actually wouldn't be completely fair because no matter how many of them you did know, you can't actually experience the difference that Christ makes without becoming a Christian.

That said, the best way to see if you can see a difference is going to be to hang around Christians and even more importantly - spend time interacting w/ the Jesus of the Bible.

At the end of the day, though, Christian faith will have nothing to offer you if you don't first see your need. Jesus was very clear - he came to call needy people.

Interestingly, most unbelievers I talk to actually recognize they are in need of something (so if you don't think you need anything, then you are actually putting yourself in a pretty exclusive category).

At 5:49 PM, April 11, 2005, Blogger Charles said...

Christian: I kind of think that you totally missed the point. Here is what you said in your first comment:

However, I will also say that as I consider all the people I've ever known with "deep, meaningful relationships," Christians win hands down.

My point is that your own Bias would not let you see otherwise. If you look at life through the eyes of “the Bible says Christian relationships are deeper”, then this becomes true because you have defined it as such. Any counter example that you would have, you would shoot down with, “well, the Gospel says…” That sounds pretty circular to me. Meaning, that you proved your statement to be true by defining it in such a way that it couldn’t be false.

Now, turning it back on me. Yes, you are right. My biases prohibit me from seeing it your way. And my biases, in the past, have prevented me from getting to know Christians better. So, I am admitting the fact that my biases cannot cause me to make a declarative statement the way that you did. I just asked, couldn’t it be possible that you are wrong?

At 7:11 PM, April 11, 2005, Blogger Christian said...

I'm not sure how to answer you Charles - because I am a Christian, you can always write off my comments as "Christian bias".

In quote you referenced I was speaking based on my experience: based on all the people I've ever known (consisting of lots more unbelievers than believers), the deepest relationships I've ever seen are all among believers. That's my experience. I've never seen a single unbelieving relationship where I thought "wow, what do they have that Xian's don't". Not once.

Now in terms of "can I possibly be wrong" - sure, I could be wrong personally. But I'm placing most of my confidence in Scripture, a lot less in my own personal experience.

At the heart of it, we're getting back to an issue that I raised in So We Think We're Good - what's our basis for trusting ourselves (especially when its pretty obvious that we are biased in our own interest). Likewise, what's out basis for distrusting Scripture (especially when it's pretty obvious in pointing out our biases).

What I'm basically saying is because I don't trust myself, I will trust Scripture instead (and then what I discover by doing that is that the world makes a whole lot of sense when I do that).

One last thing - I really don't want this to degenerate into a debate here, or to feel like I'm trying to prove you wrong. So if you'd prefer I'd be more than happy to continue this offline...

At 9:32 AM, April 12, 2005, Blogger Charles said...

Nope. I liked your explanation, and I liked you other comments, and I think that we are on the same page now.


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