Just me this week, and therefore a shorter, punchier edition of Two Ways News in which I ponder one of the ongoing problems of the Christian life—other Christians.
I hope you find it encouraging.
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The saints in whom is all my annoyance
I was talking to an old friend who had stopped going to church, who in fact had not been going to church for quite a few years.
“What happened?” I asked him.
He paused and said, “Well let me put it this way. I made the mistake of working for a church organization.”
A familiar story unfolded of misunderstandings, clashes of expectations, poor behaviour (on both sides), and the prioritizing of the needs of the organization over the treatment of the person. It occurred to me again that one of the main challenges of the Christian life is simply other Christians.
It’s not as if my friend was without blame. I suspect his faith was never as solid as it appeared. But he joined the worryingly long list of people I know who were helped out of the Christian life by other Christians.
This saddens us, but it shouldn’t surprise us. The New Testament constantly leads us to expect these sorts of challenges within our churches.
I can think of three varieties of problem.
The first is the unavoidable danger of infiltration by wolves—people who appear to be Christian, who may even believe themselves to be Christian (who knows?), but who worm their way into families and churches, and sow chaos and destruction (e.g. Acts 20; Titus 2 Tim 3). These people are wreckers. We need to watch out for them.
Another is the appointment to leadership of Christians who are genuine believers but should not be in leadership; people who lack the conviction, character or ability to shepherd God’s flock—the kind of people that 1 Timothy 3 is designed to exclude. Narcissists, bullies, attention-seekers, empire-builders, and so on. These sorts of leaders can also wreak havoc in people’s Christian lives.
But my friend’s story is an example of the third and perhaps most common problem—the simple fact that Christians continue to be sinners, and hurt one another. I know the organization he worked for, and the people who run it. They are not wolves or narcissistic bullies. But it seems likely that they handled things poorly, and I don’t think my friend reacted in a godly way either.
Christians are people, and people are the worst. Think how often the New Testament authors urge their readers not to fight over stupid things, not to take advantage of one another, not to lie to another, not to show favouritism, not to wrong one another—but instead to forgive and forebear, to seek reconciliation, and to show compassion and consideration.
If you’re the kind of person who gets annoyed or offended easily, then other Christians give you plenty of material to work with.
For my part, I don’t think I’m an especially irritable person, but I’ve had to repent of the overly-critical postmortems that I conduct in the car on the way home from church. If I’m in the mood, there’s no end of things to find fault with or be annoyed about. (If only my antennae were as finely tuned to pick up the faults and annoyances and short-comings in my life; to extract the log from my own eye, as someone once put it.)
We should expect other Christians to be annoying, just as we should realize that we are annoying to them. We should expect inconsistency and hypocrisy. We should expect pride. We should expect people to be as blind to their own short-comings as we are to ours. We should expect to be offended and hurt.
This extends to convictions and teaching. We should expect to be frustrated by good evangelical brothers sometimes believing and teaching things that are inconsistent with their evangelical faith. And we must acknowledge that we are prone to that inconsistency as well.
The example that sticks out in my mind is of evangelical friends who downplay or side-step the Bible’s teaching about men and women, and their ordered roles in the home and the church. I don’t think these friends have ceased to be Bible-believing evangelical Christians—but they are acting inconsistently with their profession at this point, as I no doubt do in other ways.
Do you sometimes find that the hardest thing about being a Christian is the sin-twisted, inconsistent, annoying presence of other Christians?
If so, then perhaps you also need to hear the two encouraging and challenging words that God brought to me last Monday.
I’m currently using the Book of Common Prayer to structure my morning prayer times, and on this particular morning I came to this prayer, the collect for the third Sunday after Easter:
Almighty God, who shewest to them that be in error the light of thy truth, to the intent that they may return into the way of righteousness: Grant unto all them that are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion, that they may eschew those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
My response to the annoying inconsistency of other Christians should be to pray for them. All Christians—yes, even me—say or do things that are ‘contrary to their profession’, and we all need God to open our eyes to our faults, and to direct us into doing ‘all such things as are agreeable’ to our profession of Christ.
Do not be anxious, but pray, it says in Philippians.
In the same vein, we could say: do not be annoyed or irritated or offended, but pray. Pray for God’s light to shine in all of our hearts, that we might see where we are at fault and repent. (And it’s hard to stay annoyed with someone if you are praying for them.)
Just to ram the point home, God’s providence also took me to Psalm 16 that morning, where I read these verses:
I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”
As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.
The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips. (Psalm 16:1-3)
“The saints, the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight”—is that how I think about other Christians? The brilliant ones, the ones who do not run after other gods but who have been run after by God, and washed and saved and set apart by him as one of his holy and precious people?
If I don’t, then here is yet another area in which I am living ‘contrary to my profession’.
You can’t be one of the saints and not delight in the saints—as the psalmist does. As God himself does.
When the light of faith dawns in our hearts, we see ourselves and other Christians for who we really are. Yes we are all annoying sinful people who continue to offend not just each other but the God who has saved us.
But—we are the annoying sinful people that God has graciously redeemed and regenerated and set apart for himself.
God delights in his saints; so should we.
As always, we’d love to hear your questions and comments about this week’s edition—however in this case, perhaps not a catalogue of the various ways in which other Christians have annoyed or hurt you or let you down, but stories of the excellence of the saints and how you’ve come to appreciate them.
Just hit reply to this email, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.