Saturday, November 5, 2011

Grace and Maturity in Community

In our relationships with friends, family, loved ones, and even strangers, we deal constantly with expectations and disappointments. People let us down, and differences surprise us. We get taken aback, and sometimes hurt or offended by what they say and do or fail to say and do. It's in these contexts that so many of us fall into the common trap of losing sight of the preciousness of life itself, and of relationships with those who are not like us.

There are so many different levels on which all of us can be offended or disappointed. Even in our small communities, connected by blood or connected by shared values, we can find disagreement among ourselves sometimes. We find varying worldviews and opinions even among people whose beliefs appear, at first glance, nearly identical.

I wonder what it is about us, especially for those of us who claim to be children of God, that feels we have the right and need to be so judgmental, and even to write people off. I have been written off before, and have known others who have, too, and though it is painful, it is more sad for Christians who make it an option to write others off.

It is tragic that the grace we have been shown at the Cross seems to make so little difference in our lives. I have seen people proclaim with their whole heart that they were committed to grace, truth, beauty, love, and kindness, and yet easily issue the nastiest of comments in vicious tones. As James says, these things ought not to be.

We are all entitled to make up our own minds about issues of Christian liberty. As Paul wrote, "Let everyone be convinced in his own mind." Everyone makes up his or her own mind about his or her beliefs and their application. We are all also are free to learn and grow without the stigmatism of having to reach up to others’ standards. Growth takes time, and even what we think of as “maturity” changes, and thus the goal of what a good, mature Christian experience looks like takes different shapes for us as we go through life.

I wonder why we are so quick to criticize those who hear the beat of a different drum. Why are we so disdainful of people who think differently than we do, or who are not yet convinced the way we are? Why does it feel so appropriate to write off those who choose to think differently from the group and the culture? Why are we so threatened by people who are not like we are?

If we want to be quick to judge others and write them off, especially over issues of Christian liberty, we should remember that there are many other Christians who will write us off for something as well. We all could make a list a mile long with issues and perspectives that make us unique and which the different Christian sub-cultures tend to focus on.  And the people who will write off those who are even slightly different are a dime a dozen. Does anyone out there want to be different than that?

What a beautiful choice it is to take the path of not getting offended at people who see things differently.  That does not mean that we make truth unimportant, or make all opinions equally valid, and it certainly does not mean we accept sinful mindsets.  But it does mean that grace prevails when differences arise, especially among fellow believers.

Grace and maturity in community make life more beautiful as a result, open up doors for appropriate compromise and dialogue, and give us the freedom to let people be different, yet still valuable to us. They let us ask God what paths He would have us travel, and give us the peace and patience to let others travel different roads without condemning or distancing ourselves from them. They keep misunderstandings from becoming arguments, and keep disagreements from becoming separations.

A long time ago I chose to embrace certain premises, which I know I don’t always live up to, but I’m aiming at them, and want to share them.

• No matter what differences arise between me and others, we cannot not lose sight of the fact that others' very existence is a precious miracle, and that they have infinite value to God. The very fact that they are alive, and that God has brought them across our path, is of profound importance. Writing off anyone, especially a believer, is essentially saying that they are worthless, when in reality, they are destined for glory, we will worship together at the feet of Jesus for eternity, and chances are that even in this life, what we think of as a disagreement will look completely different--whether years later or even sooner.

• We are all interpreting other people through our personal worldview perspective, which may be wrong or imbalanced even though it feels right, based on how we were raised by our families. We all have paradigms and filters that we can't understand.  Most of us do not even know what they really are, and many of us could not even get close to truly figuring them out even if we tried really hard, because they run so deep.  We are all faulty in various ways, and so are our filters and perceptions.

• Others have a worldview shaped by their upbringing and experiences that we do not know about and which may be vastly different from our own and from what we expected from them. That does not make it necessarily wrong, but different.  We are compelled to pursue an open dialogue, and ask others to share where they come from—not to dictate how they must change.

• Everyone has a culture. Family culture. National culture. Church culture. Personality uniquenesses. To miss the background someone is coming from, and to fail to see it as not only important, but valuable, is a sad, tunnel-visioned perspective.

• Everyone has an agenda. We do not know what anyone's agenda is, and an individual may not even be aware of it. We do not know their motivations, and whether those motivations are conscious or subconscious. Is it fear? Despair? Self-protection? Hope? Good will? A desire to bless others?  We do not easily know others' motivations, nor do we know if they themselves are aware, nor do we know how much common ground does or does not exist that can be used to build bridges.

• Everyone has a story. We do not know where they have been. We have not walked in their shoes. We do not know at what point in that story we have walked in. We may be entering their lives at a crucial point—and thus our responses to them may be more important than we realize. What we do or fail to do in those contexts may have extraordinary implications in their lives.

• Everyone wears a mask to some extent. That does not imply that we're all supposed to be trying to pry those masks off from others to get to the core of what they are about, but it does mean that we acknowledge that there is much more than meets the eye. The surface impression may ultimately prove to be extremely different from reality. If we make snap judgments, we will miss the boat.

• The “issue" is usually not the full issue, or even the issue at all. What we communicate to others is often just the surface of what we are really thinking or feeling. Maturity compels us to be careful what we say or allow ourselves to feel if we are not yet able to be fully open, and maturity also compels us to both take people at face value and yet realize that there is almost always more to be said to truly understand what they meant.

• There are three sides to every story and perspective: the two people telling the story or sharing their perspective, and reality. Maturity involves admitting that dynamic and choosing to pursue humility and communication, not to cut off relationships and write people off. We rarely have all the facts, and even when we may have all the facts, we rarely understand them and the full context in which they occurred.

• We are accountable before God for every word that comes from our mouths. We are responsible to have our speech be seasoned with salt, and to have the law of kindness be on our tongues.

• Relationships take work. People who want every friendship or relationship to be an instant perfect fit of kindred spirits, or else nothing at all, are sadly mistaken about how life and people work. We buy into the lie, especially in relationships, that others must be nearly perfect, and every part of a relationship must be nearly perfect, or we write the whole thing off. Good relationships happen when you have two good communicators and forgivers who resolve to focus on the value of the people and of the relationship, over any other issue.

• Relationships take time. People change and grow, and the important point is to grow together, not apart. Friends and lovers alike will be blessed by not looking for instant gratification or instant perfection in the relationship; the beauty of just doing life together, and letting God open doors, change hearts, and create beauty on His timetable, is crucial to our happiness and healthiness in relationships.

• We are our brother and sister’s keeper. We are responsible for their well-being, even if we disagree with them.  We are compelled by God's grace to guard others' souls, even those we think of as unlovely or different.

• We are not called to judge people. We are called to testify to God's grace, and sometimes that requires pointing out sin so that we can point to the Cross, but our focus is not to examine every person inside and out to see if they measure up to us or to some other standard.  Our desire is to constantly bless and serve everyone around us, and to do so with a spirit of humility and grace

• We are called to be people of grace. Grace means we show kindness, whether or not it is "deserved"; in fact, we learn to ignore and remove the question of what people "deserve"; we simply treat them as the precious people that they are, no matter what. The ones who treat us badly we treat with even more love, because we know how deeply blind and imprisoned they must be, and we remember when we were blind prisoners, so we delight to show them how to see, and how to escape the bonds of sin and move into the beauty of a life of grace.

• God’s heart is for His people to be unified. He hates broken relationships. If I am offended by someone, I have the responsibility to try to restore that relationship, even though I am the one offended.  Restoration is not always possible, but as much as we can, we dwell in peace with others.  If I am the offender, I doubly have the responsibility to pursue forgiveness and unity. God loves when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.

• God’s heart is for us to not speak evil of each other. Giving a bad report about others, tearing them down, whether to their face or in gossip with others, is displeasing to God. He longs for us to embrace each other as community, not tear at each other as wolves. His heart is for us to pray about our differences in a context of appreciation and gratitude, and to keep lines of communication open, not send messages that attempt to make others feel personally diminished or their opinion relegated to unimportance.

 • Life is precious, no matter what.  Life is also shortsometimes much shorter than we expectand the time God gives us to interact with others is to be used wisely and for His glory.  We rejoice not just in the similar friends we have, but in everyone who is made in the image of God and with whom we may be spending eternity at His feet, praising Him together.  Life is beautiful, and human life is of infinite value to God, enough to send His Son to die for to redeem.  Why do we tend to treat it so casually and rudely?

I double my resolve to make increasing effort to show people grace and kindness in my speech, and to let differences be opportunities for friendships to flourish, not to be cut off, and for dialogue and negotiation. God calls us to be people of grace, and a watching world will see when kindness slips off our tongues and permeates our relationships, and they will take notice. And when they do, to God be the glory.

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