People are so disappointing, aren’t they? One doesn’t have to be around church very long to discover that people let you down. The reason there are no perfect churches is that there are no perfect people. Add a sinner to a room full of sinners and it is hardly surprising that we encounter sin. Welcome yet another failure into a church full of failures and it is little wonder that people will let you down. Given that the church is the sum of its people, it should be no surprise that the church itself will periodically disappoint us too.
Of course, if we have a right view of the church and its people we aren’t going to fall into the silly trap of leaving every time we are disappointed. If we recognise that the church is full of sinners we won’t enter into a covenant relationship with its people with our eyes closed. In fact, we won’t be entering into that covenant relationship on the false pretext that the church is there to serve me, meet my needs and generally fulfil my whims and desires.
We enter into a covenant relationship with the church on the same terms as our marriage; a solemn pledge to one another based on unconditional love rather than selfish demands to have our needs met. We will serve the church even when we don’t feel it is serving us as we might hope because we are committed to loving it even when, as far as we see it, it is not all that lovely. Just as there is no such thing as a perfect husband or wife, but two people committed to helping one another grow, so there are no perfect churches, just people committed to helping one another grow in Christ.
That is how Christ views the church. He sees it as beautiful and lovely because he sees what he will make us. He sees beyond the muck and the mess and commits to loving us, and helping us grow, even when we are oh so disappointing. The church is called to mirror that kind of love. We are to commit to the good of other members, to love and serve them – even when it feels as though that is not reciprocated – because that is what Christ has done for us.
That is all very well and good, but high ideals are always much easier in theory than practice. We may all happily assent to loving the church even when it lets us down, but how does that work in practice? How should we respond when people inevitably disappoint us in the church?
There are three things we can pray when we feel the church has let us down. First, we can ask the Lord to show us if we are being reasonable. So often we presume we are in the right without considering that we might be expecting something unrealistic from others. Second, if we are convinced we have been wronged, we can pray that the Lord would grant us a forgiving attitude – the Spirit can work in our hearts to help us forgive others. Third, we can pray for those who have wronged us. We may pray that the Lord would show them their sin (if, indeed, they have sinned at all) and we can pray for their good. It is very hard to hate someone when you are regularly praying for the Lord to bless them.
Look to Christ
It is always worth remembering that Christ is the one who is all-sufficient, not the church nor his undershepherds. If our hope rests in the church, we are setting ourselves up for painful disappointment on an almost weekly basis; the church is not the saviour of the world, that is solely Jesus’ role. The church is replete with opportunities to be upset, offended and generally unhappy with the way things are. If you have a crisis of faith every time someone lets you down, or you are prone to running away any time things aren’t as you would have them, it suggests your faith is in the sinful people that make up the church, not in Jesus Christ. It is important to recognise the object of our faith and act in accordance to it, rather than deriving our worth, value and contentment from things – not least the church – that were never intended to meet those needs.
Don’t become overly cynical
I, by nature, am a cynic. I inherently don’t trust people and presume most people are in things simply for what they can get out of it. I have to work extremely hard to lay my natural cynicism to one side and take people at their word. It is, therefore, especially painful when people let me down – especially those who break trust – because I find myself both annoyed at them for doing so and angry at myself for setting aside my better judgement about them. The danger for people like me, however, is that once our fingers are burnt we pull up the cynical drawbridge. That’s it, we think, I’m done with trust.
Nonetheless, we must battle this tendency. That is not to say we have to be incredulous when presented with people who are trying to have us on. It is to say that we must work hard to take people at their word until such time as we have credible reason to disbelieve them. What is more, we must battle our natural tendency not to help because we are cynical of people’s motives and, instead, ‘not grow weary in doing good’ per Gal 6:9.
We must have a realistic sense of what we can reasonably expect of people and church. I have no doubt my parents love me, but it would be entirely unreasonable for me to expect them to express that by visiting me every day; they live at the other end of the country! Many of us will have encountered the much-maligned ‘love languages’. Some have used them as a selfish way of demanding one or other of them as the way they must be loved. Used properly, however, they open our eyes to how others might be attempting to love us. It is not intended as a means of demanding our way of being loved; it is to help us recognise when our spouse is loving us in their particular way.
All too often, when we join the church, we insist others love us in the way we have demanded. Such demands rarely bear any relation to scripture and almost always close our eyes to the ways that others may, in point of fact, be loving us despite our upset that they haven’t done what we feel they ought to have this particular time. What is more, we must recognise that what we are demanding may not be realistic to expect anyway.
All too often we get upset with the church for calling us out on our sin, presuming that the way they ought to be loving us is to simply affirm us in our life-choices. That is an unreasonable expectation of a church that has committed to helping you grow in Christ. Othertimes, we may expect certain levels of involvement from church leaders which – given other competing priorities – simply aren’t realistic in expectation nor fair to other members of the church. We could get upset about such things; or, we could set more realistic expectations and commit ourselves to viewing the ways in which the church is loving on us; things we may simply take for granted.