“God, I love you, but I can’t stand your people.” At the age of 18, the prayer seemed a fitting and final conclusion to life in formal congregational settings. I was growing in leaps and bounds – reading the Bible, memorizing whole passages, and praying regularly. I’d even picked up the odd habit of reading classic Christian theological texts (the big ones with complicated words that only seminarians understand) before bed at night. My relationship with God was strong and getting stronger – which was more than I could say for 99% of the other people I sat with on the average Sunday morning.
The best I could figure, these people were the duds: the ones who attended church because of habit or tradition or were hoping that at least if their butts were in the pews on Sunday mornings, they stood at least half a chance of being taken up by accident when the rapture occurred. Though I wouldn’t say it out loud (I was too humble for that), their faith was nothing by comparison – with a few exceptions, they were mostly hypocrites and pretenders. And the truth was, I’d grown tired of the toxicity which seemed to pervade every “Christian” setting I’d entered – the politics and infighting, gossip, slander, elitism – I’d simply had enough.
Over the course of my short life, I’d seen congregations split over issues ranging from the consumption of alcohol to what type of music should be played during Sunday service (“God forbid there should be drums!” “How can I possibly stay if there aren’t?!”). If these really were God’s people (and I had my doubts), they were the pettiest, most immature, and unloving examples I could imagine. They were hardly likely to become the sorts of believers I’d read about in Christian history (the ones I fancied myself most like) – Polycarp (the disciple of John) who about to be burned to death in a Roman stadium and given one more chance to recant his faith declared, “Fourscore and six years have I been serving him [Christ], and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” or Martin Luther who about to be excommunicated for his persistence in his charges against corrupt church leaders and given an opportunity to recant softly replied, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”
To make things worse, I’d been the victim of so much judgment and discrimination (how I dressed, the music I listened to, my personal interpretation of the Scriptures – which I at least had bothered to read – more than most of my classmates) that I didn’t think I could sit through another day in the same building with “God’s people.” I’d been taught that my relationship with God was personal (something I’d interpreted to mean “you can do it on your own without associating with any other human beings”) and it was clear that for my own spiritual growth and mental stability, it was best if I struck out on my own.
Over the next few years, I continued to grow sans “God’s people.” I met intermittently with other believers who I judged to be sincere to discuss Scripture and other issues related to faith (though much less frequently in actuality than I’d convinced myself I was doing) and continued to acquire as much knowledge about Scripture, theology, and Christian history as my brain could hold. I had become in my own opinion, a model Christian – and all without any need to engage with any of the irritations which accompanied formal worship or commitment to a worshipping community. The only problem? I wasn’t actually growing.
You see, I had erred in comparing growth in my knowledge of God to growth in my relationship with God – a relationship which from the very beginning demanded that those of us who consider ourselves part of God’s family actually interact with God’s family. In fact, it is these interactions which Christ told His disciples would serve as the primary factor which identified them as His disciples.
In John 13:34-35, having just finished washing eleven sets of feet (a final act of service prior to his trial and execution) Jesus declares, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
If you’ve ever looked up the Scriptural definition of “love,” you’ve noticed that it’s actually pretty demanding. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 states:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
The trick with living this kind of love? Well, to begin with, you can’t do it outside of a context in which you have the option not to. Patience doesn’t exist apart from circumstances which tempt us to impatience (think church committee meetings). One can’t be kind unless there is someone to be unkind to, or chose not to envy if there is no one to potentially compare one’s self to. And pride? I can tell you from experience that that one exists in greatest abundance not when I’m around other Christians who might knock me down a peg, but when I’m on my own removed from them because I’ve decided I’ve got things wired and they don’t.
Now pay attention because that last one starts to highlight an important point that only grows stronger as we examine the rest of the things that “love is.” If I decide to separate from other believers, I dishonor them as members of Christ’s family – I have excommunicated them. If I avoid fellowship because it’s “better for my spiritual growth and mental stability,” I’ve become self-seeking. I’ve already demonstrated my ability to be angered. And my choice to separate from other believers was directly due to my keeping a record of wrongs.
Have you picked up on the problem yet? In removing myself from regular fellowship with a congregation, I was making a very clear choice to disobey Jesus’ final and most important command to His disciples; I was choosing NOT to love.
The Apostle Paul is clear, “If I speak in the tonguesof men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). In other words, every act of faith or discipleship is worthless in the absence of love. And we cannot love without the presence of one another.
So what does this mean? For many of us, it means we need to swallow our pride, let go of our grudges, and start again; This time not as consumers of the Christian faith sitting in pews and hoping for a “personal” experience, but as lovers of the other pew sitters – genuinely concerned with the growth and well-being of those with whom we have little in common, who’s faith isn’t growing as fast as ours or in the same direction, and who’s perspectives and opinions often rub us the wrong way. We start again. But this time, we start with love.