Christians are faced with many kinds of adversity. There’s the kind we share with every other human: health problems, financial insecurity, relationship stress, bereavement, etc. We don’t expect our faith to make us immune to problems in those areas, but rather we find great comfort in the Bible’s many assurances that our loving Lord walks with us even “through the valley of the shadow of death.” (Psalm 23).
Then there are the adversities which we may face because of hostility to our Christian faith. Though we probably have never faced the kinds of physical persecution that followers of Christ have at other times and other places, we probably have experienced subtly-expressed disdain from unbelievers or perhaps even open attack on our faith. Distressing though such personal rejection may be, we are comforted by our Lord’s promise: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” (Matthew 5:11-12)
Though these forms of adversity are challenging, our faith gives us the tools to not only endure, but to grow even stronger. But there is another form of adversity which often ‘blind-sides’ Christians, and leaves individuals demoralized and churches fractured: conflicts that arise among us. We’ve talked before about the sad reality of in-fighting among Christians (see also Fighting for Jesus?). But we want to focus here on why enduring that pain is also part of what it means to follow Christ.
It seems pretty safe to say that each of us is drawn to the Church by a vision of glory – as the community that gathers to give God glory in worship, that participates in the glorious work of His Kingdom on earth, and that nurtures us for the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom. But what happens when our images of glory are overshadowed by grubby disputes among our fellow believers? When our fellow members disappoint or anger us? When we are unappreciated or criticized? To put it bluntly, why is participation in the life of the church so often perceived as an inglorious experience?
Well, it’s useful to remember that the symbol of our faith is not an icon of heavenly glory (like a blazing star perhaps) but the cross — a vile instrument of human torture. Christ’s mission on earth was not to claim the glory that is His due, but to endure crucifixion at the hands of sinful humans. When we commit our lives to Christ, we take up the same burden.
But where’s the good in being abused, rejected, misunderstood, ignored, or ___________ by ‘so-called’ Christians? (Fill in your own blank!) How is that fair to us? How does that give glory to God? Well, it makes no sense at all, from a human perspective, but then again, Scripture is clear that following our human impulses leads only to eternal darkness and despair. The only path to glory is following Christ, and that is one of humility, self-sacrificing love, and selfless forgiveness — of living for others, despite their flaws.
Look: nothing about Jesus’ teaching gives any of us the license to be mean, deceitful, indifferent, or otherwise obnoxious to each other. We not only should not condone that kind of behavior, but we are instead obligated to take loving corrective action (Matthew 18 instructs how this is to be rightly done). Tolerating bad behavior within the church is never loving, but profanes the Body of Christ and ultimately harms our brother or sister.
But we also must never lose sight of the fact that we are all sinners and the standard that Jesus sets for us is one of radical love: if He, the sinless son of God could pray for those who were nailing Him to the cross (Luke 23:24), how can we hold grudges against those who hurt our feelings? Jesus said “…if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:15) How then can we pray the Lord’s Prayer with hearts hardened against those who have wronged us?
Following Christ is indeed the only path by which we can know God’s glory. But the path to glory leads through the cross – His and ours. And our cross, like His, is to endure the wrongs of our fellow sinners and love them anyway, that all may be brought to Him and know His glory.
“If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him . . .” (2 Timothy 2:11-12)