Love the One You’re With

Love the One You’re With

It can be really hard to love the church. Every Christian, who’s been one for very long, knows this.

The earthly church has always been a motley crew. It’s never been ideal. The New Testament exists because churches, to differing degrees, have always been a mess — a glorious mess of saints still polluted by remaining sin, affected by defective genes, brains, and bodies, and influenced by life-shaping pasts.

This mess rarely looks glorious to us up close. It looks like a lot of sin and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears invested into a lot of futility. It often looks like something we’d rather escape than join.

But this is the way it’s supposed to be. Because the mess is what draws out the one thing that advances the church’s mission more than anything else. And this one thing is why we must not, for selfish reasons, leave the church.

The Church We Didn’t Choose

Jesus’s very first disciples didn’t get to choose each other. Jesus chose them (John 15:16). They just found themselves thrown together.

The very next generation of early Christians didn’t get to choose each other either. They too were thrown together with others they likely wouldn’t have chosen: Palestinian and Hellenistic Jews, Jews and Gentiles, educated and uneducated, slaves and slave owners, impoverished and aristocrats, former zealots and former tax collectors, former prostitutes and former Pharisees.

And Jesus gave these early disciples, and all disciples afterward, an impossible command: love one another (John 15:17). It had to be impossible to obey in mere human power because this love was meant to bear witness of Jesus in the world (John 13:35), and to give visible evidence of the invisible God (1 John 4:12). It had to demonstrate that “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

And Jesus gave his disciples an impossible context in which to carry out this impossible command: the church (Matthew 16:18) — a community of diverse, sin-polluted, defective individuals from all sorts of life-shaping pasts living life together in an impossible love.

Then Jesus gave his church an impossible mission: preach the gospel throughout the whole, God-rejecting, Christ-hating world (Luke 21:17; John 15:18), and plant impossible communities among every people where diverse, sin-polluted, defective individuals from all sorts of life-shaping pasts would live out Jesus’s impossible command to love one another (Matthew 28:19–20).

Impossible love, impossible community, and impossible mission: this is a plan doomed to fail. There’s no way this works, unless a God exists who makes possible the humanly impossible.

And here we are, two thousand years later. The impossible mission has produced impossible communities carrying out this impossible command throughout much of the world. For all the church’s problems, and they are legion, something miraculous is at work here.

Miraculous, Struggling Community

But the church rarely looks miraculous at any given moment. “The church,” as we most directly experience it, looks like the less-than-ideal local church we belong to, made up of ordinary people struggling to get along, struggling to figure out how to “do church” in a world of constant change, and struggling to do its part to fulfill the Great Commission.

Struggling doesn’t look or feel miraculous. It’s fatiguing, frustrating, and at times exasperating. Struggling can make us want to give up.

But we must not give up on the church. Because it’s the messy things — those extraordinarily difficult and painful things that can drive us crazy — that provide the very opportunities for the humanly impossible love of Christ to be exercised, giving visibility to the existence of the invisible God.

According to the New Testament, a church’s success is not measured by the number of its attenders, the size of its budget, the excellence of its event production, or the scope of its public influence. Its success is measured by the quality of its love. A church that most effectively witnesses Jesus in the world pursues love through:

  • Honoring each other (Romans 12:10),
  • Contributing to meet each other’s needs (Romans 12:13),
  • Showing hospitality to one another (Romans 12:13),
  • Rejoicing over each other’s joys (Romans 12:15),
  • Weeping over each other’s griefs (Romans 12:15),
  • Pursuing harmony with each other in spite of differences (Romans 12:16),
  • Not excluding the lowliest members (Romans 12:16),
  • Submitting to each other (Ephesians 5:21),
  • Persistently striving for agreement over thorny issues (2 Corinthians 13:11),
  • Using individual freedom in Christ to serve each other (Galatians 5:13),
  • Bearing with each other’s weaknesses, foibles, and immaturity (Ephesians 4:2),
  • Covering each other’s multitudinous sins with forgiveness (1 Peter 4:8; Colossians 3:13),
  • Stirring up each other to press on in the mission of love (Hebrews 10:24),
  • And not neglecting to meet regularly together (Hebrews 10:25).

And what calls such love out? Read each line again and ask what situations prompt such opportunities to love. The short answer is: lots of various kinds of struggling. It’s the messy struggles that call out love.

Churches are designed to be communities of impossible love that only work if God is real, and Christ’s sacrifice is real, and heaven is real. In void of love, the community falls apart or degrades into consumer event products, empty formalism, formless “spirituality,” social advocacy groups, or essentially civic gatherings — all dying or dead remains of a past vitality.

Graciously Disappointing Community

Jesus did not design the church to be a place where our dreams come true. Actually, it’s where many of our dreams are disappointed and die. And this is more of a grace to us than we likely realize, because our dreams are often much more selfish than we discern.

Our personal expectations easily become tyrants to everyone else, because everyone else fails to meet them. When we are more focused on how others’ failings and foibles obstruct the ideal community we want to pursue than we are on serving those others and pursuing their good and joy, our expectations can kill love, which impedes the real mission.

Jesus designed the church to be a place where love comes true, where we lay our preferences aside out of deference to others. It is meant to be a living laboratory of love, a place where there are so many opportunities, big and small, to lay down our lives for each other that the love of Christ becomes a public spectacle.

That’s why when it comes to church in this age, the picture of community we should have in our minds is not some utopian harmony, but Golgotha. In living life together, we die every day (1 Corinthians 15:31). We lay down our lives for each other (1 John 3:16).

Love the One You’re With

Over forty years ago, Stephen Stills sang, “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.” Though he certainly didn’t write this with the church in mind, we can draw a redemptive application.

There are numerous legitimate reasons to leave a church, and departures are one more messy opportunity to extend gracious love. But we must have a healthy suspicion of our motives if disillusionment, restlessness, boredom, discontentment, burnout, relational conflict, and disappointed expectations are fueling our impulse to leave. Often these fruits have roots in selfish soil. We must not love the church we can’t be with — that idealized community of our imagination. We must love the one we’re with.

We don’t get to choose the disciples we live with; Jesus does. We get thrown into a motley group of sin-polluted, defective saints, among whom, in our own ways, we are the polluted, defective foremost (1 Timothy 1:15).

What we get is the incredible privilege of and plethora of opportunities for loving these fellow disciples like Jesus loved us. We get to love them, warts and all. Because it is through the mutually self-dying, forbearing, forgiving love warty disciples have for one another that Jesus is most clearly shown to the world and his mission is most powerfully advanced.

My Sin Feels Good in the Moment — Why Stop?

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God commands us not merely to flee evil, but to hate evil — not merely to do mercy, but to love mercy.

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Our Sins Are Many, His Mercy Is More

Our Sins Are Many, His Mercy Is More

Christians often feel like they are on a tightrope between believing our sin is too small for us to confess or too big for God to overcome. But no matter how often we lose our balance on this tightrope, Christian worship draws us into a radical tension between the two extremes.

In Zechariah 5, God gives his prophet two complementary visions. These strange visions — a giant flying scroll and a woman in a basket — reveal God’s plans to purify the land so his temple can be rebuilt. And these two visions help us navigate the tension between thinking our sin is too small for God’s attention or too big for his cleansing.

Our Sins, They Are Many

In the first vision, the Lord God sends a giant flying scroll into the houses of evildoers, and the scroll consumes the house whole, “both timber and stone” (Zechariah 5:4). This appears extreme, especially when the offenses don’t seem especially egregious — stealing and swearing falsely. But these problems created obstacles for the temple reconstruction project by polluting the whole land where God intended to dwell.

If God does not cleanse the people who are building his temple, everything they touch will be as defiled as they are (Haggai 2:13–14). God’s scroll of judgment was fifteen feet wide and thirty feet long. If anyone hearing Zechariah’s vision thought their sin was small, this massive word of judgment from the Lord would inform them otherwise.

Every week we gather as God’s people, and we get the privilege of seeing God’s giant judgment
scroll unrolled before us. It might arrive during a corporate reading of Scripture, or the lyric of a song about God’s holiness, or we might get a new glimpse of our sinfulness as the pastor preaches. This is one of the greatest gifts we experience every weekend: the reminder that our sins are many, and worse than we want to believe. The giant flying scroll reminds us that the Lord God intends to consume our sin whole.

His Mercy Is More

In the second vision, we see how God is going to cleanse the place where his house is being built. If the previous vision revealed the massiveness of God’s judgment, this vision reveals the smallness of wickedness when compared to God’s power. The angel shows Zechariah a basket, about three to five gallons large, with a miniature woman named Wickedness inside (Zechariah 5:6–8). The angel can toss Wickedness around like a house cat, keeping her in the basket with a lead weight. Then the basket is flown from God’s temple construction site and placed in a containing house far away in Babylon.

God cleanses our sin by removing it from us, “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). Zechariah reminds us that God’s cleansing is not a knock-down, drag-out brawl for him, but something he can do in a single day (Zechariah 3:9). Sin may overwhelm us, but it’s like a frisbee in the hand of the Lord — tossed to the other side of the sea in a single motion.

Every week God’s people gather to hear the good news that God removed all of our sins from us and hurled them into the bottom of the sea (Micah 7:9). We read declarations, sing songs of celebration, and hear gospel truths about our full pardon. The basket with our lady Wickedness was no match for the death and resurrection of King Jesus. And not even Babylon the Great, the scarlet beast, nor all their armies pose any threat to the Lamb (2 Thessalonians 2:8; Revelation 17:14).

Building the Holy Temple of God

God gave Zechariah these visions to encourage Israel and their high priest, Joshua, to rebuild his temple. But because they were not fully cleansed, the work of their hands would inevitably be tarnished (Haggai 2:14). Tragically, Joshua’s uncleanness — and that of all the people — was more contagious than holiness. But hundreds of years later, someone greater than Joshua would come and start a new kind of temple building project. Only this time, his cleanness was even more contagious:

And a leper came to [Jesus], imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (Mark 1:40–42)

This greater Joshua, Jesus Christ, has completely consumed our sin and removed it from us, he has made us clean and acceptable in his sight. And every time we gather as God’s temple (1 Peter 2:5), we are able to participate in an even greater rebuilding project than the exiles from Babylon.

Every week we gather to hear God’s massive proclamation of judgment over our sins, and to hear how the cross of Christ has consumed that judgment. Our sin is no obstacle for the wickedness-removing power of the Lamb of God. We can be clean in him. As a great new hymn says,

What love could remember no wrongs we have done?
Omniscient, all-knowing, he counts not their sum.
Thrown into a sea without bottom or shore,
Our sins, they are many; his mercy is more!

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