Pain and Joy in the Family of God

By Betty Carter

       Church is hard for a lot of people. Yes, there are those great moments we all have when we think, “This is it, this is what the Body of Christ is supposed to be!” But often it’s not like that. I go to a truly wonderful church, and yet occasionally a Sunday morning can feel to me like a college philosophy class, or a sales meeting for a time-share in heaven. I’ve heard it said that a church get-together feels like a martini party without the martinis.       

       If you feel out-of-place or unsatisfied with church, the admonishment in Hebrews 10:25 to “not neglect meeting together, as some have made a habit” may sound to you like a lecture from an irritable football coach. Don’t miss practice or you’ll get kicked off the team! Maybe you feel guilty about your lack of enthusiasm, and you want to do better so God won’t get mad at you. The reasons for your discomfort could relate to your particular situation. If you’re an introvert or have social anxiety, too much forced conversation on a Sunday morning may leave you exhausted. If you’re depressed or having struggles that you can’t share with others, you may feel like a failure around people who seem to be doing life much more successfully—all those people with clean cars and compliant children. Never mind the differences in theology, music preferences, and even political leanings that amp up the church dissatisfaction and awkwardness around others. Many of the songs we sing on Sunday mornings talk about coming to Jesus in our brokenness and need, but—let’s be honest--most of us hide our cracks and dents when we’re together. Even if we sense that Jesus loves us unconditionally, how much do we trust other Christians? That part is hard, especially when we don’t know them that well—and can you really get to know people that well in Sunday School?

           Growing up, I got the strong sense from some people in ministry that being Christian mean being happy all the time.  In face, there was even a kids' song that went,  "I'm inside, outside, upside, downside happy all the time.  It was easy to feel guilty about not being peppy, cheerful extrovert 24 hours a day!

             Yet, loneliness, grief, and heartache are common human experiences, shared by most of the people in the Bible, including Jesus Himself. As a counselor working primarily with Christians, I see that Jesus’ people have all the normal human struggles. On top of those, we have a deep Christian consciousness of our sin which brings a grief of its own—necessary but painful. So it’s sad to hear stories about how badly it hurts when other Christians are condemning or dismissive of struggles (and to be clear, I’m not addressing the more serious issue of spiritual abuse here, though it’s sadly common). I’ve noticed, though, that the stories people tell about things that go wrong in church aren’t so different from their stories about things that go wrong in marriage. And in parenting. And in friendship. These are the places where it hurts most when people are unsupportive or even judgmental. Could it be that rejection and betrayal are greatest in the relationships where we also experience the greatest hope of being fully known and loved? Maybe it’s our longing for deep, loving, and accepting Christian relationships that makes the human disappointments of church life so tremendously disappointing.

         Family life is frustrating, annoying, and often boring. Yet it’s absolutely vital for the nurture of human beings who reach adulthood knowing how to love and be loved. Most children, even in unhappy families, hope all year for Christmas morning, not just because of presents but because of the underlying love and family unity that the gifts represent. Presents say to them, “I’m loved, I’m a part of this.” By Christmas afternoon, the kids are bored again and arguing with each other. But that won’t stop them from being thrilled when Christmas comes around the next year. In their teen years, when identification with the family starts to recede, they may feel disappointed on Christmas day and start to wonder why they were ever so excited about it. A few years later they’ll be excited about Christmas again, because they’re now shopping for their own families. They’ve become true “believers” in Christmas in the sense that they want their children to have those same sweet if fleeting memories of a joy that points to a greater reality underneath—the love and belongingness of family.

           It’s a lot like this in the family of God. We are human beings, with all the usual human shortcomings. We frustrate, annoy, and bore each other, and that’s on a good day, when we’re not actually “biting and devouring each other” in the flesh, as Paul put it in Galatians 5. And yet there’s always that promise of Christmas morning. In those transcendent moments when, by the grace of God, we love each other deeply and well—for instance singing together after a tragedy, praying for an expectant mom at a baby shower, or caring for each other in sickness and trouble—we experience a common Christian life as it was meant to be lived in the kingdom of God. The songs and prayers and feelings themselves are all just fleeting experiences in time, but they point to an eternal reality underneath, which is the love of Christ, flowing through His Body the church.

          Yes, there are very hard and even painful aspects to church life in this world. But there’s also a love to be found in the family of God that transcends the human failings we all bring with us when we meet together. God uses that love to help us endure the pain the world offers. We need it. We talk about worshiping together as a way of bringing glory to God, but God’s glory isn’t some far-off idea that has little to do with you, like an endless fireworks show that your job is to sit and watch and get excited about. You’re loved. You’re a part of this. God is glorified in loving us through our shared love and worship of Jesus, finally bringing us into the fullness of His kingdom--a common and tangible kingdom, which I’m pretty sure will not be watched one day on some heavenly zoom screen (please, God). It will be tasted and felt, and it will be experienced side by side with other Christians who—don’t forget—need your love as much as you need theirs. “Spur one another on to love and good deeds,” says the writer of Hebrews. “Encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” 

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