Wednesday, October 2, 2013

In Search Of Truth, Relational Discomfort

I've been in a little bit of a funk lately. I've got a few different friends who, for awhile now, have all been making self-destructive choices in their lives. Some of these choices may not be causing them any immediate problems, but are instead contributing to long-term issues that have been and will continue to cripple them socially, emotionally and most of all spiritually, if they remain on the same course.

In each of these relationships I'm very limited in my ability to help. Certainly due to limitations in my own knowledge and strength of character. But the limitations I'm feeling the most are those imposed by the ones I want to encourage and help. So rather than try to force anything on them, I stand by and watch helplessly as they choose pain and separation from God.

It's an ache that renews itself almost regularly as I spend time with each of these guys. It stays with me for days before fading and then catches me by surprise at seemingly random times, causing me to take time out to pray for them, or maybe reconnect with them again, at which time "the aching cycle" continues.

At the start of a recent "cycle", these words, spoken by Jesus, came to my mind:
(Matthew 23:37,ESV) O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

I'm amazed that Jesus didn't give up or harden himself toward the people who hardened themselves against God. How did he keep caring in these seemingly "hopeless cases"? How did he live with the ongoing pain of watching those he loves reject God again and again? It would have been so much easier to harden himself and choose not to feel that pain.

I'd love to do that. Harden myself. I've been tempted to recently. Tempted to reduce one or more of these friendships into empty socializing that revolves solely around hobbies and common interests. I'd love to choose not to care about the relationships these guys may or may not have with Jesus.
But Jesus didn't do that. He never hardened himself. Never spared  himself any pain. He cared about even the hopeless cases, embracing the emotional wounds that come with that kind of investment. I can only imagine that this persistent vulnerability is part of what made him a "man of sorrows"(Isaiah 53:3).

I wonder if this instinct to avoid emotional investment is a little more common in us geeks than we realize. Many of us avoid relationships because we've been hurt or because we're afraid we will be hurt. Our hobbies also have a somewhat higher pleasure to pain ratio than other hobbies that require a bit of determination and discomfort to enjoy (such as sports, hiking, learning an instrument,etc.). Has the time I've invested in interests requiring no difficulty on my part caused me to spiritually atrophy in some way? I don't know. The hobbies themselves certainly aren't the cause. But my avoidance of discomfort may be.

A few months after I stepped down from being the worship pastor at our church to pursue the development of Spirit Blade Productions in 2006, my wife and I had dinner with "Pastor Bob", my former employer, our senior pastor. As we reflected on the past two years of ministry I'd been a part of, much of which had been emotionally difficult for me, Bob made an observation about me that I've kinda hated him for ever since. (That's a joke, but he was dead on and I hated that he was.) He said that he noticed in me a strong instinct to avoid pain. A lack of willingness to go through difficult experiences. He said that I had enormous capacity for relationships and great potential to impact the lives of others if I learned to overcome that. I hadn't left the position of worship pastor because of this aspect of my personality, but it had sure made the idea of quitting much easier! (At the time I was leading the ministry through some very healthy changes. Some of the volunteers involved didn't like those changes... and made that repeatedly clear, to put it kindly.)

In the last year or so I believe I've been pushed more and more by the Holy Spirit to confront this issue of mine on a day by day, even moment by moment basis. I think again of some words Jesus spoke.

(Luke 9:23, ESV) And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

When it comes to pain and tragedy, I'm a novice. I've been playing life on "easy mode" as much as I can. Using invincibility codes every chance I get. But I know that embracing the possibility of relational pain will result in a richer life.

(Mark 8:34-35, ESV) And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.

The Greek word for "deny" in verse 34 means "to lose sight of one's own interests". And the Greek word for "save" in verse 35 has, as usual, a broad definition not necessarily tied to "salvation from hell", but to being rescued in general. Rescued from separation from God, both now and in eternity. Rescued from the evils we bring on ourselves.

If I want to be rescued from the ongoing mess of this life, I need to lose sight of my own interests and follow the example of Christ, trusting in both his methods and his finished work on my behalf.
That said, I've also been reminded that I shouldn't just be pouring my life into people whose spiritual lives are in crisis. I need to build and maintain relationships with other believers that can be a source of encouragement to me, even as I provide encouragement for them. If I only spend time with those who don't share my faith, if all or most of my close relationships are with people separating themselves from God, my tank is going to empty quickly (I've experienced this first hand) and I will soon find myself in a discouraged "funk", as I seem to find myself now.

(Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV) And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

(Proverbs 13:20,ESV) Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.
(Repeatedly in Proverbs, the word "fool" is attributed to someone who rejects God.)

Right now I sense myself on the edge of character growth. I'm making the decision to unplug my Game Genie (THAT doesn't date me, does it?) and willingly start the tutorial mission of the game called "Relational Discomfort". But I can't do this single player. This is an MMO.

Okay, I've milked that metaphor to death, and did it pretty terribly. But my point of conclusion is this: Relationships, as wonderful as they are, will hurt sometimes. People in "faith crisis mode" are more than worth investing time and discomfort in. But as believers we should also invest in relationships that can build us up. Even those of us who often find ourselves as the one teaching or encouraging others. That's why Christ created this unusual, unavoidably dysfunctional entity called "The Church". It is his primary, tangible framework for distributing blessings to the world.

One day, relationships will be made perfect and the struggles we experience with them now will be rewarded. So if you're anything like me, or can relate to any of the situation I've described myself to be in, I want to invite you to come out here with me on the skinny branches and trust that Yahweh is holding us up. Even when it feels like we're falling.

(Isaiah 41:10, ESV)  Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

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