Modern Christianity: All Take and No Give

Posted on September 16, 2011

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As human beings we all carry within ourselves a myriad of past experiences;  some joyful and others painful, each uniquely shaping the way that we make sense of the world around us.  All of our life experiences change us.  Sometimes the effects are subtle almost imperceptible, while other times the influences are significant and life changing.  We are changed, regardless of whether or not we are consciously aware of the impact or not.  We live each day, we are altered and frequently, we are forced to develop more and more complex coping skills.  These skill are employed on the hope that they can heighten our experiences of joy and lessen our experiences of pain.

As much as these alterations influence us; the changes are most easily seen in the effect they have on others. Frequently, the defensive filters we construct to protect our fragile egos and improve the way that we feel about ourselves, proportionally affects others around us to their detriment.  Even though we are just trying to protect ourselves, we can be seen as arrogant, pushy, legalistic, withdrawn or a “know-it-all”, when in reality we are only driven by the simple human need for self-preservation.

Our feelings of low self-esteem, unworthiness or inferiority are often the result of emotionally painful experiences which we have had to walk through in this life. We develop attitudes or coping skills which allow us to move on; to survive that traumatic experience and to hopefully minimize the chances of experiencing it again.  This is a very long way of saying, that when we as individuals come together and comprise groups, like families, work groups or even church attendance, each one of us brings with them their own unique life experiences, coping skills, filters and attitudes into the mix.  The result is inevitably tension and conflict.

I cannot shake the feeling that God understands this and somehow uses these conflicts to mature us.  How we handle these interpersonal conflicts, individually and communally reveals much about the state of development of our character, our wisdom and for the believer in God, just how serious we are about our faith.  Is your faith strong enough to cause you to submit your ‘conflict induced’ anger and frustration and keep it under wraps or do you give it full license and vent? Even if our track records may not be golden, as with the church – it’s never too late to grow up and get the sanctification process rolling again.

To become more like Christ, that’s the goal right? It’s a worthwhile goal, except that for many of us, we have forgotten (if we ever truly knew in the first place) exactly what it means to be like Jesus.  Why is that?  It’s because we’ve been sold a false bill of goods.  The namby-pamby metro sexual Jesus portrayed by the churches of today, is a far cry from the man described in the Bible.  I will save that rant for another day, as I want to focus on interpersonal conflicts.

This writing is my attempt to ‘talk it out’.  Understanding why we and others are like they are, is the key to effectively communicating at the deepest real level.  Most of us have no idea what that even means.  We’ve saturated our minds with the many mindless TV sitcoms and dramas (I am guilty of this) which stretch out a storyline for any entire season, when it could have been resolved within one episode if only the characters were brave enough to confront each other in rare honesty, communicating at the deepest level.

Instead, like us, they avoid the difficult conversations, because they produce too much anxiety and are uncomfortable – heaven forbid that we should ever have to feel uncomfortable. So we punish ourselves and others.  The greatest crime is that it can stretch on for years or an entire lifetime, unspoken, unconfronted and unresolved.  I know a man who let a conflict over money separate him from his only brother on this continent. The tension and silence continued until the moment that his brother was taken from this world.  Now only the silence continues and the regret that something as petty as money was able to induce two decades of missed opportunities to enjoy the companionship of a brother.

Communicating at the deepest level, being vulnerable and real allows us to bypass the self-erected walls of defense and communicate at the level of the true self, which is the person that God made us to be prior to all the emotionally painful experiencing of this fallen world.  Our challenge is to change the focus from trying to be understood to trying to understand.  Don’t get caught up in words that others use; listen to their heart.

You would think, if ever there was a place where people should be able to talk it out and work out disagreements that it would be in church. Afterall, by their own admission, they worship the same king and both subscribe to the same moral framework.  Yet apparently, worshipping the same king, is not sufficient common ground.  Successfully conflict resolution is rarely the case though; more commonly the outcome is deep division, loss of fellowship and hurt feelings.

I met with a family some time ago from the church.  They desperately loved Jesus but due to their strong need to verbalize their deeply felt opinions on the Christian walk and how we all should live our lives, they had the effect of polarizing the church.  Like back in the high school cafeteria, like-minded families gravitated to their side, while those that felt differently pulled away from them and gathered together.  The sides were drawn.  Regrettably, each side began to think of the other side as apostate. The church was divided and the lack of unity stripped it of its power.

The interesting thing that I noticed is that when I spoke to this family, I frequently found myself in agreement with their position but cringed at how they chose to verbalize that position.  This had the result of “turning others off”.  Which is sad, because the points they were making were valid and important ones.  As their friend, I desired their spiritual well-being, as well as supported their desire to continue to grow and mature in Christ.  I want them to be effective in reaching people and upholding their standards.

In a world that continues to wear away at concepts like holiness, righteousness and upholding a standard, it was depressing to see their message get lost amongst their personal desire to conform others into their own images instead of love them as Christ commanded.  In the end, not only did they separate themselves from the fellowship of the community; they robbed the community of their voice which was needed to hold us in balance.  We are terrible at staying balanced, we love to swing to extremes.  The only way to do it is to have all sides represented, the conservative and the liberal, and help hold us in balance.

So, how does one circumvent the bruised egos, personal filters and various coping skills developed for self-preservation and be able to communicate at a heart to heart level with someone else?  At times it seems miraculous that we are able to communicate at all with each other, even over simple things, given the limitations of words and huge potential for miscommunications given all our mental filters.   The bottom line is that I don’t know, but I am trusting God to provide a teachable, receptive environment and the words to reach them.

I am not sure how this will be accomplished; maybe it starts with an admission that none of us are perfect – we are works in progress.  This means that we need to be aware that our rough areas can offend others.  As followers of Christ, church members need to follow God’s example that while we were yet sinners, God loved us.  We must try to follow his example, even when folks choose to not live according to our dictates.

This means in a practical way, extending grace, mercy and forgiveness to others as believers, recognizing that our communications are hampered by the fallen nature of us and this world.  We need to see beyond the offense – knowing we are equally guilty of offending others.  We gratefully receive forgiveness from God for ourselves, but balk at extending it to others who have offended us.

For people who should be so grateful for the love, mercy, grace and forgiveness that was offered to us, why is it that we seem so morally resistant to extending the same love, mercy, grace and forgiveness to others?  Whatever the reason, one thing is clear; our inability only results in hurting ourselves.

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