The Joy of Unlikely Relationships
There are few things in life that can bring us more joy, and almost at the same time more pain that relationships. If you ask most people who seem to be happy or joyful for the reason, they will almost always tell you something about a relationship.
At the same time, if you find someone who is long-faced and looks miserable, and you ask them the reason for their sorrow, they too will almost always mention something about a relationship. Maybe it is a relationship gone bad or is undergoing stress, or perhaps they have lost someone close to them or they are lonely. But it all goes back to a conversation about relationship.
By the same token, the church is made up entirely of relationships. Good ones, bad ones, or people looking for one. Ideally these begin and are rooted in a relationship with the Savior. But sometimes they are not.
It is by means of relationships that much pain and grief is experienced among Christians, along with immeasurable joy if we are open to it. But sometimes we are not.
THE PROBLEM OF ALONENESS
Being alone was never God’s intention for any of us. Our God, in Trinitarian array, exists in an eternal relationship: a “joyful dance” as someone called it. A joyful interaction of the Three-yet-One we know as the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It was always God’s intent that those He created in His image (“let us make man in OUR image”) join in that endless, eternal, and joyful dance. God is a generous God. He wanted to share part of Who He is with us.
And so, when He drew us up from the dirt of Eden’s garden and breathed spirit life in us, He said “it is good.” It is good that we are in His image. It is good that we are like Him. It is good that we can relate to Him as our Creator.
But later in the Creation account in Genesis, He said “It is NOT good that the man should be alone.” This state of aloneness is unnatural to our God-stamped natures. It hurts to be alone.
When a captor wishes to break the mind and will of a stubborn prisoner, the prisoner is placed in solitary confinement. Left there sometimes for weeks or months on end, the human mind begins to melt down. The will begins to sag under the weight of isolation.
We are not created to be alone. “I will make a companion suitable for him,” God said. And so, Eve entered the picture, taken from Adam’s side. Like him, but different. Equal to him, but submissive. Invaluable to him, but not ruling him.
The pair shared everything. Work. Procreating: childbearing and child-rearing. Ruling the world for a time, having dominion over everything. The Bible describes their joyful condition as “The man and his wife were both naked but not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25)
THE JOYFUL DANCE OF INTIMACY
Pastor and author John Ortberg wrote a book recently entitled, I’d Like You More If You Were More Like Me. The book is an exploration of human intimacy. One counselor refers to intimacy as “into-me-you-see.”
The pursuit of intimacy is a joyful pursuit. It calls us out when we would rather hide because of shame and our sinfulness. It stabilizes us when we feel bad about ourselves. It does not leave us alone, even when we deserve and want to be isolated.
But intimacy as an expression of human relationship is not the experience of “becoming like” the other. It is the experience of “become one” with them. Those are two different experiences.
The first, “becoming like,” is the experience of conformity. Some dysfunctional religious groups and dystopian societies are experiments in conformity. I often will tell a pre-married couple in counseling that if both of them are the same, one of them is unnecessary. Conformity is not the goal. Conformity can be enforced, but it is not natural.
The goal is not uniformity. The goal is oneness. It is not the weaker clinging to the stronger in fear. That is unhealthy attachment. It is “two-becoming-one” that is expressed in marriage.
The joy of seeing “two-become-one” over the course of a long and healthy marriage is a marvel that deserves to be called miraculous. We do not see it often enough.
Sometimes marriages are abandoned because getting to that oneness is not automatic. It’s laborious. It’s hard work. Sometimes one will not be willing to pay the hard price of dying to self so the relationship can become what it was intended to be. Yet they fail to realize that, even though the relationship is painful, tearing it apart is still tearing flesh apart. “What God has joined together, let not man tear apart.”
THE JOYFUL BODY
It has ever been God’s intent that His church, His body, His bride on earth know the oneness that is known in Heaven. Marriages in Christ express a visible picture of God’s intention for all believers and for all the redeemed to have with Him.
No one was more aware of that intent than Paul. It was his desire to present the churches he was planting as a “spotless bride” to His Lord. He was jealous to protect and keep them pure until the wedding day, as the best man would be responsible for doing.
He fought as a warrior for joy to be found and known among the gathered but dissimilar believers that made up the first New Testament congregations. But it was a battle where victory was never fully realized while he was on earth.
God’s intention is for the relationships we experience in the church to bring us joy. Too often these relationships end in pain, and heartache, and disappointment and can even become abusive. The same author who wrote I’d Like You More If You Were More Like Me also wrote another book on relationships called Everybody’s Normal till You Get to Know Them.
We are not normal. Peter refers to God’s people as “peculiar” people. Now I know the theological thought behind that has to do with our being unique, and distinct and set apart. But we all know folks in the church who are, well, peculiar in other ways.
Churches are not joyful because everyone’s walking in lock step with each other. We do not have to be the same. Churches that grow around affinity demographics (same age, same social and religious backgrounds, same musical tastes) create an artificial sense of unity that is not a reflection of the New Testament church.
A.W. Tozer suggested that coming to unity would be like tuning one hundred pianos to the same tuning fork. They would automatically be in tune with each other if tuned to the same pitch, but not if the tuner sought to tune each individual instrument to the one beside it.
The church that Paul was seeking to build crashed together different nationalities, different language systems, different cultures, different religious backgrounds. They had to become one through abandoning prejudices, overcoming religious one-upmanship, and burying long years of inborn hatred. Their unity came because they were “attuned” to the same Person: The Lord Jesus Christ.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. (Ephesians 2:13-14)
It is only through the blood Christ; a radical focus on Christ and His Kingdom that different races, different cultures, different religious backgrounds, and assumptions about life can be in unity. We cannot do this by our best efforts. Only God can accomplish it.
But when it does happen there is unbelievable joy! There is a depth of richness in a relationship that could only have happened because of Jesus. There is a joyous wonder in a friendship, a fellowship, or a marriage that is Christ saturated and Spirit-formed.
A married couple truly attain oneness in the same way. When we focus on our own needs and concerns to the exclusion of the other, we are in constant friction and conflict. When we try to “tune” ourselves to the other person but not to Christ, unity is missed. But when we agree that Christ is more than our needs, and greater than our personal wants, we find ourselves automatically attuned to each other as a result.
THE UNLIKELY CONGREGATION
Acts 16 tells us that the first person Paul preached to in Macedonia was not the man he had dreamed about. It was actually an Asian woman named Lydia, who dealt in purple cloth. She was a fashion mogul. She was wealthy; she was not from Philippi, but she owned a home there, as well in her home in Thyatira. So, here’s this lady, houses in two cities, wealthy and bright, and the Bible also adds she was “a worshiper of God.” Her foundation had been laid in Old Testament Scripture, and her heart was ready to hear the Gospel. When Paul arrived, she received Jesus and was baptized, along with her family.
Next, we meet a person on the opposite end of the social spectrum. She was a slave girl. Not only was she physically possessed by men, but she was also possessed by a “python spirit;” she had the power of divination, a demonic gift that her owners exploited. She followed Paul and Silas and Timothy around yelling out “these men are the servants of the most High God” until Paul could handle it no more. He cast out the demon, and she became a believer. She was the second member of the Philippian church.
The third person was equally unlikely as the first two. The jailer, a former Roman soldier, had been given the responsibility of keeping Paul and Silas in custody. He threw them into the inner dungeon, a dark, damp, place and “placed their feet in stocks.” This, by the way, was a means of torture, not just securing them. It was an interrogation technique to place prisoner’s feet and legs in distorted positions causing cramps and sometimes paralysis.
But at midnight, the Bible informs us, Paul and Silas began singing praise through their pain. By the way, that is a characteristic of joy. Joy isn’t having all of your circumstances line up just the way you’d like. It transcends them. But as they sang, “the place began to shake,” and the jail doors flew open. When the guard saw all the doors unlocked, he drew his sword to kill himself for failing to do his duty. Paul stopped him. “We are all here” he said. And the jailer fell at Paul and Silas’ feet, saying, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
The jailer… blue collar… like a retired Marine… and his family became part of the church at Philippi. The most unlikely group of people possible came to be in the same house group and made up the first church on the European continent!
This brings us to a problem we face. Do you know how easy it is to build a church where everyone is the same age, the same nationality, the same race, from the same background? Sociologists call this “the principle of homogeneity.” Like attracts like. Most churches are that. Caucasian churches attract Caucasian people. African American churches attract people of color; Filipino churches attract Filipino… Baptist churches attract…well you get the picture.
But the “picture” that presents is not the Gospel. Now hear me carefully. The most joyful and powerful testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not churches that all see things the same way, want things the same way, or think about life in the same way.
We have to get over thinking that the church is supposed to be made up of people who all see things exactly the same. Maybe (to quote the book title) “I would like you better if you were more like me.” But the reality is we’re different.
Let me just get you to imagine an experiment. What if I came to your church and told the people, “I’m going to make a cup of coffee right here that will make every person in the building who likes coffee happy?”
After you’d finished laughing, you would say “that’s impossible!” What would such a cup of coffee taste like? You like your coffee bold and black, caffeinated or decaffeinated or frothy with cream, or sweetened with Splenda or sugar or honey, or hot or iced? It would be humanly impossible!
So, if we can’t even all get along on how we like our coffee, then how on this earth are we going to build a fellowship of believers who are all going to get exactly what they want? It’s impossible to come to consensus on some things.
Yet the church survives, and even thrives on our differences. It’s not being different that kills churches and congregations—it’s the demand of a few to have their own way. It’s the expectation that things should always go the way they want them.
The picture of heaven is “every kindred, every tongue, every race,” together. Ever think about that? You will be the same race in heaven that you are on earth? Different races are not a mistake, and not a curse. There is no preferred race of people. They are an indication of God the artist’s love of variety!
And He wants His church to reflect that tapestry and variety and that glory on earth! Now I’ll be candid here.
It would be a lot easier to pastor the church I serve if we all were from the same generation, saw things the same way, wanted the same things, liked the same music, and had the same background. We’d get along great! And that’s how some larger churches grow. Some churches are begun with the intention of catering to ONE group of people. Just run the rest of them off. Again, much easier.
A year or so back we commissioned a survey of our community, and the group studied the “psycho-social and religious” profile of our church field. Would you like to know what they discovered just in our immediate church field?
Fifty percent of the people wanted a church building that looked like a church building.
Fifty percent of the people preferred a building for worship that didn’t resemble a church building.
Fifty percent preferred music that sounded like they believed “church music” should sound.
Fifty percent preferred music that was contemporary and didn’t resemble traditional music in any way.
Fifty percent wanted a church where people dressed up on Sunday.
Fifty percent wanted a church where people preferred casual dress for Sunday.
The truth? Representatives of both groups attend worship at our church! Every week. We shouldn’t get along. At all. But we do because it’s not us trying to match people to their preferences. As long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, we’ll be unified.
My understanding of the New Testament shows churches that do the hard work of tearing down walls between people, forgiving, and messing up and forgiving again. (Ephesians 2:14-22). That takes the grace of God to work. And it does.
THE JOY OF AN UNLIKELY CHURCH
For most of the ways we evaluate church success, Philippi scored zero. The people were not similar in any way, except each of them had met Jesus Christ personally and believed in Him and were focused on Him.
But when Paul and Silas left Philippi the next day after their release from prison, that was the church they left behind. We remember the words of our Lord in Matthew 16 that remind us
I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.
Jesus built His church in Philippi. He chose the materials; He put the “stones” of the temple in place. He set them in Lydia’s house as their physical location. He added more “stones” as they shared the Gospel with family and friends in their network.
And from there, these different individuals with their diverse social and economic backgrounds became the unlikely relationships that gave Paul encouragement, support, and the will to press on more times than they would ever know. They were the church.
And, these unlikely people brought him much, much joy! As we open the Letter to the Philippians, we find ourselves benefiting from that same encouragement.