Graceless moments. They have a way of sucking the life right out of us. They put the clamps on our spirits and keep us from breathing. Inconsiderate. Disrespectful. Out to hurt. Graceless moments always come at the most inopportune times. They snatch all notions of faith, hope, and love right out of us and replace them with doubt, suspicion, and anger.
Paul knew all about graceless moments. Even though he was the trailblazing pioneer of the Corinthian church, this particular group brought him much heartache. Despite the fact that he had been the first to bring the gospel to Corinth, the Christians there had fallen prey to more than one smooth-talking critic during his absence. The Corinthian Christians frequently ran high on expectations and low on grace as it concerned their founding pastor.
A closer look at this particular congregation, as well as their attitude toward Paul, reveals much about what happens when we choose to live without grace.
Without grace, labels abound. The Corinthian Christians loved to label. Strung hard around Paul’s neck were long-distance labels that read: “Non-eloquent Speaker,” “Unpopular,” “Pushy Letter-writer,” “Bold in Print—Weak in Presence.”
Labels can be powerful—powerfully accurate and powerfully painful. We tend to place all kinds of labels on people every day. Even in the church.
Just think about it. “Legalistic,” “liberal,” “conservative,” “stingy,” “worldly,” “prideful,” “pushy.” We hurriedly slap the tag “wild” on motivated teens, “selfish” on those who disagree with us, “arrogant” on people who prosper, and “uncommitted” on those whose agendas differ from our own. The Pentecostal dubs the Presbyterian “too reserved.” The Presbyterian says the Pentecostal is “outta’ control.” Younger people in a congregation say those older are “stuck in their ways.” Older people say the younger are “too immature.” And yet, do either take the time to befriend and honestly inquire enough to truly know?
When we label a person we combine two devastating forces. In essence, we judge and we measure according to our own set of scales and balances (cf. Mt. 7:1-2). In addition to judging, we give up on hope. In effect, we say to the person we label, “This is the way you are. You have always been this way and you will always be this way. I have no hope for you to change. I will view you through this label lens and always think of you in light of it. I have you all figured out. Any questions?”
Without grace, comparisons emerge. Early in the history of the Corinthian church, her parishioners drew lines in the sand and began to choose sides. Instead of being in awe of the Person of Christ, they chose to be awestruck by the personalities who sought to represent Him. Playing favorites, some said, “I am on Paul’s side, he’s our founder!” Others said, “I am with Apollos all the way; he can really preach!” (cf. 1 Corinthians 3, paraphrase). Still others, seeking to out-awe them all, would pontificate, “Well, I am of Christ!”
One of Paul’s first written confrontations with the Corinthians was over this very matter:
I’m completely frustrated by your unspiritual dealings with each other and with God… When one of you says, “I’m on Paul’s side,” and another says, “I’m for Apollos,” aren’t you being totally infantile?
Who do you think Paul is, anyway? Or Apollos, for that matter? Servants, both of us … We each carried out our servant assignment. I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plants, but God made you grow.
—1 Cor. 3:1-6 The Message
Comparisons breed competition. One competitive struggle most pastors face and yet are probably reluctant to acknowledge is fueled by our media-drenched culture. Not only do they feel responsible to have a fresh word from heaven for God’s people every week, it is easy for pastors to feel that people expect even more. Their preaching must be as engaging as Chuck Swindoll’s, as passionate as Tony Campolo’s, as practical as Charles Stanley’s, as authoritative as John MacArthur’s, as picturesque as Max Lucado’s, and as evangelistic as Billy Graham’s.
Comparisons, whether imposed by ourselves or others, create pressures God never intended us to bear. Grace says, “You are what you are by the grace of God. I accept you completely. I thank God for who you are and what you are becoming.” Without grace we tend to see things on the surface.
Paul sees through the Corinthians’ shallow approach to life and, in his second letter to them, offers gracious counsel: “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12).
Without grace, expectations increase. The Corinthians’ gracelessness was saying to Paul, “You don’t meet our expectations! You fall short of what we hoped for! We’re not sure you can meet our needs! There are leaders who have much more going for them than you do!”
A primary cause of stress in our lives is unrealistic expectations, both those that others impose upon us and those we place upon ourselves. The chasm that exists between our realities (i.e., the way life really can be) and the expectations we feel creates stress.
Years ago, I experienced the effect of unrealistic expectations in my ministry. I was transitioning into a new church and ministry role. Little did I realize all my supervisor had done to “prepare the way” for me.
Before I had even arrived on the job the rest of the staff at this large church was already weary of hearing the pastor proclaim all that the “new guy” was going to accomplish. The staff had given me a code name—“SuperBob” (which I didn’t discover until months later). One staff member had gone so far as to post a picture of a body-builder in his office with my face superimposed.
In retrospect it is no wonder that just a few short weeks after assuming my role, I felt that I was failing. I was. I could not possibly have been all that I was expected to be in that post, though I sure gave it my best shot. The expectations were extreme. As a result, so was the stress.
When all we give people are our expectations, while withholding our understanding and listening ear, we achieve the opposite of grace. Instead of encouraging and empowering them to reach their potential, we discourage them, keeping them from it.
Despite the Corinthians’ graceless treatment of Paul, he refused to write them off. He would not label them. He refused to ridicule them. He refused to fight fire with fire. He refused to live out of his anger. Love and grace, instead, drove him back to their potential again and again.
Have you experienced gracelessness? Graceless moments? Ungracious people?