They say you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. The same is true of church. In essence, church is a big family, within which are people who naturally get on and others who don’t. There are people with varying expectations of life, backgrounds, political and social outlooks, behavioural styles, denominational emphases, communication styles and financial situations, along with a hundred other points of difference. Every gap between us has within it the potential for conflict, suspicion and judgement, but we also have the ever-present opportunity to fill each with mercy.
For me, mercy begins with choosing not to judge. 1 Corinthians 4,5 (NIV) gives us insight into the heart of judgement, revealing it to be the assumption of motive:
‘Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.’
It is not for any of us to assume another person’s motivation – only the Lord knows us on that level, and exposing our hearts and the forces that drive us is God’s province alone. When final judgement comes, everything that can be exposed will be exposed, by God, in love, but until that time we are simply unable to know what happens in another person’s heart.
To use an everyday example, if a motorist doesn’t let me out at a junction, I might get angry. The truth of the matter is that I can only have an emotional response after assuming the other driver’s motivation – that they are arrogant, or selfish, or think they’re better than me in their fancy urban four-by-four – when they could just as well have been hurrying to hospital, or distracted by painful worries, or having a really bad day. If I bear that in mind, abstaining from the assumption of motive, all negative emotion is drained from the moment. If I assume motivation and become angry, I carry that anger through the rest of my day, where it might poison other interactions and leach out ever further, affecting others.
In the context of church, where humans of all stripes mingle and differences abound, the assumption of motive is all too easy. Much of the time, the discomfort one person might feel around another springs from a lack of understanding, or an active misunderstanding, enabled by the assumption of motive – they do this because they want attention, they do that because they’re selfish, they don’t do this because they are lazy, they don’t do that because they think it’s beneath them, etc. Ascribing motive is a deep pit, with spikes at the bottom and snakes on the walls. It leads to in-groups and out-groups, judgements, factions and envy – behaviours Paul warns us against in stark terms.
Galatians 5, 19-21 (NIV):
‘The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.’
According to this scripture, dissensions, factions and envy are as ungodly as orgies, fits of rage and idolatry, but I think we can be far too casual about these common manifestations of judgement.
My feeling is this: the scriptures invite us to address the spaces between us, the gaps in our understanding, the differences that beyond the walls of the church might keep us apart. Instead of filling those spaces with suspicion and judgement, we can pour in mercy. If somebody hurts us, mercy calls us both to confront and to forgive. We confront to bring something to the light, but without assuming motive – asking honest, heartfelt questions and remaining open to the answers that come. We forgive to wipe the slate clean. In this way we can keep short accounts with each other, and learn the liberty of acceptance and trust. We build on that liberty with a truer understanding of each other’s nature, and ever-strengthening bonds of affection.
I’ve experienced this wonderful, transformative and radical kind of love in the small group I attend, as part of belonging to my local church. Within that group are diverse individuals with vastly different life experiences and perspectives on society. We’ve been meeting together for over four years now, and have had plenty of opportunity for division. This was especially true in the beginning, when it would have been easy to judge each other over obvious differences, but we managed to avoid that trap. When disagreements and upset first arose, we addressed them head on, with kindness and courage. We expressed our discomfort, listened to each other, and built a structure of acceptance and understanding, within which conflict can occur and be resolved, though that rarely happens these days. One of the tremendous advantages of unity is that it gives God room to move, and we have seen many direct, immediate and wonderful answers to prayer within the group. Psalm 133 (NIV):
‘How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity…
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life for evermore.’
Without unity we can never be truly effective for God. If riven by tension and strife, we defeat ourselves, as Jesus stated in Matthew 12,25 (NIV):
‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.’
Learning to love each other, especially those who are different from us in some significant way, is foundational to aspirational spiritual dreams such as the release of gifts of healing and the outpouring of renewal. It all starts with love, but love doesn’t sweep strife under the carpet. It shines a light. It exposes, and brings healing through reconciliation. So let’s embrace that difficult conversation, apologise for our part in any upset, enquire about the other’s intentions, explain how it affected us, extend forgiveness always and to all, and give God room to heal, to bind us together, and to build his church.
In this way, mercy fills the spaces between us.