I was talking with a friend this morning about an upcoming four-day mission to a rural area, and our conversation got side-tracked, which is not unusual. But he said something which, if I was a cartoon figure, would have produced a little light-bulb above my head. And I thought that this was quite an important idea:
We are all different.
Hey, let me finish! I know that’s not a terribly profound discovery, it’s just the introductory statement, ok?
You see, there are implications. One of them being that perhaps, since you are not me, you might already be aware of what I only just figured out.
Being different means that we have different gifts, different qualities, different strengths and weaknesses. In personality, but also spiritually – and culturally, and as a result of our personal histories or life experiences (or lack of same), in our educations, and in the set of friends and relations who form our support networks, and in our ethics and values.
How do I, as a Christian, look at fellow-Christians?
When we started at seminary, I was horrified by most of my co-seminarians. How could the church possibly have thought that these people were suitable as potential ministers? “They” were (and are) loud, rowdy, appeared to have no sense of respect for the consecrated space of our rather impressive chapel, and many made no secret of their ambition to, if not enrich themselves out of ministry, at least to see that they were comfortable. Many of “them” differ radically from me in terms of what constitutes acceptable sexual conduct for single Christians, or what accommodation is or is not possible with African Traditional Religion and its practitioners (think of prophecy or divination by spirit possession, propitiation of ancestral spirits by animal sacrifice, etc.) Some seem very immature and graceless, others have unresolved issues which result in their being very touchy on such issues as chauvinism, racism, or abuse.
Of course, I have none of these faults!!
(Mine are other faults, far less serious – in my eyes!)
As time went by and I got to know people, I began to see that most of those I had at first judged as fatally flawed had very good qualities as well. Perhaps the church had, after all been right? At any rate, I came to regard nearly all of my fellows as having at least as much potential to be good ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as I have. And, to be fair, each of us is still a work in progress.
Here is the important bit:
The more people are different from me,
the more I need to borrow their spectacles to see them with.
If I look at a Christian sister or brother with my values, from the point of view of my culture and my background, I will be judging them as if they were me.
And they are not me. God loves them and has chosen them just as He has done for me. She or he has been bought with the same price paid for me.
In my value-set, certain things are as Law: if you transgress my Law, then you are lost, then you are walking in sin, and you need to repent and mend your ways.
Make no mistake, Scriptural holiness is not modified by culture or background or characteristics or modernity. The measure of Scriptural holiness, God’s plumb-line, applies to all of us. Equally.
But my personal value-set includes things which come out of my culture, my personality, my community, my history; things that are NOT Scriptural – but which I venerate as if they were!
When that causes me to judge or reject a fellow-Christian, then I need to think about taking off my cultural/ethical/historical/tribal/habitual/personal spectacles and putting on those of my brother, or sister.
Only when I am looking at that person with insight into their life, from their point of view as far as I can see, might I be in a position to say whether, in the light of Scripture, there is something that needs to be corrected in their lives. And even then, that is “might”.
Because only they know themselves, and only God knows them entirely. And – reminder to self – God does not always have the same priority list of necessary corrections that I do.
Furthermore, God has made it quite clear that only He is in a position to judge you, me – and them.
So what I really need to be doing is to consider what values I have been making into idols. And it can be very instructive, if sometimes a little painful, to consider how I might appear, when looked at through the lenses of others.
It is almost always, I have found, better to be looking at one’s own faults and failings than to dwell on those of others.