In a sermon that I once heard the preacher spoke of “a community of messed-up sinners.” Far from being a “society of saints,” the local church is a hospital ward, a community of hopeful sinners who are scarred and limping.
So often one hears from an honest counselee, or from a believer young in the faith, that they felt embarrassed or intimidated because everyone else in the church appeared so together, so successful, so joyfully strong and healthy. Here they were, struggling with a particular issue or a particular sin, and they felt that they ought rather to struggle on alone, suffering in silence, because everyone else exuded an air of confidence and spiritual, emotional health. How helpful, then, to know that, closer to the truth, is the admission that the local church is a collection of messed-up sinners toiling on by the power of the Holy Spirit, hopeful in the promises of God regarding actual and inevitable righteousness.
The two areas, in my pastoral experience, where this information is most liberating and constructive, are in the area of marriage and in the area of besetting hidden sin.
When couples run into problems in their marriage they are all-too-often hesitant to speak to anyone about the pain and frustration. When individuals have a personal and secret history of regularly tripping over the same hurdle, they quietly and privately internalise the sense of shame. Sadly, this hesitation to seek counsel is often borne out of pride. They do not want to appear like weak failures. But who among us would want to boast about strength? Who here doesn’t feel the ache of perceived and actual failure?
The reality is that, being sinners, we all experience the consequences of sin: our sin, our spouse’s sin, and the sin of others around us. Your sin is usually compounded by my sinful response to it. Very soon the situation is quite complex. Add a multitude of layers and episodes, and very soon the graph of our happiness is heading south. It doesn’t take long for this unresolved issue to form a tender spot in our relationship. A multitude of tender spots eventually demands quite a nifty dance to avoid these landmines. If only we could talk about it!
When this kind of relational complexity is analysed and appreciated, one begins to marvel at the wisdom and kindness of God in weaving His children into communities where help is at hand. What a fantastic gift to be surrounded by people who are intentionally and deliberately living before an all-knowing God. Their presence helps us to identify that what we are experiencing (battling with) in our marriage is not unique. There are older couples that seem to have navigated their way through such treacherous waters well—seemingly. God has brought these people into our lives to help us. What a gift!
Spending time in more intimate settings (such as Grace Groups) allows for some self-disclosure. Over time, God sensitises others to our need, and simultaneously begins to help us to be bold, giving us an increasing appetite for vulnerability. This is a marvellous combination—others being available to us, and us growing in our desire to be healthy and honest. What a wonderful community: people loving the God who is light and love, increasingly desiring their lives to be real and productive, and open to God’s remedies, God’s means, which are confession and the humble expression of need. What we have, then, is beggars showing other beggars where they found bread!
Why is it that wise and mature believers seem to know exactly what we are facing in our marriage, or in some other sensitive setting? It is because they themselves faced the identical situation, or something very similar, and they received help from God via His people. Our loving heavenly Father intended the church to be a community of faith where people make themselves vulnerable and find others willing to help them.
What a privilege God confers on His people—encouraging others with the encouragements we ourselves have received. Personal victories put us in a position to speak with confidence and conviction to others who we see are struggling. Godly Christian counsel is given from God’s Word in ways that are shaped and fashioned in the crucible of painful personal experience.
If only we could stop assuming that others are soaring where we seem to be struggling. Our battles are not unique to us, and the brother or sister nearest us, by God’s wise design, may not be an expert on the subject. But God may simply have led them a little further along the path, intending for them to encourage and assist us.
Rest assured: God does hit straight shots with crooked sticks, and this He does in the context of the local church, where redeemed and healing sinners are God’s means of healing and encouragement for others. Don’t be naïve: No one has “arrived.” By God’s kind providence, some are simply further along, and willing to turn back and lend a helping hand! God rewards the humble who make use of these means.