I’ve heard it said, on several occasions: “The ministry would be wonderful if it were not for people.” It usually raises an understandable smile, but really, it is not very funny. Shepherds should be careful about how we speak of God’s flock. After all, the flock of God is also a bride—the Bride of Christ. Though He is well aware of her faults, nevertheless Jesus desires for her to be honoured, not belittled. Though He knows better than anyone the sinful behaviour of His Bride, and how she can at times be painful in her relationships, nevertheless Jesus also sees her eventual glory. And let’s be frank: I would imagine that the average church member might lament, “The ministry we receive would be great if it were not for ministers.” Touché.
The hard reality is that Christians are sinful and therefore they can be painful—whether clergy or congregation. Why do you suppose Paul warned the church at Galatia not to “bite and devour one another” (Galatians 5:15)? Why do you suppose the New Testament is filled with exhortations to “love one another” (John 13:34; 15:12; Romans 13:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; 1 Peter 1:22; etc.)? I mean, if it were easy then why would we need such an oft repeated command? Yes, people can be painful, even Christian people. So, how should we respond?
Last week I wrote that the real problem lies not with others but rather with our own sinful hearts. But that does not mean that people do not present us with challenges; challenges that tempt our sinful hearts. I have been a Christian, and a pastor, long enough to have experienced nasty letters, slanderous words, and thoughtless and sometimes mean-spirit responses. I have experienced the silent treatment from those who seemingly want to “kill me softly.” Yes, like you, I have had plenty encounters with people who have caused me pain. And to my shame, I too have been painful to others. So how does my Lord expect me to respond? How does He expect my brothers and sisters to respond to me when I am painful? Well, I am grateful that we are not left in the dark about this.
There are plenty of Scriptures that instruct us how to respond when people are painful. But at this point in time, the one that is speaking the loudest to me is found in Hebrews 12:2: “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” This instructs me that where I look is the key to living with people—even with painful people—to the glory of God.
No one has ever experienced pain from people as Jesus did. When I am mistreated I can always, if I am honest, find some measure of just deserts in it. But not so with Jesus. He always did (does!) all things well. His sinless life gave no justification to anyone to ever mistreat Him, and yet they did. Jesus knows by personal experience what it means to be slighted, to be hated, to be taken for granted. He knows what it is like to experience ungratefulness at hands of the self-absorbed. He knows what it is like to be slandered. He knows what it is like to receive physical abuse at the hands of sinners. He knows the experience of painful people in ways that you and I cannot even imagine. But He also knows and shows how to respond. He looked to the throne above, and that is precisely where we are to look.
When we experience painful people there is only one way to faithfully, and therefore fruitfully, respond: Look above to Jesus Christ our Lord. If you look anywhere else then you will surely be disappointed. Further, if you look in the wrong direction you may become a painful person yourself!
So what does it mean to be “looking unto Jesus”? It means many things—including the application of spiritual effort to see that your sovereign Lord has put these painful people in your life as a means of bringing you more quickly to glory. Painful people are God’s gift to you. Unwrap the gifts and embrace them gratefully. If you are grate-full to God for the opportunity to be like Christ in your response, then such challenges will no longer grate you. Yes, painful people are providential presents from God. They are God’s powerful provision to produce Christlikeness in your life. And guess what? Sometimes you are such a gift to another!
We live in a very broken world, and because of this we belong to a very broken church. Yes, we are forgiven; and yes, we cling to the promise of one day being perfect. But until then, the church will continue to be a place (a people) that is sometimes painful. The solution is not withdrawal and isolation; rather, the expected righteous response is to draw near to Jesus. This will give you the necessary spiritual insulation to engage those otherwise shockingly painful people. And what you will find is that others will at the same time be insulated from the otherwise shockingly painful way in which you sometimes treat them!
I suppose that I can put it this way: Every one of us, in some way, is at times a pain in the neck to someone—for the glory of God! Our God has wisely destined that, until Jesus returns, the local church will be filled with painful people to the glory of God. Painful people are one of the numerous “all things” that “work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” And clearly God’s purpose is the glorification of those He saves (Romans 8:28–30).
As I am looking forward to expounding (in our studies of Hebrews 12), we Christians are called to look out for painful people rather than to look down on them (Matthew 18:10). We are to look out for ways (within our ability and opportunity) to help them to not be so painful. But we will never do that if we are despising them. In fact, if we look down on them, then mostly likely we will inflict more harm, thereby probably adding to their temptation to be even more painful. So, how do we go about looking out for, rather than looking down on, painful people? By looking up to the perfect Person, the Lord Jesus. What a pleasure! This pleasurable privilege of looking away from ourselves to Jesus empowers us to be more patient with those whom He loves. As we look up to Jesus we will view “painful” people with new eyes, enabling us to see the potential for change; both for them as well as for perhaps the most painful of persons: ourselves!