Through the month of February in our home church, we’re focusing on 1 Corinthians 13, taking a few verses per week and really spending time with them, through things like discussion and reflective worship. As part of my own meditation process, I thought it would be good to write some thoughts down here. So periodically through the remainder of February, I’ll be posting on the topic of “Love Is…”, focusing primarily on the description of love found in 1 Cor. 13:4-6. As I do this…please bear in mind that these are things I’m processing, not “preaching”. I still fall short of this description of love in many ways. It is my prayer that in reflecting on these things, I will continue to see Christ formed in me.
For most of us who are Christ-followers (dare I say all of us)…we were far from having our act together when we made the choice to follow Christ. We were broken people, some with bad habits, some with addictions and compulsions, all of us enslaved to sin in some way. And most of us would admit to ourselves that since choosing to follow, we still don’t have our act together completely.
So when we first became Christians, did God immediately show up with a bunch of conditions and regulations and ultimatums about what we were doing wrong in our lives? Did He abandon us the first time we got drunk or slept with the wrong person? Did He beat us over the head with our failures, trying to get us to clean up?
Well…some people might have done that to us. But God did not. Despite the sin we still carried around in our lives, He stayed engaged. He did not fall off His throne in shock when we messed up. He did not walk off offended because we got mad at Him when something went wrong.
Being Jesus’ disciples does mean we will become like Him–but that is a lifelong process. And God knows this even better than we do. He stays in that process with us, and never stops loving us.
This is a great example of what I think it means when it says, “Love is patient.”
The Greek word for “patient” is a derivative of the word for “longsuffering”, listed as part of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Patience, I believe, has a lot to do with seeing a bigger picture, being committed to someone or something for the “long haul”, and being willing to “suffer long”–having the capacity to wait it out when change does not come quickly.
God is love, and this is how God deals with us. God is patient with us. He is slow to anger, even when our sinful brokenness reveals itself over and over again. And I believe His treatment of us is our example of how we should deal with others.
It occurs to me that there are two basic schools of thought with pastors. On one hand, you have those who take a hard line against sin, who see it as a cancer that destroys the church, and who feel it is their personal responsibility to ferret it out of people where they find it. On the other hand, you have those who seem to be very tolerant, talk about sin rarely if ever, and almost employ a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy, preferring to focus on more savory or popular topics.
If you’ve followed my history on this blog, you’ve probably figured out I have been in the first camp. While through my adult life and ministry I haven’t publicly preached about sin all that much, I felt it was my responsibility to confront it in my congregation, pretty much whenever I found it. And I think it went back to a common mindset many of us have, that to accept people in their sin is the same as endorsing and enabling their behavior. And so I probably did more harm than good in many cases, because I thought to love meant to confront.
I think we often feel the same thing about doctrinal error and heresy–which is one reason why different churches won’t associate with one another. If we disagree doctrinally on what we deem to be an important issue, we somehow think we are affirming the other party’s perceived error if we continue to fellowship with them. We feel that somehow acceptance is the same as enablement, that love somehow is a commodity to be withheld if certain conditions are not met.
But as I look at how Christ deals with us, I have to say it looks a lot different than this. Every one of us who has turned to Him–every one of us did so with sin in our lives, and every one of us did so while carrying certain wrong beliefs and perceptions. And He accepted us, and even let us go on for awhile in our sin and/or heresy. He never made right action or right doctrine a prerequisite for choosing to follow Him; He made he invitation to all of us, and when we came to Him, He did not cast us away.
As I write this, I can look down at my own fat (but diminishing) gut, and see the visual evidence of no less than two of the “seven deadly sins”: gluttony and laziness. And yet, after all these years, Jesus has not abandoned me for these sins, nor for any other of my many failures. He has stayed engaged in my life through many years of brokenness, even as He leads me through the many stages of transformation and redemption. This, to me, is the patience found in His love. If God has dealt so with me, how could I do any less for others?
This is not to say love never confronts; it is only to say that love and confrontation aren’t the same thing–just as acceptance and enablement are not the same thing. Time after time after time in our discipleship, we will find moments of truth and moments of decision–those places where Jesus reveals part of our heart that is not yielded to Him, and calls for repentance and redemption. But He does so in His own perfect way and time, and (thankfully) chooses not to deal with all our crap at once. This is the patience found in love.
Here’s the bottom line: just because I think, act, or believe a certain way today, that does not mean I will always be that way. Just because I struggle with a certain sin or belief right now, that doesn’t mean I’ll never change. It is the patience of God, the patience found in love, that can make the distinction between who we are and who we will be, and can choose to stay engaged during the process of transformation from one to the other. For the non-believer, it is this patience that continually invites and draws people into fellowship with Jesus; and for the disciple, it is this patience that bides its time and continues to love us through many cycles of confrontation and redemption.
And so, these days, I am no longer compelled to confront sin every time I see it–not because I condone it, but because I realize that we are all works in progress. Because I realize that there is a time and place for moments of truth, and those moments are on God’s timetable, not mine. Because I can embrace someone without approving of all they do. Because I trust God to disciple all of us as He sees fit, and because at best we only play a small part in that process in other people’s lives. Because God has never abandoned me in my sin.
Because love is patient.