Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. (Paul the Apostle, Letter to the Galatians, 4:19, NLT)
This line from Paul has stayed with me for two days. It comes from a section of the Galatian letter when Paul has shifted from teaching to recounting his personal relationship with the Galatians and the love he has for them. The metaphors here are especially insightful.
Paul isn’t in labor pains for the Galatians to come to faith as new believers. That’s already a reality. No, Paul is in “labor” as the Galatians are struggling in their journey toward Christ being “fully formed” in their lives. In other words, Paul is watching the struggle of real disciples, in the growth process, and his heart is the heart of a mother in labor and a father who longs to see a healthy child.
The Galatians aren’t the Corinthians, but they are in a mess. Flatterers have taken them down the road of a false Gospel. What was a solid church plant is at real risk, but Paul is not just concerned about doctrinal correctness. He is concerned over what will be the result of moving away from Jesus and the work of the Spirit, instead encouraging a dependence on flesh and the works righteousness of the old covenant. He sees dark results ahead if the Galatians lose this battle.
Paul’s view of the Galatians’ struggle spills over into his closing exhortations. He wants them to be a Jesus shaped community, and that means accepting the reality of struggle and helping one another. Here he is in chapter 6.
1 Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. 2 Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. 3 If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.
Paul’s investment in the Galatians is a great example. They struggle to be fully formed disciples. He agonizes with them. The Galatians are going to need encouragement and help as they struggle, fail and need a hand up. Paul tells them to gently and humbly enter into the struggles of others.
I read all this with an overwhelming sense that many evangelicals have no idea what it is to “gently and humbly” be part of a community of struggling disciples in the growth process. Their orientation, approach and words reveal a different model of discipleship: Why aren’t you acting like a “fully formed” disciple of Jesus now? Why don’t you get it right the first time.
Let me be the first one at the altar here. I’m so infested with the revivalistic theology of my upbringing that I have plenty of this attitude in my own thoughts and words. I regret it, and I hope I can repent and act more like Jesus and Paul. Too many strugglers have seen me nod is supposed sympathy, but my thoughts and actions were nothing like what Paul writes here or what Jesus demonstrates repeatedly in his mission.
Struggle is annoying to the person who externalizes it and pushes away. It would be a lot more convenient, many say, if everyone in the body of Christ could do the right thing the first time and keep doing it. After all, we are Christians, right?
Of course, real Christians can’t live up to that standard, so we have to decide whether to embrace the role of encouraging imperfect people who have a messy set of problems in their journey toward Christlikeness, or are we going to remove ourselves from the potential problem with a few words of judgment?
What’s been your experience?
One of the things that changed my view of these matters was my own struggles with Denise’s journey to Catholicism. I was struggling and failing. Everyone could see it. I made the same errors over and over. I confessed them to some of my brothers. I thank God for the people who came along side of me and helped me struggle to better place. It was hard for them to see me, a leader and pastor, stuck in a ditch of bitterness and despair.
Their ministry to me was especially valuable because other believers made the other choice: they wanted no part of my struggle and found ways- personally and at a distance- to let me know that my struggle wasn’t welcome. They were shocked that I wasn’t walking in victory, whatever that means. I never felt so excluded from my fellow Jesus follower as when I was struggling with what God was doing in my family and marriage.
It was a painful lesson. I learned that the struggles of growing Christians expose the spiritual condition of the Christians around them. Something as simple as a prayer request can become an indicator of whether someone loves you and is willing to struggle, pray and invest time with you, or instead chooses to pronounce you a loser who is an embarrassment to other Christians, especially them.
Scot Mcknight astutely points out that we have a lot of people taking the church very seriously these days, but ironically, many of them can’t find the church they need. Not because of a lack of entertaining programs and preaching, but because they are looking for a community where they can faithfully struggle alongside other strugglers in the discipleship journey.
Many of us feel that absence. We are parts of community, but we are afraid to confess our struggles. We’ve seen how others are written off, and we don’t want to risk the same kind of rejection. We want to be the kinds of persons who can pray for others as fellow pilgrims. We want to move past being the judges of those who are simply like us: broken people who need a hand.
Scripture has the Jesus shaped community in mind. We find it too risky. We want Christians to get it right the first time and keep on getting it right. When they fail, we don’t want the mess to intrude into our so-called “walk with Christ.” If we embrace a community where strugglers of every kind can find a home and help, we may be overwhelmed at what God is able to do.