The death knell of any committed relationship: “I’m with you, unless something more fun comes up.”
Billy and Deb fell in love, got married, and had a couple of kids. Billy kept up his rodeo riding, fishing, and hunting with a gaggle of buddies. Deb stayed home, raised the kids, cleaned the house, cooked, and paid the bills, while also working a full-time job. Billy thought marriage meant two separate individuals living under the same roof, with two separate lives. You could say he never came to terms with being married.
He and Deb deteriorated, until finally they divorced. Billy married a second time, but his selfish ideals never changed, and so he repeated the same sad process and divorced again. And then again. Today when Billy talks about those marriages, he’ll tell you what went wrong by relating how the wives each became unreasonable, demanding, smothering. But beyond a wedding ring and the bedroom, he was barely married to any one of them, at least not according to the biblical description of two becoming one.
Until “me” becomes “we,” the fullest blessings of a committed relationship cannot engulf a person. The individual will remain, as it were, vacuum packed within himself or herself, unaffected even by the very dew of heaven.
Christians experience this problem, perhaps not in our physical marriages, but certainly in our relationships toward one another. We may never have come to terms with being Christians beyond “Jesus loves me.” Yes, we might theoretically understand we are part of one bride married to Christ (Eph. 5), one body with one head (Rom 12), one vine with one husbandman (John 15), but these teachings have a hard time escaping the confines of Bible study workbooks. Why? Because though they’re great for inspirational value, they’re packed with practical limitations upon anyone who might pursue them.
The church–“we”–will always potentially get in the way of “me,” an unlimited, self-directed life. It’s no surprise that our reactions to it won’t always be favorable, even to the basic idea of regular church attendance. In fact, Christians often defend these attitudes by citing wounds they have suffered at the hands of uncharitable brethren.
Or some of us raise concerns about legalistic congregations that control their members. No doubt this is a legitimate problem, but in the context of the average community church, allegations of control end up sounding a lot like Billy. He complained that Deb was trying to “control” him by not allowing him to drink a case of beer and throw horseshoes all night with the boys whenever he wanted. The truth is, close ethical relationships always exert a certain amount of control and influence. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be either serious or committed. They’d be casual, superficial.
Can marriages or churches become toxic due to high control? Yes. No doubt we must arrive at a place where appropriate personal boundaries are not violated, yet self-sacrifice remains a reality. The church requires a framework of love, where we do not resent giving, and are not ashamed of taking.
I can always recognize the people who have crossed this divide. When they speak of their church, they don’t refer to it as “this church,” but in terms of people and relationships to whom they have committed themselves, the camaraderie of past victories and failures, of hopes for the future, of the glories of Christ at present. These folks have owned being Christians, members of the body of Christ, branches in the vine, and enjoy, however imperfectly, the blessings that come with it.
Nowhere do we find this blessing more explicitly spelled out than in Ephesians chapter 3.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (vv.14-19).
These excellent experiences and blessings were to be found in Ephesus among “all the saints.” The Christians there were not supposed to try and capture spiritual lightning on their own, in the midst of private devotionals, or select small groups. They weren’t to single out a few favorite companions. The “all” would be experienced in gatherings of the church, where believers would interact with one another, hear a unified message, experience joint worship, and thus be strengthened, rooted, grounded, and filled. As with the slats in a rain barrel, none of them individually were meant to contain the fullness of the water, but would do it together.
After protracted experiences of this type, the Ephesians became different people, a people whose spiritual dynamic we study and remember thousands of years after they have departed this world. And it remains an energy in Christ we ourselves pursue among today’s Christians.
Before I became a believer, I was a church-goer. Not the kind who liked it. The kind who endured it. I drew pictures on kleenex boxes, snickered with my siblings at inappropriate times during the service, and got aggravated sideward glances from parents. Though my folks were far from rabid religious types, somehow the value stuck with me that regular Christian meetings were a good thing.
However, “good” wasn’t enough. I stopped going as soon as I was old enough to shave.
After a long hiatus, I met Jesus, and church meetings immediately became an issue once again on my radar. It wasn’t easy to sort through. I had become accustomed for years to staying up all night on Saturday, and sleeping half the day Sunday, so attendance meant a change of seismic proportions.
My decision for Christ had been the greatest of my life, but the church had to have been the second greatest. I went here and there. Then I went nowhere. I opted out of Sunday mornings with opinions, reasons, excuses of all types. I dropped into fellowships like an infrequent visitor who had a permanent hall pass. The idea of regularity and any blessings attached to it never occurred to me. In the meantime, I found it hard to be rooted and felt far from “filled unto all the fullness of God.”
In the fall of 1984, six months after being saved, and tired of my hopskotch Christian experience, I decided I knew exactly where I would be every Sunday morning–church, and as long as I lived in the same area, I would attend the same church. When the whole congregation came together, there would be no more sniffles holding me back, or fatigue from the work week. No more road trips, getting caught up on chores, or sleeping in. I cut it all out. Once I did that, even legitimate sicknesses and travel normalized, became manageable, and rare.
Something has happened to me over the years since. The rooting in Christ that I craved took place. The filling I longed for that had failed to materialize in my prayer closet, now took on a shape and size I never knew existed. Admittedly, it did not happen merely by sitting through church services, but neither was it less than that!
Let me offer a piece of advice about gathering with the church: Make a one-time decision to be there. Don’t emotionally tax yourself with making that decision every week. Then, declare your intentions to the Lord, by telling Him you are looking for rooting, grounding, knowing, and being filled together with “all” the believers in that church.
We regularly hear high profile testimonies from people about meeting Jesus. We thank God for this. But we rarely hear about quiet believers who put themselves together with others, week after week. You’ll never get invited onto any television talk shows for doing such a thing.
But that’s okay. You’ll be too busy anyway, soaking up a glory that will endure the ages.