John Ortberg makes the point that many of us are afraid to reveal who we really are, especially in church. The very place that should be a refuge for us, a safe place to reveal ourselves, is too often the place where we put on masks. But even the most carefully constructed mask will eventually slip. Ortberg tells of being in a store one day with one of his children who was pestering him for a toy. Finally, in exasperation, he responded, “No, I’m not going to get you that toy. I’m not going to get it for you today. I’m not going to get it for you tomorrow. I’m not going to get it next month or next year. I am never going to get it for you! Do you understand? When you’re seventy and I’m a hundred years old, I’m still not going to get it for you!”
Just then the clerk looked at him and said, “You look awfully familiar. Do you teach at Willow Creek Community Church?”
Ortberg recounts what happened next: “I said, ‘Yes, my name is Bill Hybels.’ I didn’t really say that, but I wanted to. I wanted to hide. It was awful.”1
The problem with hiding is that we miss out on the benefits that come from true community. Why? Because God doesn’t build on falsehoods. Neither will he build up a congregation where everyone is intent on projecting a false self. As Ortberg observes, “It’s possible for people to attend the same church . . . year after year, without anyone ever knowing them. . . . Nobody knows their marriage is crumbling, their heart is breaking. Nobody knows they are involved in a secret pattern of sin that is destroying their soul. This is not God’s plan. It’s a mockery of community.”2 Church is meant to be a place where people are healed. It’s a hospital, not a set for filming a major motion picture.
You needn’t reveal your deepest secrets to everyone you meet in church. But you should have at least a few people who know you well and one or two you can talk to about your trials, temptations, and failings.
1. John Ortberg, Laurie Pederson, and Judson Poling, Groups: The Life-Giving Power of Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 50.
2. Ibid., 52–53.
(Image courtesy tutu55 of at freeimages.com)
The Hebrew word shema is translated “listen” or “hear,” as in “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). As is often the case, this Hebrew word packs more punch than its English equivalent. Instead of merely referring to perceiving sound through our ears, it also means perceiving sound through our hearts. But what does that mean? Simply that the word shema contains within it the idea that we have to understand and respond appropriately to the words our ears perceive.
Long story short, what this passage from Deuteronomy and many others in the Bible are saying when they use the word hear is “listen and obey.”(1) This is the winning combination that will bring more peace to our lives, even if what God asks is difficult. By living out this deeper meaning of shema, we will remain in God’s will, which is always the safest place to be.
Interestingly, this connection between hearing and obeying is also borne out in Latin. Wayne Muller tells of learning about this from his friend Henri Nouwen. “Henri,” he says, “insisted that the noise of our lives made us deaf, unable to hear when we are called, or from which direction. Henri said our lives have become absurd—because in the word absurd we find the Latin word surdus, which means deaf. In our spiritual life we need to listen to the God who constantly speaks but whom we seldom hear in our hurried deafness.”
Muller goes on to say, “Henri was fond of reminding me that the word obedient comes from the Latin word audire, which means ‘to listen.’ Henri believed that a spiritual life was a pilgrimage from absurdity to obedience—from deafness to listening.”(2)
1. An excellent discussion of the meaning and significance of shema can be found in Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 31–41.
2. Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 1999), 84.
(Image courtesy of kslyesmith at freeimages.com)
Have you ever rubbed sandpaper back and forth against a rough piece of wood? It takes a lot of work to produce something solid and silky beneath your fingers, with no rough edges or splinters. That’s a picture of how God sometimes works, placing us in community with different kinds of believers, some of whom rub us the wrong way.
In fact, the people who get on our nerves or who see things differently than we do can render a priceless service. Though they can make life difficult at times, they can also be instruments God uses to work peace into our lives. How? By showing us how to speak the truth in love, exercise forbearance, benefit from criticism, handle conflict, show patience, demonstrate Christ’s love, and stay accountable. They can help us grow up spiritually and emotionally. And we can do the same for them.
I remember early in my career working with a colleague I’ll call Ed. Both of us were editors who wanted to publish books that would build up the church and God’s people. But we had very different ideas of how to do that. He wanted to publish books I was convinced no one wanted to read. And I wanted to publish books that failed to interest him. The tension between us made working together difficult, and I was tempted to conclude that Ed was both stubborn and clueless. Likely he thought the same of me.
Eventually Ed left the company. But it wasn’t long before we found ourselves working together again. Both of us had helped launch a ministry to disadvantaged women. This time, the Ed I saw in action was quite effective, using his skills to grow the ministry. A gifted writer, Ed composed letters to donors and kept the organization afloat financially. As we worked together in this new setting, the tension that had characterized our earlier relationship vanished and we began to forge a genuine friendship.
Over the years, Ed and I had worked on each other’s personalities like sandpaper, smoothing out the rough edges. To echo the words of Parker Palmer: “Community will teach us that our grip on truth is fragile and incomplete, that we need many ears to hear the fullness of God’s word for our lives.”1
1Parker Palmer, quoted in Catherine Whitmire, Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2001), 143.
If you were to be completely honest, telling me exactly who or what you hate, I would know something very important about you. The information you disclosed would tell me where you are on your spiritual journey. Or, to use another metaphor, it would act like a spiritual gauge, measuring the condition of your soul.
If you are like me, you may have a hard time admitting to hatred of any kind. But what if I were to tell you that God allows hatred—that he expects it of us? Would you brand me a heretic? Or a lunatic? The Bible, you might say, tells us that God is love, so how can we tolerate even a shred of hatred in our lives?
Perhaps the point is not so much that we never hate but that we have the right target for our hatred, imitating God by hating the things he hates. Paul tells the Romans to “hate what is wrong” (12:9). We know that God hates every form of sin, not just because sin transgresses his laws, but because sin violates shalom, breaking the peace. Sin prevents us from living life as it’s supposed to be lived.
Like God, we are to hate the sin and not the sinner. But we get confused, finding it difficult to separate the two. Fortunately Christ has done what we can’t—separating sin from the sinner by virtue of his sacrifice on the cross.
Still, instead of loving the things God loves and hating the things God hates, our disordered and divided hearts often make the mistake of tolerating what he will not tolerate—greed, selfishness, pride, and lust—and then hating what he loves—purity, goodness, humility, and kindness. Our quest as Christians is to let God remake our hearts so we love whatever makes for shalom and hate whatever destroys it.
(Image courtesy of sachyn at freeimages.com)