If there were an objective test you could employ to measure the love in your church against the kind of love the bible commands, would it pass?
Most North American churches run like volunteer organizations with optional programming that all in attendance can (and typically do) take or leave at their leisure. The commitment level is roughly correlated to any given family’s ability to “fit in” whatever bible studies or church activities they enjoy. 10-20% of your average church family runs the whole show – overextending their personal commitments well past the point of burnout – while the remainder pick and choose their activities like finicky eaters at a buffet. Disaffected parishioners can often be found waltzing out on a Sunday morning with whispered complaints about the music selection, critiques on the sermon, and general comments about “not feeling fed”.
But how does the bible tell us to approach the church, by which I mean the biblical definition of church, your fellow believers? It tells us to approach it with a love that imitates Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins. It calls on us to be prepared to die for one another.
But if we're to be honest, most of us treat our fellow believers with no more deference than we approach our colleagues at work. We hang out with those we like, ignore those we don’t, and make soft cooing sounds of support (but not much use) when we’re informed that someone is suffering.
But here’s John: “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love”, and Jesus, for that matter: “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them”. (Luke 6:32)
Love that isn’t willing to sacrifice? It isn’t love.
I wonder if I really understand that the goodness of God not only exists within me, but defines me; He is the core of who I am. He is at the center.
I know this, on some theological level, but is this central to my understanding of myself in relation to God and to the world around me? If I’m to be completely honest, I likely spend a lot more time approaching God from the standpoint of an malevolent sinner in need of penance rather than a redeemed child in need of forgiveness and a helping hand.
Of course, repentance and confession are and must be central to Christian living. A Christian must have a confessional attitude (1 John 1:9-10), but does that necessarily translate to an attitude of scorn and derision as it concerns me? More disconcerting still, do I subconsciously project this expectation onto other Christians and expect that they ought to do the same? Again, if I’m to be honest, I probably do.
What struck me this morning as I read David’s psalm is his acknowledgement of God’s work in himself as wonderful - a praise where praise is due sort of statement - which he manages without the slightest trace of conceit. If God has truly made me wonderfully, is it really virtuous of me to heap scorn on myself? On my sin, yes, but on myself? I wonder.
This morning, God’s word has compelled me to hit the pause button and reflect on an unspoken assumption that I’ve carried around with me for a long time. While I certainly don’t want to join in on the narcissistic “celebration of self” that seems to have become the world's favourite pastime, perhaps I need to be more careful not to go running off another cliff entirely. We’ve all done that now, haven’t we?
If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.
And one of you should say to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well” but does not give them what is necessary for the body, what is the benefit?
We ought to be challenged by these words, greatly challenged. Of the many biblical "musts" that are being ignored by much of today's North American church, the nature of the church herself is one. We are one body (1 Corinthians 12:12), family (Matthew 12:49-50), fellow citizens (Ephesians 2:19); we are to be utterly devoted to one another in love (Romans 12:10). This is more than a command; this is a privilege, a joy, a much-needed respite and comfort for those living in a world gone mad.
Ask yourself, believer, does this sound like the church you know?
Undoubtedly, a few will be able to answer the above question with a resounding 'yes'; unfortunately, they will be few. The majority are more likely accustomed to a highly individualized church, one that specializes in tightly monitored 'fellowship' programs and bible studies that almost seem designed to keep people a respectful distance from one another; one that is built around the personality of a pastor and is often just one staffing change away from total dissolution. Such a church is where we go to conceal, rather than reveal, our vulnerabilities; it's where we go to put on a brave face and assure those around us that everything is alright.
In such a church, the Holy Spirit is rarely invited to take part; and we are collectively invited not so much to Christian living (as the bible defines it) but rather an inoffensive lifestyle and a somewhat engaged theological discussion in which we congratulate ourselves on our shared convictions but do little with them. We are encouraged to share our faith as individuals in our own communities and workplaces, but rarely do we put together any sort of sustained effort towards sharing Christ with our neighbor: this is the pastor's job.
Families in such churches struggle as families often do with little more than a show of prayer support from those sitting around them. Congregants are often treated to multiple sermons per year on the importance of tithing, but rarely, if ever, are they called on to help the person sitting next to them; and when they are, it's often a one-off that does more to assuage the guilt of the participants than it does to relieve the suffering of the recipient.
This sort of church, it isn't church, not really. It's not what our Lord has asked of us.
Now, I know there are many Christians out there who feel the same way that I do, who will read this post and yell "exactly!" in a moment of excitement that soon dies out with the realization that the problem is larger than any one of us. No, you probably can't just stand up next Sunday morning and declare that things are going to be different from here on out; and your search for a church body that more closely resembles the biblical model is bound to be long, difficult, arduous.
Nonetheless, while you can't control the people around you, you can choose to be church in your church, the way church is truly meant to be. There's absolutely nothing stopping you. Believer in Christ: is there someone in your church who is in need? What do you plan to do about that?
You can say what you like about the Apostle John, but you can't fault his consistency. As with his first epistle, we may be tempted at first glance to equate the darkness in this metaphor with sin, and light with sinlessness, but if we did, we'd be left scratching our heads. On the one hand, John says we escape condemnation by our belief; on the other, we need to come to the light (i.e. stop sinning) to be saved. Well what is it, what we believe or what we do? Is John confused?
No, John is not confused. The light, for John, is a metaphor for goodness, yes, and a metaphor for Christ Himself, yes, but it's what the light does that piques his interest. Light exposes sin. Light shows us what is true, and what isn't. And John is making one very critical point that we musn't miss:
Those who belong to Jesus step into the light where their sins will be exposed (and ultimately forgiven); those who belong to Satan hide in the darkness where their evil deeds will remain unseen. Those who belong to Satan hide their sins; those who belong to Christ confess them.
It's difficult to overstate this truth. John returns to this line of thinking time and time again, stating for us in his first epistle:
If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:6-7)
And just in case we might be tempted to miss the mark and think he's talking about cleaning up our lives so that we'll be acceptable to Christ, he brings home the point:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
I have spent many years reacting poorly to John because of passages like this, believing that his words repudiated my sin, and me along with them. I feared that the continued existence of sin in my life meant that my conversion was false. So I counter-productively ignored John; I buried my misconduct under a mountain of philosophical nonsense and willful ignorance, and I ignored any passage of the bible that exposed my deeds for what they were.
Loved ones, if you are condemned, it's not because you have sin in your life, it's because you haven't brought that sin to the cross, confessed it and turned lordship of your life over to Jesus. You needn't fear to bring your sin to the cross. On the contrary, it's the safest thing you can possibly do. Confess. If you've confessed and then sinned again, even gravely, confess again.
It's not your ability to live an outwardly clean life that marks you as a child of the Kingdom, but a confessional attitude and a repentant heart. Don't miss the point!
We should not equate the darkness in this passage with sin, and the light with sinlessness, that much is evident; as John goes on to warn that anyone who claims to be without sin is a liar.
No, if the light represents God (as John sates in verse 5) then the darkness is where God isn't; it's where we go to hide. And what are we hiding, but our sin? Confess, says John. If we're not confessing our trespasses and bringing them into His light and submitting them to His judgement, then we can't claim to have fellowship with Him. He who fails to confess his sin before God has a relationship with Jesus that is at best faulty, at worst, false.
God will judge our sin. He has judged it. Christ paid the penalty. But when you confess, that penalty is imputed to Jesus, and His righteousness, to you.
If you want to ascertain how your walk with God is going, ask yourself: "would those who know me say that I have a confessional attitude?"
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.