*This current series of posts seeks to answer the question, “What should gospel transformation actually look like in our fallen culture?”
Because of the internal transformation of the Spirit that takes place in the life of the believer, Christians should be the very best friends anyone in the world could possibly have. This thought is pretty simply, really. One of the terrible side-effects of sin is that it naturally divides. Sin is a relationship breaker. Our sinful hearts cause us to be self-centered and focus on our own happiness, even to the exclusion of others. Sin causes us to look at others as useful to that end. When they are making us happy, they are welcome to remain in our lives. When they serve as a hindrance to our happiness, we seek to remove them. Sin causes us to survey others as either useful or a threat to that happiness. We judge ourselves according to each other and often treat others based on those observations. All of this is because of sin.
The Christian, however, is being transformed and renewed through the power of the Spirit. We are “new creations,” the Apostle Paul tells us, meaning that all of that (“the old”) has passed away and the “new has come” (1 Cor. 5:17). So, what does that look like, and why should Christians be the type of friend that everyone is looking for?
1. Because I have died to self in Christ, I am free to no longer live for self. Scripture commands us to regard others as more significant than ourselves. One of the most beautifully written passages of Scripture is found in the Christ hymn of Philippians 2. Paul first provides a command for how we should view and treat others.
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
He then offers both an example and the foundation to our conforming to that command, Jesus. He provides an example through the way he did not hold on to his rights as God, but instead emptied himself and made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, incarnated himself to actually look like and experience his fallen creation and obediently submitted to his Father’s plan of rescue. He provided the foundation through that obedience, fully honoring the Father for us, fulfilling all that was needed in order to be a substitute for us who have fallen short of that standard.
As Christians we are freed from the need to promote ourselves and view others as tools for that promotion. We are free to truly love with none of those strings attached, and to actually view ourselves as servants to others without the fear of what that kind of attitude and actions would do to our reputations. As believers, we have no rivals because we have removed ourselves from the competition of this fallen world. Who would not want a friend like that!?
2. Because I have been forgiven much in Christ, I am free to greatly forgive. Because of the transformation of the Spirit and Christ’s love working through me, we no longer “keep a record of wrongs” against others. We do not hold on to that type of ammunition because we are no longer engaged in that type of war. Our objective is no longer to always come out on top, but rather to help others move closer to and further into the Kingdom through our attitudes and words. One of the greatest ways to do this is to graciously forgive. We no longer have a list of prerequisites that must be met before forgiveness is fully given. People do not have to perform certain acts before they can become privy to my forgiveness.
Now, this is not a call to completely abandon discernment. We can forgive while remaining discerning. We just must be clear in stating that to those who have acted in such a manner that we must approach them with that discernment. Sometimes the actions of others will necessarily carry consequences, even within our on-going relationship with them. But, that person can be made to understand that ultimately we forgive them for their actions, and our greatest goal is complete restoration of trust and openness in the relationship. We prove that because of our actions toward that end. Who would not want a friend like that!?
3. Because God has genuinely loved me, I am free to genuinely love others. We love people as they are because they are created in the image of God. We do not set a standard for who that includes. We do not love people for what they potentially can be or what we would want them to be. We just love people. We love with the Spirit-empowered, agape love of Jesus. We no longer spend a chunk of our time in a relationship trying to mold the other person into something more appropriate, or to our desire. As I stated above, sin divides. The type of love we have for others, though, tears down those barriers. We love genuinely people of all backgrounds, races, socioeconomic status, etc.
I read an article that broke my heart a couple of months ago that Thom Rainer posted on his blog. He shares some insight he had gained from having an honest conversation with a non-believing woman. You can read the post here. The gist of the perspective offered by this woman communicated the idea that very few Christians she had encountered had been genuine and authentic towards her. She felt more like a prospective convert than a friend. She had developed a great disdain for Christians in general because of this. Christians she had encountered had only been interested in her conversion, and after a short period of her rejection, they had coldly DE-friended her. How sad is that? This woman doesn’t need to come into contact with yet another convert-seeker. That’s what Jesus accused the Pharisees of. He told them that they would cover land and sea to find just one convert that they could replicate into the mold of themselves. Believers, however, just genuinely love people because God is love.
Conversion is the work of God. He uses the church as his agents to draw people to himself, not to offer a relationship trial period for non-believers just to give up on them and look for another potential convert. Our love for people is persevering and long-suffering, just like Jesus’ love for us. We are genuinely interested in other people, not just concerned that they become interested in what we feel is important. After all, everyone’s greatest need is reconciliation with God the Father through Jesus, but how will they come to know that if we are disingenuous in our relationships with them? Romans 12:9 very succinctly states, “Let love be genuine.” We must view and treat people like people, and not projects. Who would not want a friend like that!?
4. Because I find my sufficiency and fulness in Christ, I am free to be real in my relationships with others, speaking the truth in grace and love, even if that truth is a difficult one to speak. Genuine care for another carries with it the courage to speak truth into that life because great care exists as to the outcome of that life. But there must be some caveats to this that are extremely important and yet, often neglected. First is the essence of “truth.” Often the “truth” we wish to speak into another’s life is more grounded in our preference or a longing for a person to be more like us than in the absolute authoritative truth of God’s Word. Again, pointing to a great quote from the book The Trellis and the Vine, “When people speak God’s Word into the lives of others, in prayerful dependence on the Spirit of God, lives are changed.” When what is spoken? God’s Word. People do not need our opinions and expert advice, they need the wisdom that comes from God, which has been given to us through his Word. We must make sure that we are people of the Word and that our relationships with others are Christ-centered.
Also, we must make sure that when the occasion does arise to speak hard truth that we do so in “grace and love.” Often we can speak such truth from a pedestal of our own self-righteousness, carrying the attitude of “I keep trying to tell them, but they never seem to listen…” That attitude shines through, whether we know it or now. In order to speak hard truth in grace and love we must be in a state of confession and recognition of our own sin and need of grace.
Contrary to the predominant thinking of our society, a true friend is not someone who just allows you to be “you,” and free to live however you decide that should look. A true friend is one who concerns himself enough with your life that they will put your relationship on the line by speaking a word of rebuke into your life when needed out of genuine love for you. Who would not want a friend like that!?
If believers offer these types of friendships to every person, it would stand in stark contrast to the surrounding culture. This is one of the greatest ways we can be “in the world, but not of the world.” It would draw people to the Christ that is the source of that love, and into the community where that love shines the greatest…his Church.