Loving God — Hurtful Church

How can we understand how God cares for us if His people — the church — ignore and harm us?

By Christopher Schwinger

This question is painfully honest. The thing the New Testament claims is greater about Jesus Christ over the Mosaic Law is forgiveness of sins. This is great for ensuring an afterlife, but what blessings to our spirit does God directly give us in this life? If the greatest thing for a Christian is "the church", the blessings include: being supported by others' prayers, fellowship, egalitarian values (no superiority of male over female, of master over slave, of Jew over Gentile, in terms of value, though the apostles believed in maintaining a hierarchy), and a sense of purpose in helping other people. But what does God do for us directly that doesn't involve other people? Many, many people have not been served by the church in these ways. If a lot of customers weren't getting served at a restaurant, the restaurant would go out of business, but if some customers were getting served always and others were consistently neglected (which happened with segregation of black and white in the United States), the restaurant would probably stay open. Alas, this is how it often is with the church. I have heard the statement "You are the only Bible most people will read." I have also experienced great grief from churchgoers not being supportive of me. I have faced long-term deep depression over this, recognizing that Christians are no more my advocates than those who don't share my values, and that people in general are untrustworthy and poor friends. Not ALL people, but many people, and enough to make a big impression. If my destiny is dependent on other people, and other people can't be trusted, how is God to be considered my friend if the only way He can act on my behalf is through other people? Remember the Sheep and the Goats parable in Matt 25 which says in vv. 39-40: "'When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'" Right there, Jesus Himself said God's purposes depend on other people. What a conundrum this puts us in if we want to believe God is powerful enough to do "anything" and yet are faced with the reality that His will being done "on earth as it is in heaven" (as He says in the Lord's Prayer) is based on us and others. I frankly don't think the Bible answers that confusion any more than it answers the question of suffering (when the books of Job and Ecclesiastes challenge the Deuteronomistic model; the Deut. model is that God gives to each person according to karma — good reward for good deeds, bad reward for bad deeds).

I have heard and read that the Christian life never becomes easier, and that deep questions about what God really means to them grow weightier than when they were early in their Christian life, especially when hard times come. It is unclear why this is. If the mark of maturity is being faithful to God when blessings don't come, when miraculous signs aren't present, when in prison and under persecution and feeling abandoned by other people, then how is God "honoring" us by leaving us without more support? Does He consider us "tough" enough we can "rough it out" without His ongoing encouragement? I am asking honest questions rather than rhetorical ones.

Currently I have three sources of inspiration as I wonder about these things, i.e., why I should view God as a great friend and advocate when other people don't do His will and He rarely acts independently of other people.

1. My theological resolution, as it currently stands, is that God intentionally limits His intervention so that we can exercise character. There would be no meaningful moral actions if everyone saw God as just their policeman, and begrudgingly believed in Him because He intervened too much, in such a consistent way. He HAD to with the nation of Israel because that was the only spiritual truth the world had before Christianity. It would be interesting if there was a New Testament letter which explored the differences in understanding of God's involvement "back then" vs. "now." Someone could write, "God's given us more of a privilege by not getting involved as noticeably now in world affairs, because He considers us mature sons of God, able to exercise discernment and responsibility without having to be scared into submission." However, in the Book of Acts, the New Testament era, God WAS getting involved noticeably in world affairs, killing Herod for accepting others' boasting about him, blinding Bar-Jesus on Cyprus, releasing the apostles from prison on several occasions, and so on. But since then, God seems to use miracles less in places which have the Bible and churches.

2. Jesus demonstrated a principle of unconditional love, which means a seeking out of those who were sidelined or rejected. The ideal of a leader in the Old Testament seemed to develop from just a monotheistic warrior and orator like Moses or David to a "shepherd" by the exile (when Ezekiel was writing), which became a key concept for the Messiah in Ezekiel 34. Despite the austere and bellicose tone of Ezekiel as a whole, chapter 34 comes to a higher view of God as the one who cares for the soul, contrasted with those leaders who don't. With regard to the return from exile, it says in Ezekiel 34:11, "Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out." It is a groundbreaking idea because the usual emphasis is on the need for repentance to win back God's favor, with only a few OT passages such as Psalm 32:5, 40:6-8, 51:16-17, and Micah 6:6-8 saying it's simpler than a series of obligations. Ezekiel 34 stands out from even those psalmic and Micah verses because God seeks out the wayward one, a demonstration of unconditional love. The idea of UNCONDITIONAL love is very powerful, and I think it is relevant to this issue of whether God can work without the agency of people, because Jesus came without relying on other people for the fulfillment of His purpose (except the womb of Mary), and became the good Shepherd who would lay down His life on His own initiative, as Ezekiel 34:11 and John 10:18 say. He said He laid down His life on His own initiative, not at the coercion of His Father or other people, and as Paul said in Romans 5:8, it was before we could please Him.

Unconditional love is also proactive love which initiates good, rather than waiting for others to win your favor. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a powerful example of unconditional love. "While we were helpless, Christ died for the ungodly" is a statement from Paul with the same theme (Romans 5:6). In the Old Testament, the Exodus was the event that taught them about this, as the Israelites were idolaters when God delivered them. In the New Testament, Jesus initiated good to all of humanity before we even understood it. This is an inspiration to me because even if His lack of direct involvement is frustrating, and other people cause me much pain and hindrance and discouragement, I know how Jesus feels about it. His unconditional love is inspiring and helps me during that frustration, much as memory of the Exodus helped the Israelites through many centuries and still encourages the Jews. A belief in a past event is the necessary source of inspiration. Though the New Testament rarely speaks of God encouraging someone who's feeling rejected, its statements about Jesus as the advocate for the sinner can be utilized for comfort in sorrow because it's all based on the remembrance of His resurrection. Hebrews 7:25 is a statement of faith about eternal life, but change that word "save" to "comfort", and the verse becomes powerful in a new way because it still has the words "always lives": "Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them."

3. The church is "the body of Christ." Paul's most original theology, in my opinion, is not his "law" vs. "grace" dualism, but his "body of Christ" extended metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12. Something Paul could've added is that since Christ is the head of the body — the brain — then He feels the pain even though the individual parts don't all feel the pain. If I have pain in a part of my body but it doesn't affect the function of the rest of my body, the rest of my body doesn't care. So it is with many people who are neglected by the church or whose needs are inappropriately considered less important, for whatever reason. Paul's metaphor is excellent at showing the disgrace of a body at war with itself. If someone expressed a struggle with faith, and got shut down so that he/she feels estranged (a personal experience of mine), it's like if I had a weak leg needing to be held by my hand as I'd walk, for support. But the hand doesn't like having to condescend to the right leg's weakness and hits the right leg, which doesn't hurt the hand but makes the leg weaker. The whole body is less effective as a result. Even when the function of the body is not noticeably affected, the brain interprets a body part's pain sensations, so because the brain knows, the whole body "knows," but isn't equally affected. But if there's a gash on the right hand, then the left hand can band-aid it because the brain has told the left hand about it. If the left hand DOES NOT bandage the right hand, it's not out of ignorance, but because of lack of concern for the rest of the body. (See: 1 Corinthians 12:14-26.)

This inspires me because it tells me that God is empathetic. The Book of Hebrews says the same thing, but from the perspective of Christ as one who has also suffered. It's true that we must take it all on faith that God is acting on our behalf even when other people aren't. Even though I wish it was easier, those are a few things which I try to stay inspired by as I try to believe that God is better than those around me, even if I can't experience direct action by Him like I want. In my first point, I remind myself that God is bestowing responsibility on us by being somewhat hands-off in human affairs. (His actions also can only be discerned in hindsight many times.) In my second point, I think about the idea of unconditional love, that God seeks us instead of just expecting us to seek Him. This is how He combined the offices of priest and prophet: a priest expects you to come to him to make you right with God, but a prophet seeks out the people. (I believe the prophets in the Bible probably directed their words to the people most of the time, and wrote out condemnations of enemy nations to instruct the people of Israel/Judah about the consequences of sin.) If God seeks us even more than we seek Him, then there is a deeper reality beyond what we feel or what circumstances display. If He's always wanting to get closer to me, and I feel like I'm striving to "find" a closer relationship with Him, then friendship with God must be deeper than emotions, and perhaps I'm closer to Him than my feelings tell me. Feelings are not the ultimate source of reality. In my third point, I ponder the Christian ideal of everyone caring for everyone else, and when that doesn't happen, I remember that Jesus, as the head of the church who Himself was abandoned by every single person and estranged from the Father in His last night and day, feels the pain. His proactive love and empathy are characteristics which we must believe He continues to have, by faith, even as the Old Testament and intertestamental people believed God had not forgotten His deliverance from Egypt and Babylon or His promises to Abraham.

Published 5-25-2015