By Linda Rex
September 6, 2020, Proper 18—Lately I have been thinking a lot about how hard it can be sometimes to speak the truth in love to someone I am close to. In fact, as someone who learned painfully the desperate need I personally have for grace, I experienced in relationships the pain and destruction which come from truth applied without compassion or love.
It is important for us as human beings to get our minds readjusted to the reality that God loves us. And he loves us so much that he did everything he could to free us from the chains of evil, sin, and death we so often give ourselves over to. Our loving Abba could not bear to see us diminished into brute beasts enslaved by our passions and lusts. He created us for something so much more wonderful than this! So, whatever it cost him he did—even to the place of giving us his beloved Son in our place on our behalf.
When we talk about loving our neighbor or being good to others or showing compassion to the suffering, it is easy to assume wrongly that love permits unacceptable or abusive behavior. Love “bears all things” we read and so we let the people we love do whatever they want, even if it hurts us and others or is destructive or demeaning. We allow people to take advantage of us over and over and we show them infinite grace, not realizing that we are not genuinely loving them by doing so.
It is in view of this that we need to look at Jesus’ conversation with his disciples about going to one’s brother. To live in relationship is to open oneself up to the possibility of being hurt or offended. When people interact, they will inevitably do or say something that will create difficulties between themselves and another person. It is our human propensity to err that causes chaos and havoc in our relationships.
When we are in a relationship with another human being—any kind of relationship, whether business, friendship, marriage, companionship—we often are tempted to isolate ourselves and hide parts of ourselves away. We do this because we know that if the other person knew the truth about us, they would reject us or wound us, or shame us in some say. Not all people have our best interests at heart, so out of self-preservation, we learn to skillfully hide parts of ourselves away.
Our hiding is something we as human beings have been doing since the garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they knew they had done what God had asked them not to do. So, when God showed up in the garden, looking forward to spending time with them, they did what we as humans do—they hid. When faced with the reality of what we are and what we’ve done, we as humans find a way to hide from God and each other.
But notice what God did. He did not allow them to continue to hide. He gently sought them out, confronted them, and told them that he knew the truth. He told them the consequences of their choice and the pain it would bring to themselves and others. Then he tenderly covered them with skins and sent them on their way. God used truth to call them back into relationship with himself, and then did what he could to get them pointed in a new direction.
This brings to mind the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery who was brought to Jesus by her accusers. They believed she was worthy of being stoned and that Jesus was soft on sin because he was gracious. It is interesting that Jesus did not let either the woman or her accusers off scot-free.
The men who were interested in her destruction were told, “You who are without sin may cast the first stone.” At this, each man began to see in his own mind’s eye the truth—convicted of his own error by the Spirit of truth, he walked away. When all the men were gone and only the woman was left, Jesus asked where her accusers were. She said they were all gone. Then Jesus applied the truth gently to her as well, “neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” She was not allowed to continue in her way of self-destructive relationship—she was told the truth in love and instructed to begin moving in a new direction.
In Ezekiel 33, the prophet wrote how God made him a watchman over the people of Israel, to give them a warning. The prophet was reminded that when someone is sinning and we don’t warn them about it, we are equally guilty of their sin. If we warn them and they do it anyway, then that’s on them. But we are to do what we can to help people see the truth about their destructive, disobedient behavior—this is an expression of divine love.
What we must do is difficult and can be painful—and it can result in severed relationships. But it must be done—and done in love. Jesus gave a template by which we can introduce a measure of God’s truth into our relationships, enabling a loving environment of grace and truth to help grow people into greater Christlikeness.
We begin first with a humble estimation of our own need for grace. Then we approach the person by themselves, speaking the truth in love and calling them back to what is right and true. If they refuse to hear us, then we take two or three others who know the truth, and bring them into the conversation to help this person see the truth for themselves. It sometimes requires someone other than us to say what needs to be said in order for someone to hear a difficult truth about themselves.
The worst-case scenario is when someone refuses to hear even under these circumstances. In this case, Jesus encourages us to create a protective boundary around ourselves as a church body, family, or other group until this person sees their fault and repents. It is unfortunate, but sometimes a person is so deeply entrenched in sin that it takes the loss of his or her significant relationships before he or she will repent and change.
To refuse to engage someone in this process is to enable them to continue in their sin, and in the destructive cycle that goes with it. We express love by speaking the truth in love, gathering others when necessary to lovingly share with truth along with us, and if necessary, call the church together as a body to call this person back to themselves so they might once again live in the truth of who they are as God’s beloved child.
This is a gift we can give one another if we are willing. It is so easy to be hurtful with the truth—to gossip, to tell everyone on social media what’s going on, to be demeaning and insulting with it. But God means us to use truth to create unity, to bring about healing and restoration, and to create a healthy environment in which people can grow into the fullness of the image of Christ. He means for us to speak the truth in love, to build the person up, not tear them down.
Today, then, what truth have we neglected to tell someone in our life? How are we going to lovingly approach them and talk with them about it? What would Jesus have us say? May God grant us the grace to lovingly build relationship and not destroy it in the process of speaking the truth in love. May we prayerfully and humbly work toward unity, healing, and restoration, by God’s grace and power, through Jesus Christ.
Abba, forgive us that so often we neglect to balance effectively truth and grace. Thank you, Jesus, that you brought truth and grace to us, and that you work to grow each of us more fully into your likeness by your precious Spirit. Enable us today to speak the truth in love to those you have brought us into relationship with. Give us the boldness to love people well by enabling them to grow up into all you meant for them to be. In your name we pray, amen.
“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8 NASB
By Linda Rex
One of the stories I remember from my early years was when I was just not getting along with my older brother. It seems somehow he always got the best of me in everything and I was always having to prove myself as an equal to him.
Being run off the Risk game in a few moves—well, I guess I could just find something else to do while my two brothers fought it out between themselves. Being bought off the board in Monopoly—well, it’s hard to take, but it’s just a part of the game. Being creamed in chess in just five moves—it’s humiliating, but I bore up under it—I knew the men in my family were really smart—I just wasn’t savvy in the same way they were.
But after a while it seemed like they could do everything better than me—play football, baseball, play cards. You name it. I could keep up with them pretty well, but for a while, there was this kind of competition between my older brother and me. In my heart, I wished there was just one thing I could get the best of him in.
One day we were barricaded behind couch pillows and were battling it out with rubber bands. I’m pretty sure he started it. I retaliated only in self-preservation. At least that’s how I remember it.
I seemed to always end up on the worst end of such battles, but this particular day, I had a secret weapon—I had found a very large, very nice rubber band. So I loaded up and let it fly, hoping it would hit its mark. It was a lucky shot, but I hit him in the soft part of his arm near his elbow—it smarted and even drew a little blood.
The satisfaction I felt at finally getting him back for all his harassment was dimmed only slightly and momentarily by the wrath of my mother when she found out what had happened. Rubber band fights were henceforth banned (again), and we both got in trouble for having had one.
I may have felt a secret glee for a few moments but ultimately I felt sorry for having hurt him, and decided I wouldn’t do it again. It was never my intent to hurt him. I just wanted to gain his respect and to get him to quit persecuting me. Quite honestly, I lost all interest in rubber band fights after that experience.
Looking back, I recall there was a time when I just could not get along with my older brother, and there was also a time when I just could not get along with my younger brother. I’m not sure why now, but it was just the way it was. We had to work out our differences between us—our parents could not resolve them for us, other than threatening us with dire consequences if we didn’t get along.
In later years when my children were about the same age, I began to understand a little better my mother’s perspective on the constant squabbles between me and my brothers. There was a time when my two children just could not get along, no matter how many discussions we had about how they were not to squabble and fight. It seems like learning to get along with one another comes with the territory of siblinghood.
What I didn’t know then, but I realize now, is the way we live with one another is meant to reflect the inner life of God as Father, Son and Spirit. There is a mutual indwelling, a oneness in diversity and equality, which we are to mirror in our relationships with one another. Fighting it out with rubber bands is obviously not the best reflection of the inner love and life of the One we are to mirror.
Some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years can actually be understood more clearly with this image in mind. For example, I learned that unity is not the same as uniformity. It is entirely possible for people to be quite different from each other and to still get along. The Father is not the Son and is not the Spirit, and the Son is not the Father or the Spirit—and I’m so glad they are not exactly the same but still are One in Being.
Just because someone in your family likes to place chess and is really good at it does not mean everyone else in the family has to like chess and play chess too. They can be quite good at watching you play chess and reading a book, and they can be getting along with you just fine while they do it. We are each unique—I am not you and you are not me, and that’s okay. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Sadly, I think there are nations and national leaders who haven’t quite figured this one out yet.
One of the other things I’ve learned about getting along with my siblings is to stop seeing people in over/under ways. What I mean is, we tend to put people either above us or below us, rather than seeing them as another one of us. We look at the well-dressed lady in the next aisle and think, “She’s really blessed—she must have a really easy life,” not realizing she is on her way to the hospital to visit her husband who is dying of cancer, and is barely holding everything together.
I don’t know how many times I’ve stood in line with a fellow who is in grungy clothes, has dirty spots on his face and arms, and thought inappropriate thoughts to myself. Over the years, I’ve learned that such men are often the most hardworking, good-hearted men I know—the farmers, mechanics, contractors, and plumbers—people who make and keep our homes and belongings running well. My unworthy thoughts were putting them down below me, rather than elevating them to a place of equality and respect. They are a reflection of the equality in the Trinity—they each have a place of love and service in God’s family.
I know the pain of watching my children squabble when they could not and would not get along with one another. No doubt this pain is a participation in the pain God feels when we refuse to and cannot get along with one another, whether as people in a family, church or organization, or as nations and races and cultures.
God has provided a way in his Son Jesus by his Spirit for each of us to live together in unity while making room for each other’s uniqueness and acknowledging each other’s value and worth. There is no reason for us to be taking pot shots at one another, discriminating against one another or demeaning each other in any way. We need to work out our differences, yes, but it’s a whole lot more pleasant to do it around the table with milk and cookies, than in trenches with grenades and artillery. And there’s a whole lot less regret and pain when we’re done.
May God by his precious Spirit teach all of us how to live with one another in the way he created us to. May his Son live in us, and come to be for us the Center in which we all gather together and live as One.
Abba, forgive us for our human proclivity to fuss and fight and to refuse to get along. Grant us the grace to forgive and to be reconciled with you and one another, as you have reconciled us all with you and one another in your Son Jesus Christ. Make us all of one heart and mind, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” John 14:20 NIV
“This is my command: Love each other.” John 15:17 NIV