Today, at my church, we had an open sharing service during which people gave testimonies somewhat connected to the theme of “the spirit of the gospel.” This is something like what I might’ve said if I had the time and the space to do so.
It’s been a while since I’ve shared anything, and I think it’s because I often feel like disappointment or disagreement follow soon after opening my mouth. Nevertheless, with regards to the spirit of the gospel, I’d like to think that the Lord has been teaching me about how the gospel overcomes. 2017 was had its fair share of disappointments. I started a college/post-college ministry at this church in which young people might have been able to discuss topics that interested and challenged them that weren’t traditionally available for discussion during youth groups or Sunday services. This was met with mixed reactions of outward encouragement and thinly veiled suspicion from some people here. Not too long after the group had been established, a large majority of the college/post-college aged individuals found work elsewhere or went back to school. After having expectations of finally finding community here that would be vibrant and challenging, I found myself feeling very isolated at church, especially during youth group on Saturday nights – I sobbed behind the steering wheel as I drove home one night because in a “youth group” consisting of five other middle/high schoolers and eight people over the age of 30, I came to terms with the reality of my loneliness. There’s nothing quite like feeling like you’ve built your house on shifting sands.
Fall 2017 was a semester in which I felt like I had fallen short in most of my personal relationships. Having been told that this semester would closely mirror the workload of a PhD program, I decided for once in my life to put school first. I had no idea that I would be worrying nearly every day about whether or not I was keeping up enough with the people I cared about in my life. Some days were so filled with work that I would not have time to reflect on the health of my relationships; the days following were usually filled with guilt and anguish about who I should reach out to first. I was not able to be as present as I would have liked with friends I kept in touch with online, and I would often catch myself in the middle of conversations just going through the motions. The price of doing well academically was a hollowing out of my relationships with others. As I wrestled with all of this, the weight of hearing people from church tell me that they didn’t want me to go to bible school or seminary bore down even more on my heart. There’s a constant clash between vision and voices, and 2017 was an embattled year for sure.
I watched and listened as a humble seven members of this church were singing hymns at 10:05 in the morning. In the testimonies of members of the church, I found it more and more apparent why people were less and less willing to engage with Christians. The tension between not caring about numbers in the congregation and being a fruitful congregation was tangible this year. I saw that many times, the way we spoke about our experiences and attitudes towards non-Christians demonstrated a departure from our own origins in Christ – His love and His love alone. We were quick to cry out against their practices, their thoughts, and their attitudes without stepping forth into the challenge of self-giving and discipleship of the nations. Listening to other perspectives was given second place as we pointed to our knowing the truth as a kind of justification for being an unhearing and unseeing people. Many times, I found myself wondering if we were the enemies of the gospel given the way we portrayed how Christ came to us in our sin. Forgetting that grace, mercy, and love overcame hearts bound by sin, we put on the hardened armor of salvation that was forged by the death of Christ for the sake of intimidating civilians without presenting them an opportunity to experience God’s absolute beauty.
In the midst of these trials (among many others), the Lord revealed that the gospel overcame in each circumstance. In my failure to lead and establish a post-college ministry, He led me to have a burden for the youth group that met on Saturday nights. He placed a conviction in me to see that “youth group” ought not to be in quotation marks – it ought to be for the equipping of the younger brothers and sisters in the church. Though some of the older ones in attendance sat stone-faced during youth groups, a desire for the gospel to be appropriated in the lives of our teens placed a glow on how I was orienting youth groups. As the middle/high-schoolers engaged with the book of James on their own terms, I saw them begin to think more and more about the influence of the gospel in their lives. In my failure to maintain my personal relationships as rigorously as I would have liked, I found that there was comfort in knowing that my academics were oriented towards the advancement of the gospel in future classrooms. Without this hope in being an ambassador of His kingdom in academia, I would have long counted my academic pursuits worthless compared to the relationships I valued. (I continue to hold onto hope that the truly valuable friendships have withstood this trying period.) Finally, with our failure to show love and mercy to those who might be traditionally considered “problematic” to the church, I learned that the gospel is capable of withstanding all assault. If we think that the gospel we preach is weighty, has value, withstands objection, and is, above all, true, why do we hesitate to bring it to those who need it? And when we bring it, why do we think we either convict or compromise? Alienation is not bound up with faithfulness when it comes to preaching the gospel, and I believe that our gospel is one worth sharing because all of the desires of the human heart are met by the gospel – it is precisely what the world is looking for but cannot accept. And so, I have been encouraged by the Lord to engage with a variety of different conversations – particularly ones I myself do not care much for – to see that the gospel overcomes in all circumstances. In fact, not only does the gospel overcome, but it also fulfills whatever is lacking to the utmost because it is founded in the perfect love of God. The spirit of the gospel, then, is one of overcoming; we ought not discourage one another from engaging deeply with the culture around us because there is simply no other way to test the foundations on which we’ve built as Christians. Our Lord is faithful to keep us as we share the gospel, so may 2018 be a year in which we give of ourselves, loving as Christ loved so that when the times come to a close, we will not have missed an opportunity to deeply engage with the souls around us, pointing them to the One who fulfills their every need.
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” | Titus 3:4-7 ESV