Proving Ground for Loving Your Enemies

It seems like every church website declares loudly that this church is a welcoming community that will love and support you through life. It’s a beautiful message that meets a felt need in all of our lives. We all need people who will be there for us in the good and bad times. Yet, if you’ve been part of a church community for any length of time, you’ve probably felt let down by the church. You may have come to church expecting to find a community of like-minded believers who will unconditionally love you, but instead, you find a wide range of people, some of whom you really don’t like. 

My experience

I remember feeling that way at a new church I once attended. As I entered the building, I immediately felt at ease as someone shook my hand and asked me my name. There was clear signage as to where to go and I found my seat in the sanctuary. The music was tasteful and worshipful, the liturgy was biblically centered, and the sermon was encouraging, challenging, and grace-filled. I really thought this was the right church for me. Until that is, I walked into the after-service coffee hour. Circles of people sipping coffee and laughing filled the room. I felt lost. How do I break in? I tried introducing myself to some of the people my age, but found they had all known each other for years and they didn’t seem too interested in adding another friend to the group.

I didn’t give up though. I knew that if I wanted to be part of this church, I needed to be persistent. So, I kept showing up. Week after week after week. I always enjoyed the worship service, but the coffee hour was alienating. I’d eventually return to my car feeling lonely, rejected, and exhausted. What was I doing wrong? Needless to say, my persistence only lasted so long before I started the process all over again and went looking for another church.

Years later, I now serve as a pastor and have known countless people who have felt this way at churches they’ve visited. We show up with expectations of the welcoming community that so often fall flat, and we leave disappointed at best and rejected at worst. So, what can we do about this dilemma? How can we reimagine what church is about so that we can learn to flourish within a church community?

Admitting what I can and cannot control

As much as I wish I could have made the young people at that church welcome me with open arms, get curious about who I was, and help me feel connected, I have to admit that I have zero control over the behaviors of other people. My lack of control of others is one of the most frustrating parts of my life. If only people would just do what I want, then the world would be so much better (or so I think). People get to make their own choices, and you control only you. 

Surely, the Bible tells me to pray for others, but it doesn’t spend much time at all giving advice for controlling others. Rather, God’s word speaks about self-control. Instead of focusing on how to make others do what I want, I need to focus on the part of this situation that is within my control (me) and how am I being faithful with what God has given me. When Paul lists the Fruit of the Spirit, the last virtue listed is self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). A sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in your life is how self-controlled you are. We often think about self-control in relation to vices. For instance, I want to have self-control with how much ice cream I eat each night. However, another way to think about self-control is in regard to virtues. For instance, I want to have self-control with my ability to love others. Therefore, my love for others is not dependent on how they treat me, but rather, it is dependent on my own commitment to love. This underlies Jesus’ core teaching to love one’s enemies. So, whether it’s a new church, job, or a friend’s birthday party, go in expecting to love others regardless of whether or not they want to love you. Isn’t this exactly what Jesus did, as Paul writes in Romans? 

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The Church is a fellowship, not a book club

When we gather with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we come together because of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus chose to love his enemies even when we didn’t love him, he made the beloved community of the church possible. However, just because we have all been welcomed into Christ’s body, doesn’t mean we get to choose who is in our particular local church. Unlike a book club, we don’t come together because we have a shared interest in certain genres of literature or political persuasions. Instead, we come together because we were lost but are now found; we were dead, but now we are alive. We are called to be together by God's spirit. If everyone is following Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us, then, of course, the church would be the most welcoming place to be. But since we are still sinners, we may not always have the energy, desire, or awareness to be welcoming to a newcomer. So, as much as the church is a place to find Christian community, it is also a proving ground for loving your enemies.

Practice Makes Progress

This Sunday, try walking into church with new expectations. Expect that you will encounter sinners in need of grace and love. Expect that people won’t be ideal. Expect that you may be disappointed by someone’s behavior. And remember that God has given you a spirit of boldness, not fear. You can show up and be the kind of person who imitates Christ’s love for his enemies. You can love, even when others may not show you that same love. This is the Spirit of God at work in you.

About the author — Rev. Travis Jamieson

Travis Jamieson pastors a church in the heart of Silicon Valley. He has been married to Annie for ten years, and together, they are raising two beautiful red-headed children. In his spare time, you’ll often find Travis surfing at a local beach or riding his Vespa around town taking in the beautiful scenery of the Bay Area.

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