Four Good Reasons to Attend Church with Hypocrites
At church today I witnessed one of my fellow citizens in the household of faith making a rude comment to my daughter. She tried to befriend this girl but the girl seems to enjoy drama more than friendship. My daughter wanted to avoid her by not attending activities, but I encouraged her to go anyway and hoped that the storm would pass. Today when the nastiness flew in front of me it was all I could do not to go mom crazy on the offender.
Thankfully I didn’t let emotions overwhelm me; instead I wrestled my thoughts. These are some of the thoughts I encountered in the mental struggle over attending church when the people there don’t live up to expectations. They are by no means all inclusive or concrete, they are thoughts on my path to understanding and discipleship.
To learn how to be Christian
Can we learn to be Christian by associating with people who are not good examples? I especially worry about this with my children. I assume that the ideal situation would be for people at church to act as examples of true Christian behavior for children (even big ones like me) to emulate. The irony is our universal imperfection; Christ is our sole true example. I wonder if God has something besides emulation in mind, asking us to deal with imperfection. When I see others act badly it reminds me that ideals are important. The commandment to “love thy neighbor” gains significance when we are the neighbor in need of love. The consequences of not obeying become obvious when we are affected by the sins of others. Through the pain of sin we learn why sin is a sin, and not only because God said it is.
My object lesson about this came in traffic. Someone turned dangerously close to me; I honked my horn in frustration, and noticed that there was a Jesus fish on their bumper. The irony made me chuckle and fume at the same time. How could someone openly display their Christian faith while acting in such an un-Christian way? Then I remembered that I leaned pretty hard on my horn, not a particularly Christian action either. I was guilty of my own accusation. This lesson in discipleship came from the jerk in the red sedan with a shiny Jesus fish riding the bumper.
We human beings have a tendency to see people as all good or all bad. If we witness a fellow Christian do something that is not Christian we tend to assume that they act that way all the time, or that they’re bad people altogether. The truth is that there is good and bad in all of us. Thomas Jefferson may have had babies with his slave mistress. Martin Luther King Jr. had an affair. Russell Wasendorf Sr. is an Iowa businessman who defrauded people out of more than $200 million dollars. He also gave millions to charity.
I wonder if Christ was trying to point out the duality of man when he asked us to treat our enemies with compassion, to love those who despitefully use us. Even when they act poorly, God can help us see the good in every man and woman. Perhaps that is why he commanded us to forgive others so that we may be forgiven- because in that process we gain a more complete understanding of the power of mercy. With that understanding we are more capable of accessing mercy. It is a beautiful feedback loop that doesn’t depend on our human perfection; only upon the perfect giver of mercy. If I can make a connection between my need for mercy and the mercy my daughter’s offender requires maybe I can move past this.
Because God said so
When God asked us to follow him he never said it would be all blessings and angel wings.
“For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?” Matt. 5:46-47
These difficult questions came right after Christ implored us to love our neighbors as ourselves; we hear that scripture quoted a lot, the one above, not so much. Christ tells us to love our enemies, to bless those that curse us. Today at church when that girl was rude to my daughter I did not have a prayer in my heart for her well-being. Tonight I’m getting closer to thinking compassionately for her, but it’s difficult.
We learn to love through loving, especially when the person doesn’t love us back in the way we would like. (I’ve got to give the disclaimer about not being a glutton for punishment either. God does not want us to treat ourselves and our emotions as trivial things. Although I believe we are capable of dealing with quite a lot if we seek His help.) This difficult situation with my daughter is an opportunity to exercise my faith and learn about the real power of love by doing what God asks of me, even though my human inclination is a swift and aptly applied slap. What would the result be for her and me if I were to smile and ask how she is doing instead?
To understand Christ, if only a little
Christ suffered persecution and horrid acts throughout his life, even in humbly submitting to a horrible death. He spoke often about the persecutions his followers would suffer for his sake. I don’t think Christ necessarily meant that all Christians will be crucified upside-down like Peter was, or beheaded like John. In modern times it is more often a persecution of the spirit. After serving as Relief Society president my friend observed that these persecutions even come from within the body of saints. If we are Christ’s true disciples we will come to understand his loneliness in obedience a bit better through our more simple, suffered persecutions.
My reasons for tolerating un-Christian behavior, as good as they might be, do not magically erase the pain of harsh words, neglect, or ignorance from our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is difficult, more difficult than words can convey – it can test us down to the core of our covenants.
Part of the process of becoming one with God is going through these things while being faithfully obedient. Only in doing so will we come to understand why the obedient Christian life is better than any other way. You don’t learn how good a chocolate éclair tastes by eating liver and onions. We will, however, learn to recognize the opposition of these tastes if we give each a try. After tasting many chocolate éclairs in my life, and liver and onions just enough to gain wisdom, I’ve decided that forgiveness and love is the better way. Although, I’m still tempted to scoop up the liver and onions when my feelings are hurt.
This is the part that is get down and dirty difficult. It takes place in a quiet room with no distractions but my thoughts, emotions, and reality smacking me in the face. Many times I feel pulled from the fold because I am somehow uncomfortable there. Recently I’ve found it difficult to reconcile my deep faith with those I love that are not of my faith, or that snub their noses at my faith. I want us all to sing Kumbaya around the fire and agree. I don’t want to force them, but I want to stop hurting, and this difference between us does hurt. It is so deeply instinctive to make that hurting stop that my subconscious clings to any little excuse to avoid the discomfort. A few weeks ago it was dissatisfaction with the lessons at church. This week it was a rude teenager. Those aren’t really the problem though; it’s that I’m avoiding the real solution- that people are complex, so is my faith, and balancing my love for both is a series of daily choices. Those choices are impossible to navigate without God’s assurances and personal revelation. It’s never “done” and it’s rarely easy. What seems easier is to push church (and the people there) away, than to pull God closer.
In the church we talk a lot about feelings – feeling the Spirit, feeling welcome, feeling needed, feeling peace and joy as a result of righteousness. We focus on it so much that when I feel offended I often jump to concluding that my feelings are justified. Instead, the solution is often to set my feelings aside. Alma counseled his son Shiblon:
“Use boldness, but not overbearance; and also see that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love.”
Applying Christ’s teachings, accepting the duality of man, suffering persecution for Christ’s sake, and examining our inner lives is part of the refiner’s fire that is a necessity for any Christian. It isn’t about being perfect now, it’s about being willing to go through the often painful process that gets me there. It can’t be rushed and there are no shortcuts.
I don’t have easy answers for my daughter, or myself, regarding hypocrites, but I do believe there are answers better than avoiding church. God wouldn’t command us to attend if there wasn’t something worth the effort and discomfort. I know that being in the presence of our fellow saints (sinners) at the sacrament table is important; many times it has saved me from myself, despite the uncomfortable seat.
- We’ve all been hurt at church in one way or another; let’s talk about how to overcome it.
- When have you continued to love, obey, understand, and looked inward in an effort to graze with the rest of the flock?
- Or was there something else that helped you?