I like to watch people. I’d love to have a stoop in a busy neighborhood and watch people pass by and wonder what their lives are like.
Lives can be tricky, messy things. They never go as planned. Pain becomes a frequent reality in some seasons. Other times, joy becomes a defining marker of the time. I think it’s amazing to see lives transformed. I like watching lives go far beyond rehabilitation and actually witnessing redemption – it’s a beautiful thing. It’s also quite messy and awkward.
Let me explain the framework I’m coming from: I believe that as humans, we’re tainted, jaded, walking around in darkness trying to quiet a soul with joy knock-offs. But we are loved. We live in a world that tells us that what is broken can’t be loved and that is simply not true. We look for ways to prove to ourselves and others that we are complete so that we may be loved.
The gospel says we’re not complete but we’re loved anyway. It’s about flipping the lie that says because you are broken, you cannot be loved to the truth: you are broken and there’s nothing you can do to fix it. But you are loved and the One who loves you in your brokenness can make you whole. Because He loves. If we are redeemed, we’re not better people. We’re just His.
His love changes us. And quite a bit, actually. We become free to do things like love our enemies because we’re loved and we were loved when we just as broken as our enemies, if not more so. And love people who are growing too. Sometimes loving those in the latter category is harder than in those in the first one.
And it’s not just any love, it’s pretty deep stuff. Deeper than Sunday morning meet-and-greet, I’m afraid. It’s love that surfaces in community- in the breaking of the bread, in the gathering together. It’s love that begins to develop as we listen, really listen, to others’ lives. Love finds depth in presence. Love is certainly present when we cry for others, but love deepens when we cry with others. And this love happens as a result of the love found in the gospel. It transforms us. It transforms others. The problem (and beauty) is it doesn’t always transform others the way it transforms you.
Not that change is optional. All life and love must grow developmentally. As awkward as puberty is, it is not optional; neither is spiritual growth. Like physical growth, spiritual growth happens. Are there things we should do to grow healthy? Sure. But growth happens, whether healthily or not, if there is life, there must be growth. Watching growth can be exciting. It can also be painfully slow. But what about when growth is not happening? If that’s the case, I’ve found some measures to be helpful:
Stepping back and looking again. The more time you spend with a child, the less you notice they’re growing. But try being away for a bit and you’ll see quite a difference. Was this person the same person a year ago?
Wondering “when?”. Sometimes we just have to wait. This mystery was never more mind-boggling than when I worked with teenage boys. I’ve never been a boy, so if you are one, bear with me as I stand amazed at how some gentlemen look like they could be paying a mortgage when they’re really 14 while others suddenly grow 12 inches taller and drop an octave over a weekend during their senior year of high school. If there are signs of life, growth will happen. Wait for it.
Wondering “why?”. When I see transformation in a lot of areas of others’ lives but not in a particular one, I immediately get impatient and wonder when this particular area will be transformed. More often than not, I wallow in frustration. But occasionally I trade the “when?” for “why?” And the answers aren’t usually so simple.
Asking “why hasn’t this happened?” warrants taking a much closer look. [And please note I’m referring to asking, not speculating… as in within the framework of a relationship].
A lack of growth is not always as black-and-white as good old fashioned disobedience. Sometimes it is. But when I see a person who has been genuinely transformed by the gospel and, as a result, is striving to be obedient but is not changing the way I think that should happen, more often than not, it’s a reflection of my desire for control. Other times, it’s asking “when?” but not asking “why?” Taking a closer look is not pretty. Sometimes it reveals a deep wound that seems insurmountable. Sometimes it just leads us to realize we don’t know what to do. If I’m honest, I hate it when I don’t know what to do… I think it has something to do with that wanting to be control thing.
It’s easy to look at an impossibly prideful person and wonder “what is wrong with this person?!” or “when is this person going to change?” as we roll our eyes or, more piously, as we pray for that person from the safe distance of our stoops. It’s much harder to live life out with that person, committed to loving them, and wonder “Why this pattern of behavior? Where does this come from?”.
As I read Scripture, I’m realizing how much of it was written to and for the church itself. The love and patience Christ has for those within the church is just as prominent throughout as it is for the lost. That doesn’t lessen the love for the lost. On the contrary, it deepens our understanding of His love.
The reality is: we are not the Holy Spirit. And sometimes people will not change no matter how deep and great our gospel community is. But sometimes they will. Our job is not to transform them. Our job is to love them. And love them well. Trading the “when?” for the “why?” has helped me to love others better. Not to mention, it’s the same benefit of the doubt I give myself. It’s deep community at its messiest… and at its loveliest.
So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately.
-The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians (1:9, MSG).