Wed 18 Oct 2006
At my new church, the pastor has been doing a long sermon series on how to love. It is practical and often wise, and I like it best when he structures his messages around metaphor; a well chosen image can be a far better container for meaning than simple exposition. Thus I have passed the weeks saying to myself, “Go up into the house of perfected love. Abide in the house of perfected love.” This was the central metaphor from the first sermon I ever heard him give. It is a house built of God himself.
This whole time I’ve been hoping for a message on how to respond when there’s no payoff for choosing love. I’m not sure how this particular pastor feels about taking suggestions from the peanut gallery, so I’ll pose my question here. For example, maybe the people to whom you have been providing food and medical care beat a few people on your team almost to death, as happened recently to Kelsey in Sudan. Maybe a father disowns his adult child and eventually dies, having never come around to reconciliation. Maybe a spouse moves ahead with the divorce, a teenager commits suicide, a government imprisons and oppresses its people. Maybe nothing ever changes. Does this mean our love is worthless?
This problem of lack of visible results has often been a stumbling block in my own search for faith, in part because my denomination, The Vineyard, teaches its people to expect God: in particular, to expect God to speak, to act, and to heal, often with immediate results. I’m glad my church teaches this sense of expectation, as it serves as a corrective to the lack of hope sometimes found among Christians. But the experience of any Christian life reveals that things don’t always work out immediately, and only seldom the way we expect. Things don’t always work out, period. So how does one develop a faith that is strong and flexible enough to both expect good things and keep steady through months, years, and even generations without breakthroughs or results? Last Sunday, to encourage us, the pastor guaranteed that we would reap what we sowed. If we sowed love, we would eventually get love back. I hope he wasn’t guaranteeing us tangible results in the people and situations around us. I think he meant something like this:
“Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not despitefully use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can hurt or overcome us, so long as we pray for them. For if we pray for them, we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition, upon ourselves, and pleading to God for them. We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves. Every insult they utter only serves to bind us more closely to God and them. Their persecution of us only serves to bring them nearer to reconciliation with God and to further the triumphs of love.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his book The Cost of Discipleship. I ran across it again the other day in Marilynne Robinson’s book, The Death of Adam. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Nazi Germany, and was executed by the Nazis.