“For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus unto Dalmatia — At my first answer no man stood with me, but all forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge.” – II Timothy 4:10-16
“For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” – Philippians 2:21
Live enough years and you’ll get a taste of what Paul’s talking about here, and I think you know what I mean. Church splits. Fallen ministers. Broken commitments. Self-righteous finger-pointing. Power plays. Childish gossip. If you’ve dealt with people, you’ve dealt with disappointment, and that’s doubly true of Christians, since we do and should hold each other to higher standards.
So in both verses cited above, we see some strong statements from a disappointed apostle. His letters to Timothy and the Philippians were written towards the end of his life, and while both are full of hope and rich doctrine, they also give glimpses into the heart of a man who’d been hurt.
Funny. When I read his letter to Corinth detailing his persecutions at the hands of enemies (II Corinthians 11:23-33) I’m not nearly as moved as I am reading these verses. Mistreatment by an adversary is expected and somewhat emotionally prepared for, but abandonment by friends? There’s a special cruelty in that. And crusty as Paul was (do you doubt he was a crusty old cuss? I don’t) he also seems to have been a man who loved hugely; felt deeply. To have his close associates forsake him when they were most needed has to have been a special,
An unavoidable one, too. After all, Jesus commanded us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) our neighbor (Matthew 22:39) and each other, as in, our fellow believers. (John 13:34) Where there’s love there’s eventual disappointment , and with few exceptions, I’ve found Christians have the hardest time dealing with disappointment in each other. Enemies and neighbors don’t touch our souls the way brothers and sisters do, so when the touch goes sour, it’s more than an ouch. It’s a wound.
For anyone who takes Christ’s commandment to love others seriously, the wound’s inevitable. So the ten disciples had to deal with their disappointment in Peter after his denial of Christ; Philemon had to deal with Omnesimos’ unlawfully bolting from his employ (Philemon 1:10-12); Paul and Barnabas had to move on in their respective ministries despite the deep contention that now divided two formerly close co-workers. (Acts 15:39) If they weren’t exempt from relational letdowns, we certainly won’t be.
It’s often said that when we’re disappointed in believers it’s because we expected too much from them. Maybe, but I think we’re also expecting too little from ourselves – too little grace, patience, understanding. And I say this as a man who’s let himself fantasize about awesome Medieval tortures for certain brethren who’ll never know how lucky they are that I’m not God: I have to apply myself to being more Christ-like, rather than demand that someone else be. I know pretty darned well what it’s like being disappointed in the behavior of Christians, and feeling the accompanying rage and pain. But at a time like that, the onus is on me to forgive, forbear and love. Three specific re-examinations help me to do that.
First, I have to re-examine the accuracy of my complaint. A simple, honest conversation with the person I’m disappointed in might prove that I got it all wrong, and that the sin I thought he committed was more in my head than in fact. Of course, I have to approach that conversation with a willingness to admit I could be wrong, but if I can’t even do that, then I’m emotionally unprepared for relationships anyway.
Second, I need to re-examine the other person’s perspective. If he did something objectively wrong, then his perspective won’t change the wrong itself, but it may give me more insight into him, and more empathy for his own struggles. It won’t hurt me to try seeing his side. It probably won’t change my mind about his behavior, but it may soften my attitude towards the person himself.
Finally, I need to re-examine the value of the relationship versus the level of my disappointment. Before I sanctimoniously clutch my anger towards a fellow believer, I have to ask myself if my life would really be better without this person, and if all the gifts and value that person brings into my life should be discounted because of the sin that’s so offended me. Invariably this balances my thinking out, as I realize how small the offense is in light of eternal principles.
All of which reminds me that loving another person is both a blessing and an achievement in and of itself, disappointment notwithstanding. The question isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, Am I Let Down by the Person I Love? Rather, it hopefully is and will remain, Am I Loving This Person as Christ Does, and Will My Love Outlast the Disappointment?
If it doesn’t, then it wasn’t love as God defines it. If it does, then yes, there’ll be disappointment in the most loving of relationships. But, way more importantly, there’ll be reward as well, paying dividend upon dividend, both in this life and the next.