Part 8 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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Yesterday I explored one implication of the church as the body of Christ. According to 1 Corinthians 12, God has made us so that we care mutually for each other. This means that each of us has responsibility within the church. We’re not just care receivers, but care givers as well. Moreover, God has designed the body of Christ in such a way that we are not meant to be independent. Rather, we depend on each other for the care and love they provide. If you prefer to take care of yourself and not need others, this can be a disconcerting bit of biblical truth.
Yet there is more in 1 Corinthians 12 that might stir up a bit of internal discomfort.
As Paul wraps up his discussion of the body of Christ, he states: “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad” (1 Cor 12:26). For those of us who want to be empathetic, this sounds like good news. According to God’s design, we will feel the pain of those who hurt and the joy of those who are honored.
But there is a double downside to this kind of empathy. First of all, we should note our calling to suffer along with those who suffer. The text doesn’t say anything about making them feel better. Surely other biblical passages call for encouraging and helping people in need (1 Thess 5:11-14). But in 1 Corinthians 12 we are told to feel genuine empathy, to hurt with those who hurt. This can be much harder than merely giving aid and comfort. It requires really knowing people. It demands the opening my whole heart. It means that I will feel pain when those around me feel pain. Sometimes I’d rather just cheer people up and be on my merry way. But that’s not how God has designed the church as the body of Christ.
When I was on the staff of Hollywood Presbyterian Church, one of the elders rubbed me the wrong way. Fritz always seemed to have a scowl on his face. His comments in meetings were often terse and negative. It didn’t really surprise me when I learned that he had been a career Marine. He seemed just about as happy as the stereotypical drill sergeant in movies. I must admit that I pretty much wrote Fritz off as a cranky old man whom I’d try to ignore. (Photo: The sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.)
Wouldn’t you know that on a retreat of the elders, while we were having communion together, Fritz came to me asking for prayer. Apparently I had hidden my negative feelings towards him too well. I figured that I could pray a quick prayer and finish our interaction without much emotional investment. As Fritz began to share what he wanted me to pray about, he began to weep. He was well into his 70s by that time, and felt like he had completely missed the joy of serving the Lord. “I’m just a cranky old man,” he sobbed, “and I don’t think God can do anything with me. It’s too late.” As I sat there with Fritz, my initial desire to pray a quick “get better” prayer faded away. I began to feel his sadness, his desperation, his discouragement with himself. It hurt me to share his pain. When it was time for me to pray, I couldn’t help but weeping along with my brother. I also wept for myself, feeling so ashamed before God for my hard-heartedness against this dear man, and feeling so grateful for the chance to share in his suffering. When I finished praying, we embraced, a formerly cranky old man and a formerly cranky young pastor, sharing together in God’s healing love.
If I told you that there was a dramatic change in Fritz’s life, you’d probably think: “Oh, there goes another pastor with his exaggerated happy endings.” I wouldn’t blame you for thinking this way. But the Spirit of God did a miracle within Fritz. He became truly tenderhearted. In fact, he soon became known around the church for his profound sympathy for others. He also began to manifest a magnetic joy in the Lord. Fritz also became a dear friend of mine, a beloved encourager of me and my ministry. Oh, what I would have missed if I hadn’t bothered to feel the pain of this brother! God would probably have found someone else to minister to him, but I would have been forever deprived of a watershed experience in my own life.
There is even a potentially more unsettling implication of Paul’s picture of the sympathetic body of Christ. I’ll get to that tomorrow.