Part 9 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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Yesterday I began to explore the implications of the fact that the church is the body of Christ: “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). If this is true, then we will share each other’s pain, hurting along with our brothers and sisters. If you don’t like to feel bad (and who does?), this isn’t exactly good news. Yet through our mutual empathy we are able to care for each other.
For me, there is an even more unsettling implication in Paul’s picture of the sympathetic body. If, when one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, then when I suffer, others will suffer along with me. Now I suppose some people might find this appealing. But I don’t. I’m the sort of person who likes to suffer alone. If I’m sick, I don’t want my wife and family to take care of me. I want them to leave me alone. That’s how I’m wired. So the idea of sharing my suffering with others isn’t something I warm up to easily.
Moreover, Paul’s description of the body implies that I must let the other parts know when I am suffering. If there’s one thing I like less than feeling pain, it’s admitting that pain to other people. I want to pretend that I am above it all, a man of strength and unwavering faith. I don’t want to be weak, or needy, or doubting, or vulnerable. And when I am any of these things, I don’t want to admit it. Yet God expects this sort of intimacy among members of Christ’s body. And he expects it, I fear, because he knows that we cannot bear our pain alone. We have been created and saved to share such things with others.
Perhaps you are not cursed with the need to pretend you’re invincible. If you can easily share your struggles with others, you are blessed. As a pastor, however, I know that my reticence to share my pain is not unique. Time and again members of my church in Irvine would go into the hospital without telling anyone because they were embarrassed. Or they would struggle silently as their family crumbled, but kept quiet because they felt so ashamed. When folks in my church hid their pain, I felt bugged me because they make it impossibly hard for the body to care for them as we should have done. But I certainly understood the fears that kept folks from admitting their struggles.
There have been times in my life, however, when my suffering was so acute that I couldn’t hide it. Twenty two years ago my dad was dying of cancer, slowly and excruciatingly. In the last stages of his life, my family and I would nurse my dad, caring for him in ways that sapped every ounce of strength. The combination of sadness and stress was almost too much to bear. Thank God we did not have to bear it alone!
I was working at Hollywood Presbyterian Church during those years, the church where my parents had been active for two decades. During the last year of my father’s life, friends from church would check in with me and the rest of my family each day. They prayed without ceasing. The loved without expecting anything in return. In the last three months of my dad’s life they brought dinners to my parents’ home, every night a new meal. The food ranged from perfectly cooked prime rib to take out fried chicken. But whatever the quality of the food, every meal conveyed love that fed our souls as well as our bodies.
Experiences like this one have made it a bit easier for me to share my sufferings with others, but only a bit!
Let me add that such intimacy will not happen, and is not meant to happen, in large groups. It’s impossible for groups larger than forty or fifty to suffer and rejoice together in the manner Paul envisions. If we are to be active members of the body of Christ, therefore, we must be in groups that are small enough to facilitate mutual sharing. Most churches have groups like this. They go by different names, such as: small groups, cell groups, growth groups, adult classes, home Bible studies, kinship groups, prayer groups, etc. Specific group functions differ from church to church. But most of these gatherings facilitate personal openness, providing a place for you to share your pains and your victories.
There is a more appealing upside to Paul’s vision of body sympathy: if one part is honored, all the parts are glad. The Corinthians were mired in self-centered accomplishment, seeking to magnify their own honor, even at the expense of others. But God’s plan for the body of Christ eliminates all of this selfish striving. If we share all of life together, the honoring of a fellow body-part will feel like the honoring of ourselves. We will rejoice unselfconsciously with the one who has been honored.
This kind of shared honor can be quite counter-cultural. I lived for sixteen plus years in Irvine, California, one of the most competitive environments you can find. Most Irvine parents are driven to make sure their kids are successful in every way: athletically, academically, socially, etc. (Sadly, they don’t as often care about emotional or spiritual “success.”) As a result, parents can often feel competitive with others parents. They find ways to boast about their children’s accomplishments as if achievement is a zero sum game. If my child wins, your’s loses, and vice versa. (Photo: Moon rise over North Lake in Irvine, California)
But at Irvine Presbyterian Church things were often quite different. As parents shared their struggles, as they prayed for each other and their children, competitiveness lessened. Sunday school teachers followed the “careers” of their students, rejoicing when they grew up and got scholarships to college. When one child was honored, many parents rejoiced.
So, though it can be scary to share your life with others, or to share deeply in their lives, the results of such vulnerability and connectedness are rich indeed. They can stretch those of us who prize independence and self-reliance. But when we truly share our lives together as members of the body of Christ, the rewards are plentiful.
In my next post in this series I want to examine another implication of being the body of Christ together.