(Also titled: More Than I Can Handle, Part 5)
This is part of a larger series examining a better way to frame the question of whether God gives us more than we can handle. Today we’re looking at the role that the local church plays in the broader discussion of trials, suffering, hope, and help. If you are new to this discussion, you may find this context helpful, starting with the first post in the series.
The covid epidemic revealed a number of misconceptions Christians and non-Christians alike have about church and churches. When leaders reminded congregations that “the church” wasn’t a building, some people concluded that meeting together was unimportant, merely the “social” part of spiritual activity. Is gathering itself (apart from the Bible instruction) the entertainment part of Christianity, or is it instead an essential part of life for a Christian?
To find the answer, we look to Scripture. Even a casual investigation shows a community energy and activity among Christians that is impossible to imitate from a distance. Look closer, and we find detailed instructions for loving one another and resolving conflicts, instructions that are unnecessary if church were simply a group of people listening to a lecture. We can connect virtually (truly a gift in our world today), but connecting in person is far, far better. We must not passively abandon the precious gift of Christian family.
If you have grown up around church and church-y people (or if you have a lot of your biological family in your church), you might forget how distinct this kind of community can be. If our reference point for community is secular group dynamics, or dysfunctional Christian group dynamics, we will miss this specific camaraderie that God designed to be a tangible help in need.
Christian culture challenges our secularized assumptions of how and why we help people, no matter what country or passport culture we are from. Giving when it is difficult, undeserved, or not reciprocated, is often seen as foolish and wasteful, and we naturally tend to expect a return on the investment of giving. God’s word offers a substantial contrast and reference point for us, marked by a peculiar generosity that stems from mercy and kindness.
In Galatians 6, the apostle Paul explains this Christian culture to us.
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. 5 For each one shall bear his own load.
6 Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches.
7 Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. 8 For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. 9 And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.Galatians 6:2-10
I love how Paul presents the complexity of helping throughout this passage. Christ is our example and reference point. We see the assembly called to bear one another’s burdens(v.2), and yet told that the individual responsibility of a burden is not collective (v.5). Burdens require self reflection, and the dignity of self reliance (v.4). Paul outlines priorities for our helping (v.6 and v.10). He acknowledges pride that gets in the way of burden bearing (v.3), and that, while helping is sometimes tiresome and difficult, our motivation for helping is not (v.9).
Notice that Paul avoids micromanaging by leaving out details of how we bear burdens. Implicit in his instruction is a great deal of wisdom and freedom in decision making: Not every helper has the same resources, and at times may be unable to provide relief to the degree needed or wanted. Further, different cultures will value and provide different kinds of help. During the pandemic, this diversity was often misunderstood. For example, Christian communities had different needs or desire for caution than others, even though they all may have had a deep desire to help families. Why is it surprising that communities see different neighbors in need of help? Sadly, the intensity of criticism in the last few years among Christians revealed a lack of understanding about the diversity of the body of Christ.
As we try to follow Paul’s expectation for Christian community, we sometimes miss the mark, both in identifying and helping to meet needs, but also in requesting or receiving help. While no church is perfect, and meeting needs will often require mercifully overlooking awkwardness both giving and receiving, we should see a desire from all to help others, and a measure of transparency in asking for help. We will also see growth in how we give and receive help.
Tomorrow we will look at some specific ways that the church provides help for the overwhelmed.