How Things Happen
HOW THINGS HAPPEN
- One of the smartest, kindest, most devoted men I know in the ministry had to leave his church last year amidst a cruelly divided congregation that was, ironically, of one mind regarding philosophy of ministry.
- The man who arguably is the most outstanding preacher in the English language today was forced out of his church several years ago due to controversy with a staff member.
- The man who many regard as the most outstanding philosophical mind that America ever produced, and the most outstanding revival preacher this favored land has ever seen was run off by his church after over 20 years of faithful service.
How do these things happen? How is it that people, good people, people who are theologically united, who may agree on philosophy of ministry, reach such peaks of discontent with each other?
Here’s my observation. It all starts with talk. One person starts grumbling about something. It could be anything, anything at all. Others, who didn’t notice the “anything” about which they should complain, now notice there are problems. Their discontent is sparked. They discuss it with their circle of friends. The discontent over, say, the paint color in the basement, grows in numbers. Every time the growing circles of discontent people get together, they talk about the color of the paint. The whole life of the church comes down to the paint color.
However, it doesn’t stay there. Discontent tends to take on a life of its own. Observable incompetence, or insensitivity in one area implies incompetence or insensitivity in others. The unhappiness spreads. It’s not just the paint color in the basement, it’s also “X” and “Y” and “Z,” not to mention “Q,” “R,” and “S.” Grumbling continues. Discontent festers. Frustration grows. Months pass. Perhaps years pass. Finally it reaches volcanic proportions and it erupts. The church divides. The pastor is fired. Unimaginably cruel things are said. People part, and go their separate ways. For months, even years, the talk continues, as wounds are nursed, as offenses are relived, as past injustices are rehearsed.
Eventually, though, perceptions begin to change. It may take five years. It may take ten years. One day the majority of the discontent wake up and ask themselves, “What were we doing”? “What were we thinking”? “Why did we allow our petty gripes to spoil our experience of our church’s ministry”?
Four years after Jonathan Edwards was fired, he got a long letter of apology from one Joseph Hawley, a ringleader of the opposition, in which he admitted much “un-Christian bitterness.” The charges against Edwards, he confessed, were “all founded on jealousy and uncharitable mistakes, and so were really gross slanders.” What Hawley couldn’t see at the time, he saw with crystal clarity four years later.
Discontent with the church, with work, with school, with one’s marriage, with the family, with one’s neighbors, tends to take on a life of its own, if we allow it. There is something in human nature that abhors imperfection, especially in others. The positive side of that “something” is that it can spark us forward in our own sanctification, perfecting our flaws. The negative side is that we can destroy much that is good around us, like the foolish woman in Proverbs who tears down her (imperfect) house with her own hands (Prov 14:1)! Meanwhile, the acids of discontent are eating away at us internally, eroding our health, happiness, and wholeness.
Don’t let the perfect, or even the excellent, become the enemy of the good. Years ago I read of a woman who got swept up in feminist ideology and left her husband. A number of years later she looked back with regret and said, “You know, he was basically a good man. I should never have left him.”
Before you walk out on a good church or job or school or marriage, before your mind is made up and the proverbial train leaves the station, sit down with a reliable third party and allow him/her to evaluate your reasoning. Let him/her look you in the eye and say “Are you crazy? Of course your church/marriage/job/school isn’t perfect. But don’t you realize how good you have it compared to everyone/everywhere else? What has gotten into you?” Allow yourself to be told that you’ve lost perspective. Allow yourself to be reminded of all the virtues of the object of your disfavor. Listen as you are warned of the costs involved in separation. Listen as a respected voice tells you that you’re a fool, and take it to heart.