I have a friend who works as a house painter. He is the kind of guy who is not afraid of confrontation, especially when he thinks that shocking someone might be the best way to bring a reality check. One day, at the job site, he met another guy who claimed to be a follower of Jesus.
My friend: “…Really? Where do you go to church?”
New Guy: “Everywhere. I want to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying, so I go to lots of different churches—I don’t want to be tied down.”
My friend: “You know, you ought to go to one church and stay there long enough until you get offended by the people in the church. I think that’s what God wants for you.”
New Guy: “You think God wants me to be offended?”
My friend: “Oh yeah, there’s no question about that, but I think He really wants you to be offended by people that you go to church with regularly.”
Surprisingly, the two actually became friends, though, at the time, the new guy thought that my friend was nuts. But, in all his apparent nuttiness, my friend was trying to illustrate an important point: We can’t really claim to be the kind of person who loves God unless we learn to love others. We hear it all the time: God loves everybody. Well, that may be fine for God, but for most of us love is fine in the abstract but nearly impossible in the everyday world.
God’s kind of love is nearly impossible because we don’t have very many people that we can claim as close friends, and the surface friendships that we often do develop are not conducive to much more than a vague liking. Truly, the pace of our lives does not provide many places where we can really even get close to others. There are even fewer settings where we can learn how to love them.
Learn how to love? Isn’t love supposed to just happen? In romance, in friendships, in finding a community that feels “safe,” most of us expect that love should be organic, natural and self-generating. We would like to think that if we walked into "Central Perk" as a complete stranger, we could walk out with a whole new set of friends. But "Central Perk" closed down when Friends went off the air, and we’re not in Manhattan anymore. Love is a great ideal, until we have to work it out with other people. Then we begin to wonder if love is worth all the grief. It’s time-consuming, expensive, and worst of all, it’s not all-about-not-me.
But love is the primary way that we imitate God:
Ephesians 5:1-2 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.(TNIV)
The word “therefore” indicates that Paul was reaching a conclusion, not starting something new, and the stuff before Ephesians 5:1-2 provides a not-so-easy road map to living a life of love that imitates Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul was calling for followers of Jesus to live a “life of love,” which sounds great until you actually try to do it. Jesus lived a life of love, and it got him killed. You want to try to be like Jesus?
Not-so-easy Step One:
Give up your life as an individual: (Eph 4:17-19)
These verses describe a life lived for the self. If ever there was a futile way of life, it is a life lived for ourselves alone. Living for ourselves hardens our hearts and brings us into darkness. If our goal is a new kind of community, then living for ourselves really is futile. Many people long for community but live for themselves. When we are separated from God the only things we become sensitive to are our own desires.
Not-so-easy Step Two:
Put on a new, Godly self: (Eph 4:20-22)
The Gospel that Paul presented in Ephesus was about more than personal forgiveness. He taught about the sacrificial Jesus who declared a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Paul presented Jesus as the one who did not follow his own desire but demonstrated love. When we consider others we are acting like our heavenly father. This choice is intentional: We have a part to play. We can choose to put off our individualistic ways and put on ways of thinking and acting that include others.
Not-so-easy Step Three:
Express your “new self” in terms of your ability to relate to others.
We put off falsehood and speak truth because we are members of one body.
He does say, “don’t get angry,” but rather we should work through our anger together. It’s hard work! Stealing (presuming upon the generosity of others) needs to be replaced not by working with the goal of “getting mine,” but having something to share with others.
Not-so-easy Step Four:
Create a welcome community for the Holy Spirit
Godly community is marked by wholesome communication. And communication doesn’t become wholesome magically: It happens only if we choose so. Our concern should be for building up others and benefiting others. In fact, this is the proper context for the phrase “grieve the Holy Spirit,” it’s about treating God’s people as people who deserve our best intentions. When God’s kids play nice together, the Holy Spirit shows up.
That’s why my friend suggested an environment full of opportunities to be offended. How else can we learn to forgive? There’s a perfect place to be offended, it’s called “the church,” and it’s filled with people that will drive us crazy. But, if we can hang out in one place long enough, we will have the chance to become “imitators of God.”