Christlike Emotions During Relational Turmoil
One of the most difficult things you will have to go through is relational conflict. And one of the reasons it is so difficult is because it is so continual. As long as you are around people, you will be around conflict. So what do we do about this? Most do what comes natural, and it is either retreat or attack. Clearly, turning a cold shoulder or hurling sharp words is not right. But does this mean the gospel response is a cool and collected middle road of dispassionate calmness? This doesn’t seem to match the weightiness of the eternal nature of people. Since people are eternal, how could calmness ever describe something so weighty? So the question I want to raise is this: What is the appropriate Christ-like response to relational turmoil? Should there be brokenheartedness or peace? Should there be deep-rooted concern or calmness? Should there be sorrow in the difficulty or a joyful assurance of the gospel? The answer: all of the above.
Lest you think this is being contradictory, let me show you the heart of Paul as he dealt with all manner of difficult people and relational messes.
First, look at the broken heart, distress, concern, and sorrow Paul had in dealing with the Corinthian church. In the verses that speak of Titus, remember that Titus was sent to resolve issues in the church, thus Titus’ coming was related to the condition of the church.
2 Corinthians 2:4 For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not so that you would be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you.
2 Corinthians 2:13 I had no rest for my spirit, not finding Titus my brother; but taking my leave of them, I went on to Macedonia.
2 Corinthians 7:6–7 But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus; 7 and not only by his coming, but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I rejoiced even more.
We get a three-for-one in a passage in Philippians. In chapter two, we get to hear about the various distresses and joys that resonate through three parties, Epaphroditus, Paul, and the Philippian congregation in the underlined words.
Philippians 2:26–28 because he [Epaphroditus] was longing for you all and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. 27 For indeed he was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, so that I would not have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I have sent him all the more eagerly so that when you see him again you may rejoice and I may be less concerned about you.
We hear Paul’s great struggle as he deals with the wayward Galatians.
Galatians 4:19–20 My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you— 20 but I could wish to be present with you now and to change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.
We see Paul brought to the end of himself as he thinks about the temptations looming over the Thessalonica church.
1 Thessalonians 3:1 Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone,
1 Thessalonians 3:5 For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be in vain.
So let’s recap this. In Paul’s dealings with various people and situations he experienced anguish, tears, sorrow, restlessness, depression, longing, distress, potential sorrow upon sorrow, concern, laboring birth-pains, perplexity, the endurance breakpoint, and fear.
This almost sounds like a Christian coming apart at the seams. This is not a man with ice running through his veins, unmoved, unfeeling, and focused on the mission.
But before we think Paul was immature, sinful, or otherwise unchristlike, we have to remember the rock he stood upon. This was the same man who described himself as “sorrowful, but always rejoicing.” The man who told the Corinthians that he had anguish of heart over them was the same man who said his “comfort was abundant through Christ.” 2 Cor. 1:5 The man who told the Philippians that he was concerned for them was the same man who said “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say rejoice.” Phil. 4:4 The man who told the Thessalonians that he couldn’t endure not knowing if they were standing strong or not was the same man who said “rejoice always” and “in everything give thanks.” 1 Thess. 5:16, 18
So how do these seemingly contradictory experiences coexist: deep concern and rejoicing, anguish and thanksgiving, perplexity and comfort? What I think we are seeing is the stabilizing and transforming nature of the gospel. The gospel is what makes us like God. Once we are reconciled to him, God goes to work conforming us to his image. And God is one who weeps and feels pain, yet does it with a perfect peace and unwavering joy in all the glory he is bringing about through the trouble. Therefore God is working these qualities in us as well. The gospel is transforming us to love like he loves. This kind of love means our hearts break and our thoughts are consumed with the needs and problems of other people. Yet at the same time we are stabilized and made joyful on the rock of God’s absolute sovereign control and his ability to bring good out of the worst of situation.
At the end of it all, I think we can say this: The love of Christ compels us (2 Cor. 5:14) and therefore our love-created weeping and concern and anguish drives us with supernatural power toward people not away from them. We strive for reconciliation, we work for understanding, we counsel with patience, and we forebear and overlook with great gentleness and wisdom. We never leave people. They might reject you and leave, but each Christian must always be striving for peace “as far as it depends upon you.” Rom. 12:18 But in the midst of it all, we cling to Christ. There is a peace in the turmoil that allows us to rejoice and give thanksgiving because we believe, all the way to our bones, that God is going to use this for his glory. This is the rock of peace we stand upon, even as our hearts break, while we move against the winds of conflict toward the person Christ calls us to love.
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