Thank God for Painful People!
A reflection on Ephesians 4:1-16 by Nathan Nettleton, 6th August 2000

There will always be people in the church you find difficult to get on with, and it is there presence that will really enable you to grow in your ability to love.


This passage from Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus contains both a wonderfully idealistic vision of the church and some very down to earth reality checks about the church. They contain a big challenge to us here at South Yarra. I think they call us to ask some hard questions about how we are going to go about being church together into the future.

Let’s look at the idealistic vision first. The picture of unity and oneness in this passage is beautifully expressed. “The is one body and one Spirit, we are all living by one calling. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. And there is one God who is father and mother to everyone on earth.” Oneness, oneness, oneness! Unity, unity, unity! “With Christ as the one head, we all grow into one body with every part working properly and harmoniously. United as one body in Christ we achieve our destiny - full maturity - being completely like Christ.”

It is a glowing picture of Christian community - people totally committed to one another, loving one another and prepared to lay down their lives for one another. People who enjoy one another’s company and look our for one another - encourage one another, support one another, and care for one another. A wonderful vision, but is it realistic? Are there any churches like that? Is our church like that? Was the church as Paul experienced it like that?

No! And when you read the whole of this passage you realise that Paul was well aware that it was not the everyday reality of life in the church. He’s singing the vision, but he’s also begging people to do their best to live up to the vision. Paul knows that it’s not easy and he knows that it will take a long time and a lot of hard work before we even get close to it. Listen to the reality phrases he uses: “Bear with one another . . . make every effort to maintain the unity . . . be humble, be gentle, be patient . . . speak the truth in love . . . grow up!”

So Paul is not willing to let go of the vision of oneness and harmony, but perhaps he is under no illusions about the reality gap. He is acknowledging how tough it is going to be for any community to live up to the vision, to grow into the vision.

But there is something that has really started to sink in for me on this. Paul seems quite hopeful about the process of growing into that vision. He seems to think that the challenge of dealing with the reality is a positive thing, that it is something we should welcome because it is the very thing that will stimulate our growth as individuals. I think the logic goes something like this. For each of us as individuals our goal is to grow into full Christlikeness. To become Christlike, we need to become completely and utterly loving - able to love even our enemies. To become that loving we will need plenty of practice learning to love people who we don’t always find easy to love. The church teams us up with a bunch of people who are often not at all easy to love. Some are better than others, but they are a mixed bag. As a mixed bag of often unlovable people with a vision of unity and harmony, the church is a great opportunity for us to begin to stretch our ability to be really loving. And because of that, learning to love one another in the church is one of the basic Christian disciplines that we need to work at if we want to become Christlike.

Every one of us in this church has at least a couple of other people here that we find particularly difficult to relate to, to get on with, and to love. And probably everyone of us is that particularly irritating person to someone else. Most of us have times when we think that church would be much better if it was made up of people we could relate to better and if we got rid of some of the really painful people. But the fact is, that if everyone in the church was easy to get along with, then the church wouldn’t actually be something that stretched you and challenged your ability to love. It wouldn’t be the same stimulus to confront the limitations in your own ability to love others. And there are lots of other places you can go to mix with people like yourself. There are plenty of special interest groups around that are naturally self-selecting and become groups of like-minded compatible people. They can be pleasant to be part of and we all need some of them, but they are not the places that challenge you to grow into the image of Christ.

I think that one of the biggest challenges facing this congregation at the present time is that we don’t see enough of each other to force us into facing the difficulties in our relationships. We mostly only see each other for a few hours a week, and we can tolerate the irritations for that long so we don’t have to face them and deal with them. We manage to live around them and consequentially we don’t push each other into growth. Our pattern of relating doesn’t expose the limits of our capacities for love. We can keep our relating fairly superficial and so keep our incompetence hidden. And on the occasions when trouble does flare up, we have great difficulty finding the time to properly negotiate our way through it. The individuals involved are not constantly faced with each other so that they have to deal with the conflict, and the rest of the group are not constantly faced with the conflict so that they push us to sort it out. We can just form an uneasy truce and miss the opportunity to put in some hard work on our capacity to love. In so doing, we are missing out on the opportunities the church can provide of stimulating us and needling us into growing towards maturity in the image of Christ.

I think that the patterns of worship we have developed here are unique and precious, and that they have contributed to much growth in all of us. I think that they have given us a growing vision of who Christ is and how he gives himself to us in self-sacrificing love. I think too, that they have given many of us a growing hunger to find ways of living in grateful response to that self-giving in ways that have real substance and integrity. But the challenge to find ways of doing that together still lies mostly ahead of us.

If we really desire to grow fully into the image of Christ, we are going to have to first recognise that the difficult hard-to-love people in the church are gifts from God, absolutely essential to our growth. And then we’ll have to find ways of putting ourselves in a position where we have to live alongside and interact and cooperate with those difficult people enough to confront us frequently with the limits of our humility, tolerance and gentleness. And then we’ll have to tough it out, to bear with one another in love, as we grow into a genuine mature self-sacrificing love. It will be no easy road, but Jesus never promised that the fullness of life would come easily. The road to life follows the way of the cross.

Questions for thought and discussion.

• How would you describe the relationship between the friction we experience among ourselves and the opportunity for growth into greater love?

• What are the patterns you observe in the ways we deal with friction and conflict in this congregation?

• What do you think it would take to enable us to better confront and grow through the inevitable tensions among us?