One of the topics I’ve recently covered is how there is no such thing as perfect community. The defining characteristic of a perfect community is one filled with imperfect people working on their imperfections. This is discipleship at its finest.
But sin is a pretty serious issue. How can we deal with the legitimacy of our friends’ sin, yet still hold tightly to the redemptive truths of the Gospel, when discipling each other into Christ’s image?
I think the 18th century preacher and theologian, John Wesley, has some wise words that can add to our conversation.
One of my favorite attributes of Wesley as a theologian is his optimism. He has such a positive, bright, and encouraging take on the full potential humanity can be. Wesley truly believed persons can be set free from their sins and completely redeemed to live a holy life. If we are accepted as God’s sons and daughters through Jesus Christ, then all our sins, as he says, “are driven away as chaff. They are gone. They are lost. They are swallowed up. They are remembered no more.” If God is merciful, and we are set free from sin, then surely it’s possible to live a sinless life fully captivated by the Father’s love and grace.
Wesley was optimistic indeed.
But he was also realistic—and that’s what I believe makes Wesley’s optimism so powerful. Pastors, theologians, authors, and Christians as a whole will claim the exact same truths as Wesley—your sin is vanquished! Christ died to save you! Holiness is possible! You can be set free!—but more so to squirm out of the uncomfortable reality of sin. “Oh, your marriage is broken?”, the consoling Christian friend asks. “Don’t you worry, Jesus will save and redeem you from it just in time.” They use the truth of Christ’s redemption as a cop-out from adequately wrestling alongside the person’s sin. They nonchalantly skirt their way out of the purpose behind Christian community and spiritual friendship.
This isn’t what Wesley does in his sermon on sin. He articulates a brilliant doctrine of sin that covers a wide gambit of what can be classified as “sin.” This includes:
- Sins of infirmity (or innate human imperfection)
- Unpreventable sins (sins that happen against one’s control)
- Sins of surprise (an act or word that wasn’t intended but “slipped out”),
- and, ultimately, sins of disobedience (intentional decisions against God’s will).
Wesley’s rich articulation of the wide gambit of sin shows he had wrestled with this. He knew the legitimacy of sin better than anybody. He worked with the lowest of the low, people who struggled with every sort of addiction and baggage you could imagine. He lived out the perfect purpose of imperfect community to the T. This is why his optimistic theology works.
The most convincing theologians are those who honestly weigh sinful realities, yet still remain optimistic.
This reveals a crucial point for our spiritual formation, and particularly our friendships. The crux of one’s spiritual formation is holiness, and it is figured that a constant repetition of “optimistic” truths—that Christ will save you from your sins—is all one needs to overcome those very sins. But if all that is said without legitimately acknowledging sin, then it can easily come across more as a cop-out answer to people’s problems than legitimately forming them into Christ’s image.
Unfortunately, friends do this to each other all the time.
When I was reading Wesley’s sermon, I found some pretty uncanny parallels with Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. One of Barbara’s biggest points in her text is that we have to legitimately recognize the darkness people live in without trying to flood it out with “artificial light” claims. It is way too tempting to use Gospel-truths as flashlights—quick, weak, temporary fixes for people’s darkness—than sitting there with them in the dark until they can see the legitimate light of the Gospel shining through like the Sun. Only the Sun can adequately cure darkness, and it requires waiting in the darkness until the earth completes another spin on its axis to come about-face to its true light-source.
Optimistic theology is sitting in the dark, knowing the “sun’ll come out tomorrow.” It’s sitting with people in their mess and darkness, not trying to offer quick fixes to get them out of it (all to make us feel more comfortable), but helping them acknowledge the beauty of the season they’re in while trusting the Sun will, in fact, come out again.
May we not be ignorant of the realities of sin when claiming redemptive Gospel-truths. May we not settle for preaching grace as a cop-out answer to escape from meeting our friends in their problems. Rather, may we choose to dig deep, get dirty, learn what sin is, in all its varieties and facets and multidimensional applications to people’s lives, and remain optimistic anyway.
If Jesus had to descend into hell to taste the legitimacy of sin for himself so his ascension could do its lasting work, then so must we do the same in our friendship ministry.