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Unexpected Vessels

We're all often clumsy carriers of grace, truth, and love. But that doesn't mean God can't use us anyway.

Several months ago, I reconnected with an acquaintance over text. She told me about what was happening in her life, a vacation she was going on, a recent move she had made – just a general overview of a bunch of good things. She was an old friend whom I had been close to at one time, so I was especially happy to hear all her updates and obviously responded with joyful enthusiasm. However, when it came my turn to share, I wasn’t able to be as joyful. Even though it had probably been a few years since we’d really been in touch, it’s quite a blessing that I felt able to trust her and our friendship enough to be honest about when I’m going through hard times, and this was one of those times when difficult news was about all I had for updates. However, her response kind of surprised me in a disappointing way.

In a phrase that more or less put a halt to the topic, she responded with the simple text: “[Generic scripture reference].”

Obviously she didn’t text those exact words, I just did not have the resolve to look it up for encouragement in that moment, and consequently I now don’t even remember which verse it was.

I think what made the response kind of disheartening was the fact that it felt so abrupt, as if I went to the doctor with my arm half cut-off and spewing blood and she slapped a “Jesus loves you” smiley face sticker on my forehead and sent me on my way, as if that would make it all better.

Well, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, it did not make things much better at all.

However, afterwards I realized, maybe it actually could have made things at least a bit better. I’m not saying that her method was something I would necessarily promote. The positive models of compassion in the Bible are generally taken from situations when the person mourns alongside the sufferer, co-expressing their grief. It’s true that there are points when it is absolutely a good idea to remind one another of the truths of the gospel, that God loves us with an everlasting love (as Elisabeth Elliot would say), that He was known as a Man of Sorrow, acquainted with grief, and that He is always nearer to us than a brother. But, if there’s one positive point we can take from Job’s friends, it’s that we need to make sure we spend the time entering into our brothers’ and sisters’ pain with them, crawling under the burden they’re carrying to bear it with them, and only then can we, by God’s grace and careful leading, seek to be bearers of light in the situation. Yet I think because I already had the understanding that this was the “wrong” way to react (which, in hindsight, is something I probably only learned by reacting quite similarly when others in my life were experiencing pain), my reaction was unnecessarily cold and unreceptive. I’m ashamed to say, I even think there may have been a twisted smugness mixed in, as if I had some right to feel even more like a victim now because of the way she had reacted, or as if I was somehow now proven the more experienced or wiser human/Christian because I knew that this was obviously not the way we respond in these situations. And I think it was actually this negativity that put a barrier between me and the potential blessing and encouragement of the verse she had texted me just as much or more than the abrupt delivery of it.

I can already hear some of you getting worked up that this isn’t a burden we should put on people who are already hurting; that is, the obligation to react well in every situation even when the way people try to comfort us is clumsy and potentially even hurtful. And I get that. I was even unsure if I should use the word “ashamed” in recounting the story above because I know that’s a bit of a buzzword and it’s really not my point or something I want to focus on. The reason I bring this story up at all is because I think sometimes our strict ideas of how people should act can sometimes keep us from recognizing and benefitting from the good or helpfulness that still remains in their actions even when they don’t correspond with our preconceived notions of what they ought to be. I share the story not to beat anyone down from ways they have reacted to others’ actions in past, and definitely not to shame my friend (who I'm quite sure won't recognize herself or be identified in the story), but rather because I want us all to live with our eyes fully open and ready to receive all the blessings and aids God has lined up yet to come – however unexpected their vessels may be.

The other day I had a humbling realization very similar to the one above. In the past, I’ve really struggled with bitterness towards some aspects of “Christian culture” – or perhaps “Christian pop culture”, if you will. Even though I wrote just a couple weeks ago about how we’re to unconditionally love the Church, I will confess that I have had times of deep disillusionment towards the inauthenticity, hypocrisy, social hierarchies, and self-glorification that can sometimes infiltrate both the local and more global Church, and often do so in some of the more popular mediums of Christian pop culture. For that reason, a while ago I quite ungraciously braced myself before making a visit to an old church group, warning myself not to have too-high expectations of what I was going to get out of the night. There was one lady in particular that I often struggled not to roll internal eyes at (if you needed proof that I'm still a work-in-progress, here is just one small example of many). She was one of the most fluent speakers of “Christianese” I had ever heard, which just so happens to be one of my particular pet peeves and apparently seemed like a good enough reason for me to judge her faith as not being really real or all that deep (though I was not conscious that that was my actual belief at the time). Sure enough, not long after arriving, we had a sharing time, and this lady spoke up with a story of how she had experienced God at work in her day. As she began telling her story, I kind of settled in and sat back in my seat, more or less just gently coaching myself to not to get too annoyed as it would all probably be over soon. However, as she kept on, I slowly felt myself being really touched by what she shared, and encouraged by the power and attention of God that she testified to in her story. As soon as I recognized the effect she was having on me, I realized the stark contrast in how God had used her, and how I had expected her (not) to be used. Once again, my preconceived notions of how Christians ought to carry themselves, fairly irrelevant notions that this woman did not adhere to, had put a barrier up between her and I, and were it not for the Spirit graciously crashing through that barrier anyway, I could have blocked off the hidden gift that God had planted in her to bless me with in that moment.

Where God’s acting hands on our life will come from, we often don’t know. But let us open our eyes to all our brothers and sisters, even when they don’t fit our ideas of what a Christian ought to look or talk like, praying that God will give us the same grace and understanding and encouraging hearts that some of us may find easier to have towards non-believers. The great blessing of all this is that it’s an initiative that has the potential to immediately bring about wonderfully rewarding results; when our eyes are more open to the beauty God has planted in our world and daily interactions, we suddenly realize all the gifts and expressions of love God is constantly surrounding us with. So, my brothers and sisters, I pray that today, whichever vessels God surrounds you with (however chipped or scratched or oddly-painted they may be), that you would find the Holy Spirit held inside. And in return, I hope they find the Holy Spirit planted and flowing bountifully out of all your cracks and chips too.


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