This is the title of a compelling book by Rick McKinley-but it also describes the church quite well. We are a people called out of darkness into light, a people on whom sin has attempted its worst but for the intervention of God's grace and mercy. We are scarred and sometimes broken beings in desperate need of restoration, and the community of faith should serve as a vital instrument in our healing.
It is here that we see the "beautiful mess," albeit more mess than beauty today. The beauty emerges as a people once teetering on the edge of destruction are brought by grace into a new life together in Christ. As we have established, this life together-in essence our love for one another-is essential to the witness of the church and the proclamation of the gospel.
Practically speaking, though, what does this love look like? Love is probably the most misunderstood concept today. To many, love is to be found in the experience of intense feelings or romanticism. For others, love is located in sexuality or eroticism. But neither of these captures the love that Jesus is speaking of when he says, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35, ESV).
Jesus is describing a love that isn't subject to experience or emotion but rather is an act of the will, an intentional disposition that seeks the good or well-being of another. As human beings we have little trouble loving subject to our own experience or emotions. But agape love does not derive from feelings conducive to the improvement of our own state but actions relative to the improvement of the state of another. This is the love to which we, as followers of Christ, are called.
The apostle Paul expands our understanding of this love and its essential expression within the body of Christ in his first epistle to the Corinthians. Paul describes the different gifts of the body, its wonderful diversity, and interdependence. Emphasizing that "God has so composed the body … that there may be no division … that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (12:24–26, ESV). In chapter thirteen, Paul follows his description of these diverse gifts-given to serve the body-by then giving what must be the animating spirit of this mutual service and care: love.
Paul essentially says that all of these gifts, given to the service of the church and the kingdom, are nothing if they are exercised apart from love! And this love for one another-that Jesus says gives evidence to the world of our conversion-is "patient and kind"; it "does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude … it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth" (1 Corinthians 13:4–6). This love for one another that Paul describes and which Jesus commands "bear all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (13:7).
This means that we must bear with one another even through difficult relationships, conflict, and offenses. We must be willing to set aside our own feelings and seek peace, even to the point of humbling ourselves. We don't insist upon our rights in a given matter, but rather seek first the kingdom of God, being willing to sacrifice our rights for the sake of Christ, to whom this love bears witness. It means we persevere in the face of conflict and offense and stop running away from each other, which destroys our unity in Christ's body.
The American church struggles with this even in its most intimate of relationships: marriage. We break this promise to one another on nearly the same scale and frequency as reprobate sinners. While it is difficult to extrapolate accurate data relative to divorce rates among Christians, a controversial report in 1999 by George Barna stated, "Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce." Responding to the study, the Dallas Morning News reported that the national study "raised eyebrows, sowed confusion, [and] even brought on a little holy anger." Defending their data, Barna Project Director Meg Flammang offered the following: "We would love to be able to report that Christians are living very distinct lives and impacting the community, but … in the area of divorce rates they continue to be the same."
A more recent Associated Press analysis of divorce rates in the "Bible Belt" states lends credibility to these findings. According to the Boston Globe, "divorce rates in these conservative states are roughly 50 percent above the national average.
Anecdotally, I am appalled by the many accounts of divorce and adultery among professing Christians I have encountered just in recent weeks. (Not to mention some recent and very public examples.) I am personally familiar with many cases in which I have yet to hear of any church discipline that seeks to reconcile these relationships or promote repentance of any kind. In fact, one woman who left her husband and children continued to attend worship with her new "boyfriend," eventually getting remarried in the same church. How on earth can we demonstrate to a watching world that our lives have been transformed by Christ-evidenced by our love for one another-when we can't even exercise the will to love our own spouses?
American culture is immersed in a social catastrophe unprecedented in our history: the destruction of marriage. Yet we fail to offer a superior example. There is perhaps no greater opportunity for the church in America to bear witness to the kingdom than that of demonstrating what family life looks like under the rule and reign of God. Let's face it: it wouldn't take much to display the superiority of God's design for sexuality and the natural family in a culture that has so devalued marriage that it faces possible extinction!
So serious is the situation that even Time magazine recently reported, "There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage" (Caitlin Flanagan, "Is There Hope for the American Marriage?" Time, July 02, 2009). If this same cause-divorce-is as prevalent within the church then so, too, are the societal hardships and misery, which only further obscures any distinction of a people set apart.
If the church is looking for a practical way to manifest the gospel of the kingdom, it is the preservation and promotion of marriage within the church, making disciples who bear the mark of Christlike love. (Marriage Savers offers an excellent resource for churches.) If Christians truly understood the love to which Christ calls us, our marriages would be different, divorce would be rare, and the society of faith more resistant to the social ills common in the broader culture.
In a culture where so much "measurable hardship and human misery" are seen to originate from a misguided and man-centered conception of love, sexuality, parenting, and personal responsibility, maybe those suffering might be drawn to a community so transformed that it demonstrates the better way. Once there, they may meet Christ, discover his better way, and receive new life, without which there can be no lasting change.