Rev. Larry E. Wilson
As I began my ministry, I got hold of a book called Cinderella with Amnesia: A Restatement in Contemporary Terms of the Biblical Doctrine of the Church (IVP) by Michael Griffiths. The author—British—had been a missionary. On the field, he had become convicted that our Western culture was so individualistic that we tend to read Scripture through those lenses and thus misunderstand vast swaths of the Bible. So, in this book, he walked through Scripture showing that, while genuine faith is always personal, it’s never private. Our Lord is saving a people for himself. When the Holy Spirit connects us to Christ, he at the same time connects us to all the people who are connected to Christ. We belong to each other. We are members of one another in the body of Christ (Rom. 12:5). Well! To me that was a paradigm-changing book—a life-changing book. It convinced me that I’d been misreading Scripture. So many well-known Scriptures are not addressed to me, as I had been reading them, but rather to us. Or, put another way, they do apply to me personally, but not to me privately or in isolation. Because we are members of each other—brothers and sisters in God’s family in Christ—it’s not just our duty but also our nature to want fellowship. That’s one big reason why these COVID-19 lockdowns we’re under are so painful for us. They chafe against the grain of who we really are.
I was serving as a church planter. Things were actually going well. But for some reason I started to feel more and more discouraged. I told myself, “You’re the leader here. You’ve got to keep up a positive image so you encourage everyone else. You’ve got to hide your discouragement so you don’t discourage anyone else.” But it kept getting worse. I tried to whip myself into shape by reading Scripture commands, but I kept sinking. I tried to encourage myself by reading Scripture promises, but I kept sinking. At last, we were at a mid-week prayer meeting that met in someone’s home. As we were sharing prayer requests, I told my brothers and sisters that I couldn’t explain why, but I felt discouraged. And I couldn’t shake it. Well, we prayed together for various things, including that request. After the meeting, one of the men invited me out for coffee. We found an all-night diner and talked until the wee hours. He did his best to advise and encourage me. But—to be honest—he didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Even so, when I got up the next morning, the discouragement (or maybe it was depression) had completely evaporated. In my Bible reading that day, I was going through 2 Corinthians 7. I came to this text—verses 5–6—”For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us …” That’s where I would have expected the verse to end. But that’s not where the Holy Spirit speaking through Paul ended it. He said, “But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus,” It hit me like a ton of bricks! God uses Christian fellowship to give comfort! That’s what he did for me. As long as I was trying to be the rugged individualist—the lone ranger—the Lord withheld that comfort. And, no matter what I did to remedy it on my own, I kept sinking down. But when I shared it with my brothers and sisters in Christ, God, who comforts the downcast, comforted me by the fellowship of my fellow Christians.
Sometimes we shrink Hebrews 10:24–25 down to a bare command to make sure we show up at public worship (“not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some”). But listen to the whole verse. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” During this “present distress” (1 Cor. 7:26) when we’re hindered from having our regular Lord’s Day assemblies, what are some ways that we—some ways that that you—can still pursue this exhortation? How can we—how can you—consider one another? How can we—how can you—encourage one another? How can we—how can you—stir one another up to love and good works?
All through my ministry, I’ve aspired to cultivate observable community in the church. Alas, my aspirations have always fallen short of God’s aspirations. And my accomplishments have always fallen short of even my aspirations, let alone God’s. But—praise the Lord!—where I fail, Jesus has succeeded! Where we fall short, Jesus has triumphed! His perfect death makes up for our shortcomings, and his perfect life wins God and all his blessings for us—forever and ever. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:19). Because of Jesus, God doesn’t count our shortcomings against us. Because of Jesus, God counts his successes as ours. It’s not our performance that gives us right standing with God; it’s Jesus’s. And we receive as a free gift when we follow him in faith—in trust. Our failures drive us to him. And he assures us that he forgives us. And he enables us to press on in newness of life (see Eph. 2:8–10).