Q. How can church-going Christians truly build the “ties that bind” and cultivate “the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace?” through intimate, safe, authentic relationships that will persevere through conflict?
A. “Where a people prays, there is the church; and where the church is; there is never loneliness.” … “It’s much easier for me to imagine a praying murderer, a praying prostitute, than a vain person praying. Nothing is so at odds with prayer as vanity.”
These statements begin chapter 5 of the wonderful book I am presently reading: Eric Metaxas’ biography Bonhoeffer. They are taken from a journal entry that the 22 year-old German theologian, Bonhoeffer, wrote over eighty years ago. Yet, they provide a fit starting point for a reply to today’s question because they challenge us to think careful about two words: church and vanity.
Have you ever felt alone in the church because you know your relationships there are in vain?
Vanity denotes emptiness. Futility. Ineffectiveness. To be in vain is to be of no value. Trivial. Insignificant. Superfluous. One of the synonyms for vanity (“otiose”) actually suggests that when something is vain, it serves no purpose and is even an encumbrance.
How often are your relationships in the church empty, hollow, lacking in real substance or soundness? Do your church relationships ever feel like an (encumbering) burden?
Many Christians have told me that they had absolutely no hesitation leaving their churches when conflicts arose because they had no significant or meaningful ties to their churches. Prayer was superficial or absent. Most relationships were hassles rather than comforts. Worldly worth and achievement were valued more than bearing with fellow sinners who were broken in contrition. All of these descriptors are evidences of vanity in the church—and sadly, they all too often perfectly portray what we Christians mistakenly call fellowship.
So how do we overcome vanity in the church so that we can build and enjoy genuine relationships in Christ? How do we begin to pray as people full of righteousness and not self-righteousness? We turn again in faith and obedience to God’s Word:
Jesus said, “For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13b).
Paul wrote quoting the Old Testament, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).
In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), our Lord makes it very clear that the one who prays in humbleness will be justified before God.
Vanity will be overcome by humility and real relationships will be built in the church when God’s people abandon all self-righteousness and fully embrace our only true righteousness—the righteousness of Christ. Consider some practical ways that we can do this:
- First, we truly believe God’s Word that everyone is a mess. I am not OK and neither are you. I must believe that I sin because by nature I am a sinner. You, too, must believe the same about yourself and about me and everyone else you know.
- Second, we embrace the truth that all of our worldly accomplishments are worth nothing in God’s church. They are only vanity: empty, valueless, nugatory, otiose …
- Third, together, we practice prayer that demonstrates humble dependence on God and not on our effort, wealth, or worldly standing. This is prayer that will be used by God to overcome our loneliness and knit us together in genuine love and friendship.
- And fourth (and preachers please hear this clearly), we encourage (dare I say demand?), preaching that takes the Gospel to the specific challenges we messy people face every day.
To quote Paul Tripp and Tim Lane:
“People need to see that the gospel belongs in their workplace, their kitchen, their school, their bedroom, their backyard, and their van. They need to see the way the gospel makes a connection between what they are doing and what God is doing. They need to understand that their life stories are being lived out within God’s larger story so that they can learn to live each day with a gospel mentality.” How People Change
We build and cultivate real relationships in the body of Christ when we live every moment with a Gospel mentality that directs our prayers and our desires to value Christ (and what He values) above all else. Of course, this is also how the people in a conflicted church will redeem their conflicts for God’s glory by persevering against the temptation to merely flee. They will stay because they know that to do otherwise would be to abandon their beloved friends.
-Dave Edling and Tara Barthel
Tara here … Just wanted to add a note that I’m the reason “otiose” is in the title. I love learning new words! And I thought some of our verbivore friends might enjoy it too.