Today’s question comes from a listener named Barb. “Pastor John, hello! I’ve been blessed to be in the same local church for twelve years. It’s a very good church. Nevertheless, over those years, I have seen most of the congregation come and go. People who walked with me through difficult life circumstances have left, and I have started over. I feel more and more lonely as the time passes, mostly because I feel myself becoming more cynical, cautious, and superficial with new people. It is hard work getting to know them, and I know they will likely move on before long. What would you say to a Christian who is growing relationally jaded by membership turnover?”
I would love to help Barb overcome the drift because it is a sinful drift even if an understandable one. The drift toward cynicism or anger or low-grade bitterness is wrong if for no other reason than it won’t solve her problem but only make her life more sad and miserable. Her sense of abandonment will become a self-fulfilling prophecy because nobody wants to be around a bitter person. Several things come to my mind that might help. Let me just offer them to Barb and see if they might be of service.
First, keep a clear biblical view of this life — this earthly life, this church life, this family life. This earthly life is a season of partly joyful and partly painful waiting for the fulfillment of all God’s promises. We need a mindset of waiting in an imperfect situation. Much of our frustration (I speak for myself at least) comes from having wrong expectations about what this world and even this age of church life will be.
“Much of our frustration comes from having wrong expectations about this world and even this age of the church.”
We expect a better church, a better marriage, better kids, better government, better health, better friends. And the reality falls short. The more it falls short of these expectations the more it will make us cynical and bitter. I know that God is willing to do great things for us, but most of the time we are dealing with people, including the one in the mirror, who fall short of what we hope for. Therefore, we need a mindset about this age that is sober and marked by the long view of patient waiting.
Like James says, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.” That’s a long, long patience. It might be to the end of your life. “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another” (James 5:7–9).
When circumstances or people around us in the world, in the church, in the family let us down, James is calling us to hold fast to our hope and pursue the blessedness that comes precisely through patient waiting. He says in chapter five, “Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11). That’s the first thing — a mindset of realistic waiting in an imperfect world.
Second, Barb, keep in mind that Jesus himself tasted a kind of holy frustration with what happened with the people around him. Even to his own disciples, he said, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me” (Matthew 17:17). Then he heals the boy.
It helps (helps me anyway) to know that there is a kind of godly frustration with the imperfections of this age, including the imperfections of God’s people and including the imperfections of the whole system that keeps people moving around — coming in or moving out of God’s church. You’re not alone in your disappointments. Jesus himself felt some of what you are feeling. That’s number two.
Third, never forget that both forgiving when you’re sinned against, and forbearing when you’re simply frustrated by other people’s circumstances or weakness beyond their control, both these grow in the soil of amazement at God’s grace in giving us such a privileged place in Christ — such a privileged identity.
“Forgiving and forbearing grow in the soil of amazement at God’s grace in giving us a privileged place in Christ.”
Here’s the passage that came to my mind. This is Colossians 3:12–13: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
In other words, bearing with, or forbearing — just sucking it up and dealing with the pain and the frustration and the sorrows — as well as forgiving those who genuinely sinned against you, all of that is preceded by these three glorious realities: (1) you are chosen by God, (2) you are set apart for holy purposes by God, and (3) you are loved by God. Isn’t it amazing? That’s the way he argues. He begins the verse, “as chosen, as whole, as loved — forbear.” This kind of joyful confidence in God’s grace and who we are in him will make us like a fountain or a spring, so that we can keep on giving ourselves in friendship. This is where the rubber meets the road for Barb, I think.
Keep on giving ourselves in friendship when it feels like people only drink and leave — they drink from me and then they leave. And Jesus says, “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Here’s John 7:38: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
That’s our calling, and God is sufficient. So be a spring, be a river, and don’t stop flowing when people drink and leave. A never-ceasing spring is a beautiful witness to the all-sufficiency of Christ.
Here’s one last thing (maybe two more).
“You are chosen by God. You are set apart for holy purposes by God. And you are loved by God.”
Number four here, about friendship. Maybe you can keep just a few of those friends that have left. Maybe you can stay in touch for decades and cultivate a lifelong friendship over miles. There are one or two people in my life that I count as precious friends. We have been through some horrific things with each other, and they live far away from me now. I used to work with them decades ago, and they’re still precious.
Finally, remember. There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother, closer than a sister, closer than a spouse, and he has promised never to leave you (Hebrews 13:5), and he will always be with you to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).