Stepping into Shadows – By Kay Hotaling
The Apostle John tells us in his first letter that we are invited into fellowship, Koinonia, or partnership with God and with the people of God and that the experience of this partnership depends upon “walking in the light.” So we try to keep in the light; sometimes we do well and our lives and our partnerships flourish, but sometimes we step into shadows and our lives and our partnerships suffer. Most of us are not tempted by absolute blackness, but I believe there are some subtle forms of darkness that we can easily sidle into without realizing what we are doing. I’d like to suggest three that have been recent lessons for me and that I’ve observed in others:
We mistake uniformity for unity.
We mistake perfectionism for perfection.
We mistake remorse for repentance.
Unity versus Uniformity
“My prayer is that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” John 17:20, 21
“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 15:5, 6;
God’s idea isn’t that we should be replicas of one another, but that our minds should be occupied with the same thing- the expanding of the kingdom of God. While I readily believe this, I am tempted to seek out people like myself. I speak of “being on the same wavelength” with someone, and I listen for people who “speak my language.” In language alone I tend to approve or dismiss people, not bothering to listen to the ideas behind the words if the words are not used properly. I like people who are easy to relate to; in fact, the search for easy relationships is often thought of as a search for fellowship. Uniformity is easier than unity – it requires so much less energy.
But diversity is essential to unity. A group of people submitted to each other for the purpose of growing together in Christ will probably fail if the individuals within it are threatened by each other’s gifts. The visionaries in a group can feel contempt for those who prefer to focus on what is immediately before them, and the less adventurous ones can exercise a tyranny over the rest which cause the group to become conformed to the lowest common denominator, the place of uniformity. This drains the life from our fellowships because either way people are being dominated and stifled.
Unity does not depend upon similarity of gifts, but on the willingness of all the members of a group to listen to and to pray for each other’s cares and dreams.
Mercy is necessary for unity; uniformity is merciless.
Perfection versus Perfectionism
“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48
“Jesus is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.” Colossians 1:28
Christ calls us to perfection. The word is teleios and it means completion, maturity, an end accomplished as the effect of a process. We know that the road we travel will eventually lead to perfection, but in the meantime my desire for perfection can cause me to become a perfectionist about myself and others. Perfectionism is a desire to control – to control myself, my family, my friends, and my circumstances. The perfection of Christ draws people together, but perfectionism is isolating; it is not inviting, not warm, and not comfortable to be around.
The difference between perfection and perfectionism is vividly illustrated in the mother who allows her children to make cookies. The kitchen is devastated, the kids are a mess, the cookies are few because of all the dough that was eaten before it got to the oven, but something perfect has taken place – the perfection of a relationship that makes room for the untidy process of learning.
Perfectionism can’t tolerate untidiness in any form. Its characteristics are these:
Relationships are not as important as the accomplishment of tasks.
Leadership is set aside in favor of domination or manipulation.
There is a resistance to delegating or receiving assistance.
Partnership cannot be a reality in this atmosphere.
It’s not surprising that people have perfectionistic tendencies; our desire for perfection grows out of what C.S. Lewis called nostalgia for Eden—it’s our ancestral home – but we can’t get it back by being a perfectionist. II Corinthians 4:7 describes us as clay pots which contains a treasure. It’s the treasure that is perfection.
Repentance versus Remorse
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” II Corinthians 7:10
The inability to receive forgiveness is a serious threat to partnership. The mistakes and failures of the past haunt our relationships, and we often find it difficult or impossible to “let the past sleep in the bosom of Christ” (Oswald Chambers). Regret and remorse create a deadly malaise that robs us of a joyful present and a hopeful future. Repentance – metanoia – is healing and freeing. It means to have a change of mind, much as a caterpillar undergoes a metamorphosis and emerges from darkness to light and beauty and flight.
Peter and Judas personify repentance and remorse. Peter denied Jesus, Judas betrayed him – both turned their backs on him. But their stories are completely different because of their response to their sin. Judas’ remorse led him to despair and suicide, and Peter’s repentance led him to restoration and new life as an apostle and founder of the church.
Why, knowing that repentance leads to forgiveness, do I sometimes find it impossible to forgive myself? I have come to believe that I am a victim of offended perfectionism: I have messed something up, and I am embarrassed by myself and my poor performance. My pride makes it hard for me to believe I am a clay pot; I prefer to think of myself as a porcelain vase. Now a crack in the porcelain has appeared, and my first instinct is to patch it, to cover it up. But the result of covering up is, of course, hypocrisy. And if the cracks are too big or too many to be covered the result is despair.
Remorse keeps people prisoners of the past – repentance makes frees people for all that God has for them in the future.
As we think about our relationships – with God and with those who make up our circle – as we think about experiences of partnership or lack of it – let’s keep our thinking fresh on these ideas:
Let’s be sure we’re championing unity, not uniformity.
Let’s aim for being perfected, not being perfectionists.
Let’s respond to our sin and weakness with repentance, not remorse.
Kay Hotaling 2013