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When Doctrine Sparks Delight in Messy Relationships

My walk with Christ has been rather delight-deficient. Duty I know; but delight, well, delight I desire. I’ve had some recent experiences, however, where my heart responses are changing. When I peel back the layers of why, it’s because I’m thinking about my experiences differently. To be clear, I haven’t registered at Hotel Delight yet—that’s still a dozen or so exits down the highway.

But I’ve experienced greater peace, which seems like an important landmark along the road towards delight. And this peace has come by applying what I believe—my doctrine—in the context of some entrenched circumstances.

Unresolved Relationships

My issue is a tender one, though I’ll bet some of you, particularly leaders, can relate to it. I have complicated, unresolved, unrequited, open-ended relationships in my life. And although these realities bear the freight of grief and pain for me, good doctrine is a soothing balm to my aching soul.

Maybe like me you remain unreconciled to someone close to you. Maybe you sinned, maybe they sinned. Perhaps you messed up and were penalized by their withdrawal. No matter how you got here, the hard truth is the relationship is messy.

Reconciliation is hard work. Sometimes it’s just easier to find high-minded principles that ennoble our low-minded unwillingness to prioritize peacemaking. I know because I’ve done it. When relationships get complex, we become easily untethered. For me, the only hope for forward progress in those turbulent times is to really know what I believe.

Though I’m still on the journey toward delight, I want to share a couple moments that have pushed me down the road in the direction of my destination.

I woke up Easter morning brimming with joy as I pondered the beauty of our risen Savior. I texted Easter greetings to an array of friends, one of whom was someone I knew was disappointed in me. Our prior communications had been unfruitful but, hey, it was Easter morning, and resurrection power fills the imagination with possibilities. I reminded this mate that I had many warm memories of him, that I hoped he would enjoy celebrating the resurrected Savior today.

My best, most charitable read on his response is that he felt defiled by my Easter well-wishing. I appealed for discussion and expressed hopes of future forgiveness. My old friend wanted to be crystal clear—he was not a friend, nor did he desire any further contact with me.

His response stung.

So there I sat on Easter morning, barely caffeinated, with this complicated question knocking on my brain: What do you do when someone marks your motives as irredeemable and refuses to reconcile?

Another, more haunting question followed: Where in my life might I be the one rejecting the early morning Easter text?

But Jesus has a voice—his doctrine speaks. And it addresses us first. Doctrine reminds us that sweeping clean our world and reconciling all our problems isn’t always God’s starting point. Sometimes God’s agenda begins not with “reconciling to them” but with “becoming like him.”  

An excavation had begun; the worksite was my life, the project my heart, the backhoe uprooting all of my expectations was my doctrine.

Unreconciled Relationships

Like some leaders, I have encountered the polarizing effects of a catastrophic cluster of converging events. A few years back, I resigned from a church staff where I pastored for 27 years. Any pastor who has resigned from a work they loved knows the brain-twisting pain of it. There just aren’t enough words to capture the surreal grief that splatters across one’s psyche during such an experience.

Some of my best friends were people I served with closely. Maybe you’re in a church like this where you serve with people who are like your second family. They’re your first phone call for help, their faces are in your vacation pictures, your kids grew up together, you’ve shared late nights, confessed real sin, wept with joy over childbirths, agreed to raise their kids if God suddenly calls them home.  

You get it. These guys were close.

But I left dismayed by some ways it seemed they handled our departure, and in the intervening years, efforts to get on the same page again have been unsuccessful. It baffles me, and to be fair, I think they are equally perplexed by me.

I haven’t stopped believing in their sincerity, nor do I think our 27-year history should be collapsed and made disposable. It’s worth protecting. But a desire for reconciliation can’t become corrupted by a demand for reconciliation. No, I haven’t given up hope for a reconciled future where joy replaces grief (and I trust these brothers haven't either). But a far more significant question has replaced that goal: When reconciling attempts haven't yet turned out the way we’ve hoped, how can we still find joy? What’s really going to help me find God when efforts for progress seem to fall flat?

Irrepressible Doctrine

What restores peace when the waves of emotional debris break against our minds? It’s doctrine—allowing the truths of God’s Word to speak into the complexities of God’s world. Doctrine helps ensure that unreconciled relationships become neither comfortable nor condemning, neither barking voices that defile me nor bitter thoughts that define God. Doctrine is our only hope.

Here are a four key doctrines that have spoken peace when my soul was troubled.

1. The doctrine of man.

I don’t possess the power to produce the reconciliation I desire. Fears, offenses, mistrust, betrayal (real or perceived), deep disappointments—these things can burrow deep into the soul and inhabit space that is unreachable to human effort. Only God can soften that space, kindle the desire, adjust distorted ways of seeing and being seen, and transform people. I’m responsible for my efforts toward reconciliation (Matt. 5:23–24; 18:15; Rom 12:18; Heb. 2:14); the fruit of reconciliation is up to God.

2. The doctrine of grace.

This doctrine keeps us from reducing people to their worst moments. Think about it: God takes our worst moments and says, “They are forgotten!” “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isa. 43:25). I’ve done countless dumb and sinful things in my life that are now covered over by God’s unmerited favor. The more we truly understand grace, the more it tenderizes our heart. This makes it easier to remember people for their best moments (Ps. 103:12; Heb 8:12).

3. The doctrine of reconciliation.

This doctrine tells me I already possess the reconciliation that matters most. I grieve unreconciled relationships, I really do. They are among the heaviest burdens we carry on our backs as we journey through our pilgrim days. But where there is a disproportionate effect that lingers too long and colors our world with gloom, it may be that the approval of that person or group mattered more than it should.

Remember, as a believer you wake up each morning having been reconciled to One who loved you despite your enmity (Gen. 3:15) and who could bury you in hell (2 Cor. 5:18–19).

4. The doctrine of future things.

This doctrine reminds me that broken relationships are a temporary reality. A day is coming, and is not far off, when some Christians who might cross the street to avoid the awkwardness of greeting a Christian creep will weep for joy upon seeing the same person in the new heavens and new earth. Remembering future things tempers our grievances with the reality that one day the hurt or anger that entices our high-minded withdrawal or unforgiving disposition will be long forgotten. Instead, we will see surprising twists on how God used our scars to help us endure, to serve other sufferers, and to glorify God in ways we never dreamed.

“The conviction that Christian doctrine matters,” Sinclair Ferguson says, “is one of the most important growth points of the Christian life.” Doctrine is important because it keeps us from being wrecked by the disillusionment or cynicism that often follows broken relationships. Doctrine doesn’t necessarily simplify our messy world, but it delivers enough hope to keep our feet moving forward. Often doctrine delivers peace; sometimes even delight.

For guys like me who carry burdens of being hurt and hurting others, doctrine helps us hold out hope for change without holding others hostage to our timetable for change.

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