THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 114
(Please go to tonycrosscolumn.org.uk for archived material)
What is most important in your life? What matters? Is it money and status, or power and influence? Or is it being with it - cool? Or is it enjoying life to the full? Or is it getting sex, getting it on with someone (as revealed in a recent poll!)
How important are other people in your life? Are they there to have fun with? Or to serve your needs? Do you use people? You know what I mean - have a relationship of one sort or another as long as it pleases you, but then drop them?
And how important to you is the opinion other people have about you? Do you really care what others think and say about you? Does what they say, or might say, affect the way you live? You would be a very unusual person if the opinions of others were unimportant to you! All of us pay great regard to what others think and say about us. We may not worry about every Tom, Dick and Harry out there - but usually there is a small band of people that we pay great regard to. We would not want them to think badly of us. We want their good opinion. That is very natural to all human beings, because we are sociable animals and how others think of us affects how we think of ourselves.
Little doubt therefore that there are sides to your personality that you don’t show to everybody. Some aspects of your life are kept to a very few people. Again, we all need some privacy, some place where we can ‘let our hair down’ and ‘be ourselves’. Nothing wrong in that. We are multi-sided beings.
But I wonder how important the opinion of other people is to you. Do you really depend on being accepted by some group or other? Does your life revolve around their acceptance of you as one of them? Or perhaps it is not vitally important, just rather important to you? You like to be accepted by these people, and you adjust your life accordingly? Most of us are like that. The people whose regard we desire may be neighbours, or a group we go with in the evenings, or a set of people at work, or even a group of people in a club or church. We get along with them and they have the same values and interests and laugh at the same things.
To leave that group might take some effort. There is no reason why we should spurn their company - but it is healthy to recognise that to some extent we depend on them for our well being. If we split tomorrow it would not matter - we would survive. But we might always look back with regret that we broke away.
It was just such a situation that faced the Christians in Corinth. Quite obviously some of them had lived fairly vivid lives before they became Christians. They had swung with the in crowd. And there was plenty of action in Corinth! It certainly was not a backwater! You name the vice and they had it - in plenty! So when Paul was writing to them he had to confront some pretty un-Jewish traits! And naturally they came into the Christian fellowship dragging all their emotional baggage with them.
One of the things that Paul had to show them was how important their relationship with Christ was - never mind what had been going on in their life beforehand. Conversely, he also had to show them that what their previous friends thought of them didn’t matter anymore. Before becoming Christians their lives were governed to some extent by what their friends thought of them - now it was only Christ who mattered. It was Christ who had called them and it was Christ for whom they lived.
One way he rammed this message home was in a few verses in his first letter to the Church. In the fourth chapter he asks the question that he thinks they might be asking - "Who is this Paul to keep on at us about holy living? Who does he think he is? Is he always faithful? Is he always holy?"
In reply to this imagined question he says "Well, it matters very little to me what you or anyone else thinks". That is a new take on things for them. They had always cared very much what others thought! Here was a man who didn’t care what they thought about him. But why and how could he say that?
Paul goes on "I don’t even trust my own judgement on this point." Now that is extraordinary! They could see that he was an independent type - but that he didn’t rely on his own judgement or view of himself seemed extraordinary! How did he rate himself then? How did he judge and assess himself, if not by his own opinion about himself?
Paul then goes on "It isn’t my clear conscience that matters to me - I don’t judge myself by my conscience." That is news! Most of us try to keep a clear conscience and most of us feel judged by our conscience a lot of the time! Here is a man - a Christian - who has found a better approach than trying to please his conscience.
Paul goes on "It is the Lord Jesus himself who will examine me and decide."
Wow! That is a huge statement to make! Paul seems to be saying that it does not matter what other people say about him, nor even is it important how he assesses his own actions and attitudes. What matters is that the Lord will eventually himself do the deciding about his life and until then he will entrust his life and his future into the hands of Christ. What matters is not what other people think or say about him, nor even what his own assessment of his life is, the only thing that matters is that eventually the Lord Jesus will decide about his life, and he will trust in that.
When you start to think about it, that position makes a lot of sense. To start with, nobody else has the slightest idea of what really goes on in my heart and mind most of the time. Even the most precious loved one, held close to my bosom, can only see a little way into me. No one knows about my childhood and all the joys and traumas I suffered. No one knows about x and y and what they did to my life. No one knows what it felt like to be me when I first felt sexual stirrings.
No one has been faced with the same set of adults in their childhood - not even my sisters and brothers. Their experience was different - partly because I was part of their picture! No one knows the challenges I faced. No one knows the desperate moments I survived. No one knows about those things that I am glad no one knows!
Except Christ. He is our Creator and the one who knows all. He not only knows every event that happened in my childhood - he was there. I did not recognise his presence but he was there helping me get through it. Even today I am only conscious of his presence now and then - but he is with me all the time. His Spirit inhabits my being. His love is working within me all the time.
So of course Christ is the one who will decide about my life. He is the only one who knows it all.
Certainly I don’t understand me enough! I don’t know why I am this contradictory bundle of opinions and desires. I don’t know why I love and hate as I do. If I made any kind of assessment it would veer too much in my favour or disfavour.
It is only the Lord who knows and understands. He saw me in the womb before I was born and he knows my downsitting and my uprising. I need not trust my judgement on how I have acted - and especially when an over active conscience hammers away at me - Christ will do it and he will do it with the understanding and love and forgiveness that is characteristic of the Jesus who walked about and healed those desperate people in Galilee all those centuries ago.
So what is Paul trying to teach these Corinthian Christians?
Is he not saying to them - stop worrying what anybody else thinks about you. Stop trying to judge where you are at in the heaven-stakes. And if any group of Christians tries to judge you, just ignore them. They are in no position to judge. They don’t know the half! So put yourself in the hands of Jesus Christ. Try to please him. Every time you become aware of sin and a failure in your life, don’t let it get you down. Don’t start getting depressed. Just hand it over to Christ and accept his forgiveness as you start again to live the life that is pleasing to him.
Of course, part of pleasing Christ is to pay attention to anything another Christian (or anyone else) says to us about our lives. If they have insights we must listen in case they are the messenger of God to us. But if after prayer and reflection we decide that they are wrong, then we ignore them and get on with our life. And if Christians on the other side of the room (or of the world) say that you are on completely wrong track, just smile and let it reinforce your determination to please Christ in all you say and do.