Here’s an example. It’s a Sunday morning and I’m feeling relatively happy as we rock up to church. Yes it’s been a stressful week and Glen and I have had some animated discussions together – but what couple doesn’t? Hey, those plates are replaceable.
Fast-forward an hour and I’m starting to wonder. Just sixty minutes spent with Bob and Bertha (‘it’s like we’re on a permanent honeymoon’) and Romeo and Juliet look positively frigid. Suddenly the fact that Glen didn’t get me a card for Valentine’s Day is starting to niggle. (Yes, it was seven years ago, and yes I said I didn’t want one, but that’s hardly the point). Peering furtively at the other couples around us, the simmering embers of concern are quickly stoked into a furnace. Hand-holding, back-rubbing, words of affirmation. It’s revolting – Get a Room people. But I can’t possibly let the side down. Fixing a rictus-like grin on my face, I gaze in what I imagine to be an adoring manner at my husband and channel Bardot. ‘Feel the love honey’, I hiss. ‘Just until we get home’.
Perhaps it’s human nature to feel that our neighbour’s grass is greener and more carefully maintained. Singles imagine that all couples are locked in some kind of rom-com loop, playfully nibbling each other’s toes and whispering phrases like, ‘you complete me’ or ‘no, no – you’re the wind beneath my wings’. Meanwhile the objects of such envy may spend Saturday evening wedged together with Jeremy Clarkson, dreaming of the freedom enjoyed by those without marital shackles.
Or here’s another possibility. For those struggling to have children, the absence of such blessings can cast a shadow over every aspect of daily life. Everyone else seems to be effortlessly and carelessly reproducing, thrusting their progeny forward at every opportunity. Yet for parents, the reality can include permanent exhaustion or the feeling that they’re just not good enough compared to the other Alpha-mums. Perhaps a wistful yearning for the old romance that’s been supplanted by Horlicks and an early night – in separate bedrooms.
We might think that the Problem of Other People can be solved by cutting them out of our lives. But the opposite is true. By avoiding others we intensify our struggles and become isolated from the community and support that can bring real comfort. Instead, if we’re prepared to get real with each other, such relationships can bring healing and understanding. The single person starts to pray for the couple who are struggling in their marriage. It’s still a battle to wait on the Lord, but this is tempered with a new patience and realism about the nature of such relationships. By including those without families, parents may gain a new appreciation for their children – they are also freed up to enjoy more time together and to model to their kids the importance of friendship and caring for others.
But it’s not just about ‘being real’, it’s also the way in which we do it. So let’s think about what such open and transparent relationships are not:
Firstly, being real is not a synonym for the kind of ‘honesty’ that means sharing every detail of your life with the assembled congregation. Discernment is needed. But neither are we to hide behind masks as if our identity depends upon maintaining a spotless front. This is not just impossible (and exhausting), it’s also unnecessary. As believers, we don’t need to pretend to be anything other than who we are. Yes, we’re sinners – but we are also declared righteous and holy by the Living God. We’re already accepted and forgiven, justified and purified. So we’re not slaves to what other people think. We don’t need to shore up our identity with lies. We’re free to be who we are.
If we’re free to be who we are, we’re also free to accept others – warts and all. So secondly, being real is not an invitation to sit in judgement upon our fellow men. Nor is it an opportunity to tell others exactly what you think of them or where they’re going wrong. Getting real does not mean assuming the role of Character Assassin. Let me explain.
The Character Assassin operates by stealth and comes in all manner of guises, including that of the ‘close friend’. Trained to work undercover, they’re as likely to be wearing a floral pinny as a leather catsuit – but have a unique and finely honed aptitude for saying exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. This can be confusing as it is also a characteristic of the common or garden human. What identifies the CA however, is a sustained, conscious and vigorous commitment to undermining its victims. Notable features include a commitment to ‘telling it like it is’ and ‘being straight with you’, whilst espousing the mantra that, ‘it’s just because I care’. Said operatives work quickly but poisonously, using an arsenal of few (but deadly) words, combined with a range of expressions from disappointed to openly scornful. Warning signs include deployment of the following phrase, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but…’ Targets are usually dispatched quickly and efficiently, despite occasional signs of struggle (‘I’m not sure that’s fair’ or ‘that wasn’t at all what I meant’). Following a successful hit, the CA may then leave a calling card such as, ‘only joking’, ‘lighten up’ or ‘just for your prayers’.
Of course we’ve all met the CA. But we’ve probably taken out a few civilians in our time as well. Being part of a family of believers does not give us a license to point out other people’s failings, even when they’re being REALLY ANNOYING. Instead, as those who have been forgiven much, we are enabled to love much – even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
Each person is created in the image of God, loved and valued by Him. This heart-knowledge has the capacity to transform our lives and relationships. So take Old Jim. He used to teach you bible stories in creche, but now has Alzheimer’s and has no memory of who you are – or even where he is. When you visit him in the nursing home he makes absolutely no sense. Sometimes you’re not sure if he knows that you’re there.
But there’s a very good reason why you don’t join in with the nurses in pulling faces behind Jim’s back. You see, you know who he really is. You know that Jesus loves him and died for him, just as Jesus loves and died for you. This is not the end for Jim – bed-ridden and confused. Instead, you’re going to meet him again in the New Creation. As Lewis argues, when you meet him there, he’ll be so radiant and beautiful that you’ll be tempted to fall at his feet and worship him.
So will Bob and Bertha, even if right now their endless romance is starting to grate.
So cast your eyes again around that prayer meeting. Or at the shoppers, pushing past you in the street. At your annoying family as they bicker around the Christmas table. At Jim dribbling the remains of his lunch. These are people, created, loved and redeemed by Jesus.