When Self-Protection Gets In The Way

coffee3.jpgI first came in contact with David Hansen several years ago when I was at a ministry seminar at Regent College in Vancouver, B. C.  Hansen was a guest lecturer along with two others, Gordon Fee and N. T. Wright.  I had read a book or two by him, so I was delighted to get to hear him speak.  

One morning he spoke and afterward the three hundred participants had lunch.  Wright and Fee were scheduled to speak that afternoon.  So after lunch, Hansen made his way into the large meeting room to sit with the seminar attendees.  He happened to sit down next to me.  I enjoyed a pleasant but brief conversation with him before the others began speaking.  I found him to be warm and gracious just as he seemed to be when he was speaking to three hundred people that morning.  

I am going to quote from his book The Power of Loving Your Church.  Yes, some of this is directed toward ministers in particular.  But let me encourage you to read this as a normal everyday believer who has been called to love the church.  The following are a few lines from a chapter in which he discusses the importance of loving people in the body of Christ:

Ambivalence masks itself as wisdom, whispering, "Don’t get involved, it only hurts to care.  Don’t make a decision, someone will be disappointed and you’ll have to backtrack…."  (p. 40)

…In ambivalence, I cannot decide to leave the church and cannot decide to love the church.  (p. 41)

…We can resign ourselves to the fact that our parishioners struggle with ambivalences too, and therefore we should simply accept it.  But this doesn’t work for us.  Everyone else we know can conceivably pursue a vocation without love. 

Sure, it’s better if teachers, doctors, and artists love the people they work with.  But they can perform their work without love and they can even do it well.  The bind we face is that we can’t do pastoral ministry without love.  It isn’t a series of tasks we do with love — rather, pastoral ministry is love, which we apply with a series of tasks.  Preaching, teaching, calling, praying, even church administration are nothing but the consistent application of God’s love to the church.  God’s love is the oil that the lampstand burns to produce the light of the world, and we are the bearers of that love. (p. 43) 

…When Christ wants us to love a congregation, he establishes his beachhead in the heart of the pastor.  However, the heart of the ambivalent pastor is guarded, militarized territory.  Land mines everywhere.  Barbed, electrified wire abounds.  Searchlights blast the beach.  Jesus of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, walks into the danger and absorbs the angry, brutal defense of our ambivalent heart.  He uses no weapons of warfare, but he has ways of breaking our hearts wide open.  (p. 49)  

I understand the temptation to be ambivalent.  After all, loving people is to set yourself up to be hurt.  Yes, loving people can be joyful, satisfying, rewarding, etc.  Yes, there are people who will love you in return and whose love will bring great encouragement to your life.  There are also people who can and will hurt you.  To love is to put yourself "out there" where your heart will be trampled on by some.

I think Hansen is right.  The answer to this is not to put the protective fence of ambivalence around our hearts to guard against hurt.  The answer is going to be found in learning to abide in Christ.  We abide in him by learning to love the believers (John 15:9-14).  We first abide in him and out of that abiding we have a new capacity to love.  I do not have the capacity within me to do this kind of loving.  However, Christ in me gives me a new capacity to love and a new source for loving.  That love coming through me to another will often come out of brokenness because I have dared to stop the subtle practices of self-protection.

Is this familiar territory for you?  Do you ever find yourself putting more energy into self-protection than loving people?  In what ways do we practice self-protection?  Why is it that we sometimes seem surprised that love is often painful?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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11 thoughts on “When Self-Protection Gets In The Way

  1. Jim – thoughts much needed and perfectly timed.  Thanks for the outstanding quote from David Hansen – can I assume the rest of the book is as good and worth reading? 

  2. Jim: This is exactly why I eventually opened my heart back up to friendships after shutting down for a few years. Ministry simply cannot be done in the absence of love.

  3. John,Yes, the rest of the book is very good.  In fact, everything I’ve read by Hansen on ministry has been good.  (The Art of Pastoring)

  4. Two things I’ve learned as I’ve struggled with the same issues.  When we are deeply in love with God and really trusting Him, it becomes impossible to be ambivalent toward others.  That doesn’t mean our measure of love is perfect; it just means we will not be able to hide from others out of a desire for self-preservation.   When I’m struggling to love others I need to eat at the Master’s table so that He can fill my cup until it’s running over.  It’s the overflow of that relationship that manifests itself as love for others. 
    Secondly, agape is not a natural affection (at least in my case).  Love for God is a gift of the Spirit as well as love for other humans.  The love of 1 Co. 13 isn’t ambivalent.  Neither is it natually generated.  Love is kind and selfless.  I’m not.  I need the gift of love that begins to come only when I’m really trusting in the grace of God. 
    Love is painful because it essentially forces us to deny our self.  The self isn’t passive as it’s drowned underneath a pool of Jesus’ blood.  In my case, the old man died long ago, but I’m haunted by his ghost.  There’s only room for one controlling spirit/Spirit in our lives.  The war between flesh and Spirit is one, I trust, God is winning and will win.  But it’s a real battle with all sorts of failures on my part. 

  5. I believe it was Bonhoeffer who said – if we love community it will kill it (it was something to that effect) – but if we love people we will create it. I often ask myself and wonder – do I love ministry and my expectations and dreams about it or do I love the people God is calling me to serve with? Healthy questions and I think at the heart of what is being alluded to here. We must be more passionate and focused on people than on our visions and dreams. People cannot be a frustration or hurdle or merely a means to an end. People is what it is about. It is easy to get into that “maintenance-mentality” saying, “I could keep this place clean if it wasn’t for all the people who keep messing it up.” May God keep our hearts soft and open to those who we minister with and to. And yes it comes down to that one simple but profoundly mysterious word, Jim – A-B-I-D-E.

  6. Doug,Great comment!  I like the way you frame these questions.  (Do I love ministry and my expectations, etc. or do I love these people?)I especially like your comment regarding people being a source of frustration or means to an end.Thanks. 

  7. Ben,Yes!I love the way you express this.  Ambivalence can’t reside in the heart of the one who is deeply loving God and trusting him.Also like what you said about agape love not being something that is naturally generated. 

  8. Hey there. Thanks for the nice words over on Seedlings. I appreciate that. As for the words here, I was struck by the idea that one of the main things a pastor needs is love. We are actually searching for a new pastor right now (and seem to have forgotten to put that in the job description!). Something to consider.