The wife of the deceased was sitting in the front row of the church during her husband’s memorial service. Many people knew her, though not well. She was a private person. Her body language communicated, “Leave me alone,” and a number of people were trying to give her some space.
Except the woman sitting behind her. This woman never stopped touching the grieving widow throughout the entire service. This second-row minister was going to break through the “leave me alone” barriers. She was on a mission.
At first, I thought the touching was a bit impolite. Couldn’t this woman see that the widow wanted to be left alone? But my next thought was “I want to break through those barriers too.”
What she was doing reminded me of what I do every week. As I meet with people, there is a resounding theme to my interactions. Move toward. That’s the drumbeat: move toward. There is nothing static about life in Christ. Just lots of action. The relentless process of progressive sanctification has us moving toward other people. Let me explain.
God moves toward us. By the time we get to the New Testament, we are no longer guided by the sometime inscrutable laws of the Old Testament. Human life changes after Jesus died for sins, rose from the dead, and sent the Spirit. Now, the law of love simplifies and captures the intention of the Torah. And when we want to understand what love looks like, we look to the character of God in Jesus.
For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. (Ezekiel 34:11)
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke 19:10)
The triune God pursued people when they were suffering in bondage in Egypt. He pursued people when they were hardened in their own sin. God’s people reject him and hold him in contempt; he responds by moving toward them and guiding them through the wilderness.
You have heard about backsliding. The basic idea is that you dig such a deep hole that it takes you weeks to clean up your act and climb back up to the Lord. Well, that’s not how it happens. Our lives have more in common with The Runaway Bunny, in which the baby bunny can try his best to blaze an independent path, but mom will always be right there. When we dig our holes and turn away from the Lord, no matter how far we have traveled, the moment we take a peek behind us, there he is.
God always moves toward us.
And as his servants, we do the same. We move toward others too. Because we are relentlessly pursued, especially when we not are worthy of such pursuit, we also become pursuers. We turn toward others and move in their direction. That is how the kingdom of heaven works. Sin scatters people; grace draws us toward each other. The possibilities in that grace are endless.
For example, notice how it can change us when we gather together on Sunday mornings. There are a few ways I can go to church. One, I am preoccupied and am there because I should be there. Two, I want to hear the Word and respond in worship, but it is all very private. It is Jesus and me, though I can overhear the crying babies around me. Three, I want to hear the Word and respond in worship, I want to do that together with my brothers and sisters, and as soon as the service is over, I want to move toward someone. The moving toward doesn’t have to be complicated. “How are you [really] doing?” is enough. When I move toward others on a Sunday morning, I expect to have at least one more person to pray for.
Or consider someone who is going through suffering. Let’s say the suffering is especially difficult – a chronic and dangerous disease in a child, rejection by a suitor, betrayal by a spouse, or a spouse’s death. Here’s the ironic thing. The more severe the suffering, the more we feel like we have no words to offer, and when we don’t know what to say—we say nothing. After all, who wants to mutter something stupid at such a difficult time? But when we bring God’s way of pursuing, God’s way of moving toward into the picture, we will find ourselves, right there, in front of the suffering person.
“I just want you to know that you are on my heart. I’m very sorry.”
There you go. If God gives you grace to move toward others, he will also give you a few words that will be more precious to the grieving person than you think.
Having said that, deciding to move toward others can present a spiritual battle, especially when the barriers involve conflict. Say you have a fractured relationship with someone. Maybe the other person wronged you, maybe you wronged the other person, maybe it was a complicated misunderstanding that included hurt feelings all around. Whatever its origin, our response needs to be the same: move toward (e.g., Matthew 5:23–24).
But it’s hard to do, isn’t it? I know, because I struggle too. I hate to admit this, but when I have a conflict with someone outside my immediate family, my natural instincts are to let the tension blow over and let a little formality and coolness settle into the relationship. No moving toward there. Even with family members, aka my wife, I prefer to let her take the initiative, confess her many egregious sins, and propose a long-term strategy for restitution, or something like that. My instincts, of course, are wretched. When in doubt, I need to move toward others and have confession of my sin lead the way. The process is hard but great, and God always shows up to help when our hearts line up with him.
So, I admire this woman who busted through the widow’s veil of privacy and isolation. She probably discerned the message “Leave me alone,” but the widow might as well have been saying, “Hrrnip blestobr coblouie” or some other indecipherable code. When in doubt, people of the kingdom move toward others.