Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:24)
Have you ever been caught doing something that was innocent enough in itself, yet you still felt the need to explain yourself? If you haven’t, let me share with you my most recent such experience. I wanted honey, but the large Costco-sized container of honey was full of a somewhat cloudy version of the contents, as it had begun to crystalize into sugar. My solution was to place the whole thing into the microwave to let it melt down enough to get some out of the container and continue the melting process with the smaller amount I needed. It sounded fine when I initially ran the plan through my head, but when my stepson suddenly came into the kitchen in the middle of my honey extracting efforts with a quizzical look, I began to feel the need to explain myself. After casting a dubious look at the whole operation, he laughed and said, “Definitely a first world problem!”
I had to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. It was true. In much of the world the challenge merely to survive is enough to occupy one’s entire day. I recently read a story of an orphanage opened up in Kenya by a missionary who had experienced seeing children rummage through the giant mounds of trash to find food and then cook it on a makeshift campfire. What wouldn’t they give to have getting a little honey for their meal out of a giant commercial-sized container bought at the local wholesale food store as their biggest challenge?
It is true that due to the prosperity and modern conveniences we enjoy in the West that we have been shielded, to a great degree, from many of the harsh realities others face in developing parts of the world. As a consequence, things that would not even register on their radar as a need become all-consuming for us, such as when we can’t find the sporting event we want to watch on the hundred or more television channels we have at our fingertips. We can make much ado out of what is, in reality, nothing at all. Certainly, there are exceptions to this, such as when someone we love is diagnosed with a serious illness or we experience a layoff or setback, but compared to much of the world, our perception of what makes life challenging is often really nothing by comparison.
This is not only true in the context of how we perceive what constitutes a challenge in our modern lives, but also in how we relate to one another and carry out the business of the Kingdom of God. In the days of the early Church, believers’ lives were on the line every day. When Paul told Timothy that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind,” it was not because Timothy was nervous about preaching his first message in front of the home crowd, but because the next message he preached could very well be his last. Paul himself bid Timothy farewell at the end of this, his last epistle, noting that the time of his martyrdom was at hand. Timothy would later experience the same fate, following his spiritual father in paying the ultimate price for his devotion to the Lord.
In the foxhole, petty differences are put aside and soldiers work together for the common goal of winning the war for their country. What may have been an issue of division in the luxury of peacetime is not even noticed in the light of the larger, looming demands for which they must rely upon one another. It is in the furnace of such trials that the deepest alliances are made, and such friendships often transcend race, culture, or any other natural barrier, to last a lifetime. Perhaps our tendency to maximize the minimal and make mountains out of molehills is a result of our failure to recognize the greater overarching issues we as the Church of Jesus Christ are faced with in our time.
We are often too comfortable in our comfort to be troubled with real troubles, so rather we become purveyors of the petty. What else can explain churches being split over non-issues, such as carpet colors and worship styles? How is it that we will sever ties with fellow believers over doctrinal issues that have no bearing whatsoever on the weightier matters of the faith or over insignificant personal differences in church? Many offenses are nothing more than perceived wrongs because someone allowed their imagination to be the Devil’s playground. It has become about us and our interests rather than laying down our lives for one another and the interests of the Kingdom.
Whatever else may be true, until we make the main thing the main thing, we will always allow the real issues we should be focused on to be usurped by non-essential nonsense. Jesus addressed this with the Pharisees when He rebuked them for giving great attention to the minutia of the law but omitting the weightier matters of “justice, mercy, and faith” (see Matthew 23:23). Because they obsessed over the wrong things, putting their focus on themselves, their own self-righteousness, and their rule-keeping rather than true holiness, their ability to see what was truly important was impaired. Jesus called them “blind guides.”
I have spent my life around the church and seen many sad scenarios of infighting and division started by nothing more than a person’s desire to have things run their own way, not concerned at all that their energies were completely misdirected from the purpose for which the church existed in the first place. They were completely blinded to the real issues and opportunities for service around them because they were consumed with what wouldn’t even pass for a concern were their priorities in the right place. We need to realize that we have allowed first world issues to consume us in the Church, and this has weakened our ability to tackle real issues and focus on the bigger picture or reaching our world for Christ. What’s more, we have picked a bad time to do so. Never before has our nation been in such dire need of a united Church with a clear vision and an unremitting commitment to see it through.
Not every issue is worth dying on the field of battle for. In fact, most are certainly not. The Church must rise above petty bickering and sectarian differences and unite over what matters. We have plenty to learn from one another, and where one of us is weak we can benefit from the other’s strength. The Devil knows this, and seeks to keep us from locking arms and marching together in unbroken rank for the purposes of God. The gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church, but divided believers are easy prey. It is worth asking ourselves if the thing that is keeping us from joining hands with our brothers and sisters is really worth the price others will have to pay for our pettiness. It’s not a comfortable question because it is one for which we know the answer all too well. Who will be the bigger man or woman who will set aside their wants, their needs, and even their life for the Kingdom of God? That is the person who will change the world.