Charles Spurgeon said it. Billy Graham said it. And even though it’s not really all that funny anymore, most of us have probably said it as well. It goes something like this: “Don’t bother looking for the perfect church since, the moment you join it, it won’t be perfect anymore.” Zing!
There’s truth behind the quote, of course. It would be impractical and, frankly, ridiculous to expect that a bunch of sinful people could join together to create a sinless community—to imagine that perfection could arise from the confluence of a hundred lives as imperfect as yours and mine. Yet, though we know perfection is impossible, don’t we all sometimes still grow frustrated at the sheer messiness of Christian individuals and Christian churches? Don’t we all sometimes face the temptation to pack up and move on when our fellow believers act like the sinners they are?
A little while ago I was speaking to a young man who is a fan of computer-based Role Playing Games. He explained that what draws him to these games is the ability to custom-craft a character, then to discover how that unique character interacts within the world of the game. When he creates a new character, he is given a finite number of points that he can allocate in a nearly infinite number of ways—some to strength, some to intelligence, some to charisma, some to agility, and so on. In the end he has always created a character that has both strengths and weaknesses, all depending upon the way he has allocated the points. What he can never do is create a character that is only strong and not the least bit weak.
Though the comparison between a church and game may threaten to be trite, I have actually found it helpful and, frankly, encouraging. There seems to be a law in this broken world that every strength is tempered with some kind of a weakness, almost as if there is a finite number of “points” that can be allocated to any individual or any church. A pastor who is an especially powerful preacher may be an especially weak counselor; elders who are skilled and vociferous in defending the truth may fall short in grace and love; a church that takes worship services seriously may be lax when it comes to evangelism. None of these weaknesses is defensible and none of them is okay. Yet some kind of imperfection is always inevitable on this side of glory.
What’s true in churches is true in families. A husband may be extremely diligent in leading and providing, but lax in his spiritual disciplines. A wife may have penetrating insights into the Word, but be uncommitted to extending hospitality. Kids may be obedient but lazy, or hard-working but mouthy. We ourselves have to admit that for all our virtues, they continue to be tempered by a host of vices.
This being the case, it is irrational to expect that any one church, any one pastor, any one husband or wife, friend or child, can excel in every way. And this faces us with a challenge: Can we learn to tolerate their shortcomings? Can we learn to live with the way their “points” have been allocated? While we certainly don’t need to embrace sin or apathetically accept ungodliness, we do need to accept the inevitability of some faults, some defects, some areas that will always remain a sore disappointment. And, realistically, we have to know that even if there was strength in one area we lament, it would probably mean there would be weakness in one area we admire. No individual and no community of individuals can be the complete package. It just doesn’t work that way.
Hence, the path to joy in church, marriage, and life is to accept that there will always be imperfections, to accept that there will always be areas of disappointment—but to be willing to celebrate the strengths while tolerating the weaknesses. Just as it is the glory of a man to overlook an offense, it is the glory of a Christian to overlook a weakness—to find greater joy in what encourages than in what disappoints.