Grace Emerges

Monday, October 8, 2012

The System Doesn't Love

by Brad Duncan


I'm sorry for a convoluted thought process on this one, so bear with me while I try to explain it and bring some meaningful conclusions.  I've been struggling lately with my own life and purpose.  What I have been doing all these years?  Anything useful?  Anything meaningful?  What have I invested in?  As a Christian I have invested in the functional community of believers called the Church, whether serving coffee, holding babies, or playing keys in a rock band on the stage.  Here's my struggle with what I've invested so much effort in.  Two things really:  1) The system doesn't love people, but loving people is supposed to be our God-given job.  2) On the other hand, the system tries to make people better, but making people better is God's job, not ours.  So, I wonder how much of my investment in people was in trying to make them better, rather than loving them.  Indirectly.  By focusing my effort on the structure.  On the way things should be.  On teaching them. On correcting them.  By enforcing righteousness.  By plugging in as a cog in the machine that just keeps running, never minding that this machine is made of people.

Of course at times this participation in the system produced genuine friendship, genuine compassion, genuine community.  But as I think back this often occurred by coincidence, as people working together to keep the child care running could talk and become friends and support each other.  Certainly loving those kids was the good stuff!  Certainly bringing people together that have common interests can bring about genuine relationships.  That's when the meaningful stuff happened.

And of course this participation in the system was meant as an offering of time and effort that would be pleasing to God, as we do God's work, building God's kingdom, keeping the machine running for God.  But it seems strange that in doing this work, the meaningful stuff seems to happen on the fringes, by coincidence.  As people come together to worship God together, occasionally they notice each other -- they engage with each other and some connection forms.

We're all there with good intentions.  Trying to live with purpose.  We all want it to matter.  We all want God to be pleased with our effort.  We want the system to love people and do good things, so that we can just keep in investing in it to bring about God's work.  So where is the disconnect?  We want the system to love people, but it can't.

The System Doesn't Love

What I am suggesting is that our God-given job is to love people, to build community out of relationships.  To meet needs using the context of meaningful connections with people.  But this should not happen as a coincidence, as a result of people coming together to do functional roles like singing in the choir.  Rather, this should happen as the first job of the church.  The system itself is overhead, like in a way that any non-profit organization must have some overhead administration and facilities in order to function.  But the meat is people, going about God's work of loving other people.  Like in a non-profit foundation where the majority of the resources goes into the actual cause (e.g., curing diseases, building orphanages, etc.), the investment in the church should be directly poured into loving people.

The system we are building is not going to do the loving for us.  We can't just hire staff and pay them to love everyone.  We can't just invite everyone into a big meeting and love them from the stage, through the speaker system and into the chairs.  We can invest in the system, but it just can't do the actual work!  

The system can't love people.  God can.  People can.  But the system can't.  Look, I love the people that I have met through the church as we've partnered together to keep the church running.  I still love those people and I'm not complaining about them.  I'm just saying that those connections happened indirectly.  Lots of wasted effort was spent on other things, that probably didn't connect to real people at all. I just cringe at the thought that 90% of my life around other believers has just been overhead!  Only 10% of actual meat!  Where did it all go?

The System Tries to Make People Better

Here comes the hard part.  The lack of loving effort is not due only to inefficiency, unfortunately.  As a church, we do believe in love.  But we have conflicting priorities.  There are other things that we have traditionally invested significant resources into besides loving people, so loving people has been second or third priority.  Leaving it to result as a side-effect more than a main effect.  What on Earth could be more important than loving people?  What took over the highest priority?

In a word, righteousness.  Ask yourself what is the purpose of the Church or individual churches you have participated in, and you will probably find something written down about making people better and about pleasing God.  Or pleasing God by making people better.  It's probably worded more nicely than that, but it all comes down to right actions and right beliefs.  These are the staple components of any religious system.

The system can try to do this.  The system can offer structure, instruction, roles and purposes for individuals that function to create a collective social environment.  The system can teach and enforce behaviors that are considered pleasing to God, like how to participate in group worship, how to study and work at being a Christian.  How to pray.  How to believe.  How to respect authority and follow leaders.  The system can function through the efforts of people, to keep the machine humming.  To create righteousness.  To make offerings to God.  To be a beacon and a light for the world.  To show the way.

While these purposes seem noble, isn't it God's job to speak to peoples' hearts?  Isn't it the role of the Holy Spirit to instruct believers in all manner of righteousness?  Doesn't worship of God just mean acting in honest relationship with our maker, recognizing our humble station but our divine origin?  

The system can't worship.  The system can't connect.  It can't transform lives.  It can't do these things, but it tries.  In fact, the system often tries to take God's job by standing up to defend God in the public forum, fighting for righteous actions and beliefs, in order to make the world a better place.  But what makes the world a better place?  Do right actions and beliefs make the world a better place?  Is this our God-given mission?  

No, we're trying to take over God's job when we try to transform people in God's honor.  We are assuming the role of judge and jury, of teacher and truth.  The system can't do these things.  Why?  Because the system doesn't care.  The system doesn't love.

The Purpose of the Church

Can we change our vision statements and goals to read something like "Love God by Loving People"?  Any other purpose is missing the point.  Any other purpose that places doing what's right above loving people is totally contradictory!  Hypocritical!  Loving people IS doing what's right.  How can some other righteousness be more important?

So back to me....  Have I invested in what really matters?  Thinking back, I've done plenty of judging.  I've enforced social norms by pressuring people to conform.  I've taught lessons, many of them on right behavior, right beliefs, and how to discern correctness.  I've helped the system run.  I've been a cog in the machine.  I've sought righteousness rather than humanity.  I've also been the victim of the machine a few times in my ancient history.  Judgemental stares, lack of understanding, valued as a worker rather than a person, when I was really crying out for someone to care.  We're all human and I don't fault people for being ugly sometimes, but it just seems that we were encouraged by the system we had built, to act like that!

Maybe it mattered, but as a I think back, the stuff that mattered happened mostly by accident.  In the future, I want the good stuff to happen on purpose!

1) The system can't love people.  So we must do the work.  Do the loving ourselves.  This is the job God gave us when the church was established.  This is the gospel.  This is the good news for all people.  God's love reaches mankind through the arms and fingers of other people.  Love with skin on.

2) The system can't make people better.  So we must stop trying.  Let God do that job.  This is NOT the job God gave us.  This is God's job.  The gospel is NOT about being better so you can come to God.  The gospel is good news that an active God wants to relate with you.  God will do the hard work of refining our hearts, bringing maturity, and opening our eyes to see the truth.  These things are matters of the spirit.  The domain of a spiritual being.  No skin required.

Love: job of humans.  Righteousness: job of Holy Spirit.

Let's focus on what matters and the job at hand.  There are a lot of people to love out there.

Thanks for listening!  I hope in the end it came together and made some sense.


  1. Brad - why be sorry for a convoluted thought process - this is a great article.
    I haven't explored your blog but I can relate to "What is the kingdom of heaven like?" and "Church in a trance". I learned a lot from The Ooze a few years ago.

    I found something special on another blog in June and have since rewritten the introduction to my blog. My journey has obviously been very different to yours.

    Maybe we could share some thoughts.


    1. Thank you so much. I am checking out your blog (and Following with blogger).

  2. Your 'convoluted thought process' seems to me an 'investment in what really matters'. So much so that I intend to pass your page on to many fellow travelers both deeply within the 'system' and outside. Good food for thought. Thanks for that.