The members of Hometown Church know that they’re called to serve. They understand the sacrifice Jesus made for them on the cross, and have been told over and over by their pastors that no sacrifice for the sake of the gospel or the church is too great. Thus, the people of Hometown give sacrificially of their time, energy, and money.
Sometimes, that’s a good thing. And yet…
Though they are usually loath to say it out loud, the members of Hometown are aware of a social pecking order in the church. Those who give the most money, those who wear themselves to a frazzle volunteering, those who put the church above their families are deemed more spiritual, more deserving of honor and respect.
On the surface, the church seems to be thriving. It’s a bustle of activity, with a full calendar and new visitors coming every week. Worship services have swollen to the point that the leaders are planning a building program. Their success is the buzz of ministry conferences and the envy of other pastors.
But beneath the surface, another story could be told. Children — even the children of ministry leaders — quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) resent the ways in which the church always takes priority over the family. A woman with an abusive husband seeks pastoral counsel, and is told she must submit to his authority, to win him over with sacrificial love. And though many actually enjoy the opportunity to serve, there is always more and more to do. They feel pressured into service by the manipulation of their guilt and shame: Why can’t you do this, after all Jesus has done for you?
Hometown Church is, of course, fictional. But many of you have been members of churches like this. The idea of taking up our crosses to follow Jesus becomes a canvas on which church leaders paint their own tableaux with vivid colors. Thankfully, it has become more and more common, in sermons about sacrificial love, for preachers to say, “Of course, I’m not talking about situations of abuse and domestic violence.” But what are the limits to sacrifice? Where is the line?
Or should we even be looking for a line in the first place?
The continued brokenness of the world means that as Christians, we have to live with a certain amount of moral ambiguity. There is no comprehensive spiritual playbook to tell us what the right or best decision is in every circumstance. And part of the sad reality is that our guilt and shame are easy to manipulate because we’ve never truly inhabited the depths of God’s grace nor experienced the gratitude that goes with it. So we say “yes” to the gospel of the free gift of grace and go right back to trying to earn God’s favor through our own efforts.
All of this can be complicated further by our own histories. People who have endured childhood trauma, for example, have often learned the hard way that their survival depends on pleasing others. They have a hair-trigger sensitivity to the whims of the people who hold power over them; standing up for themselves or saying “No” seems unthinkable and feels unsafe. Thus, congregations may be filled with people who, in one way or another, feel the gut-level urgency of doing what their leaders tell them to do. They serve, and they serve, and they serve, but often without joy, as if fleeing the voices that tell them, “You’re not enough. You will never be enough.”
I say this because I am keenly aware of how texts like Philippians 2 can be misread or misused. Paul’s counsel toward humility and away from behavior that seeks to selfishly build ourselves up gets entangled with the emotional dynamics of those who question their right to have an opinion in the first place, to have needs or desires of their own. After all, it’s one thing to put someone else’s needs ahead of your own because it is your joy to do so; it’s another when you say yes because you are constitutionally unable to say no.
This is why it’s so important to remember that Paul is not saying, “Ignore your own interests, because you don’t matter.” He is writing to people who are already putting themselves above others, even if it’s only in the stubbornness of having to win an argument or proving themselves right.
I can’t tell you when it’s best to say yes or no; only the Holy Spirit can do that. Keep in mind, though, that the thing someone is asking your to do may not be the most loving thing you could do. The most permissive parent, for example, who lets the kids have whatever they want, isn’t the wisest or most loving one. The most loving friend is sometimes the one who says what you don’t want to hear, and says no for the right reasons.
Just consider this: to the extent that we feel the need to beat ourselves up anytime we say no, anytime we set a boundary with someone, we may be responding to messages we already believed about ourselves before we met the One who died for us. The Christian life isn’t about putting a new religious shine on old lies; it’s about exposing old lies to new truth.
And the truth is this: You are loved, fully, completely, without condition.