Hard to Offend, Easy to Please
How Love Hopes All Things
Cynicism. It’s now in the air we breathe, the thoughts we indulge, the words we whisper, the comments we post.
Is this really avoidable, though? There’s so much to be disillusioned about, after all, and we’ve been let down countless times. No wonder we’re here — donning emotional Kevlar, trying to shield ourselves from yet another encounter with broken trust.
Cynicism has become so ubiquitous that when we want to ask a genuine question, we feel we must preface it with the words, “Genuine question . . .” Ever noticed that? As if insincerity is the norm and we must signal, “Okay, please take this one seriously.”
We don’t trust media outlets. We don’t trust politicians. We don’t trust institutions. We don’t trust authorities. Suffice it to say, we are in a crisis of trust.
At this point, you may expect a finger-wagging tsk tsk, but that would be woefully simplistic and unhelpful because, well, let’s face it: our cynicism is often vindicated. Many media outlets are one-sided; many politicians do deceive; and many authorities, including “Christian” ones, should not be trusted. Simply because someone appears to be worth trusting from a distance does not always make trust easy or wise.
Nevertheless, the New Testament’s most famous chapter crashes into our disillusionment with a challenge. No, not about marriage — 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t in our Bibles because Paul misfiled an old wedding sermon. He’s in the midst of a pastoral rebuke. The “love chapter,” it turns out, is designed not to make a starry-eyed couple feel gooey but to make a divided church feel ashamed.
Before homing in on a particular phrase — “love . . . hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7) — we should note something about the descriptions of love in the immediate context (vv. 4–7). In order to embody the majority of these descriptions, someone must hurt you first. To be a forgiven sinner is to be tethered — or to use the language of church membership, joined — to other forgiven sinners whom you are called to love (1 Corinthians 12:12–27). And this calling will be hard, the labor of a lifetime. In fact, it’s precisely when it’s hard that obedience to the love chapter truly begins.
“Love hopes all things” is not a summons to be gullible or naive. Again, there is such a thing as shattered trust, and it can be wise in certain situations to keep one’s distance from certain people. In general, though, Paul’s words are stubborn in their insistence that Christian love find expression in treating people better than they deserve — beginning with our assumptions and expectations.
A mature believer is someone who excels in encouragement, in giving the benefit of the doubt, in being hard to offend and easy to please. The posture of Christian love is not skeptical — shoulders back, arms crossed, watching for failure. Instead, it leans in, arms open and ready to cheer, eager to see a fellow believer succeed.
And the reason such hopefulness is possible isn’t because we trust Christians; it’s because we trust the One who indwells them. Paul has already insisted that Spirit-filled people — that is, ordinary believers — are able to discern spiritual truth and even judge “all things,” for they have “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:14–16). The apostle John reasons along similar lines:
You have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it. . . . The anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. (1 John 2:20–21, 27)
The language here is striking and strange, and much could be said. But one thing must not be lost on us: the apostles did not share our skepticism toward other believers. They understood, rather, that residing within every ordinary, hard-to-love Christian is an infinite reservoir of life-transforming power. His name is God the Holy Spirit. He is the difference-maker.
Our perspective on other believers, then, should be tinged with cheerful hope.
How might a “theology of hopefulness” begin to make a difference in our lives? In at least three ways.
First, we would start being bothered less by others’ sins than by our own. The principle is simple: to the degree we fixate on the foibles of others, we become proud and cynical. But to the degree we examine our own failings — in light of Christ’s exorbitant mercy — we become humble and glad. The words of the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs are worth reading slowly,
Rejoice in the good of others, though it eclipses your light, though it makes your parts, your abilities, and your excellencies dimmer in the eyes of others. . . . Rejoice [and] bless God for his gifts and graces in others, that his name may be glorified more by others than I can glorify it myself. To be able to truly say, “Though I can do little, yet blessed be God there are some who can do more for God than I, and in this I do and will rejoice” — this shows a great eminence of spirit.
If you are going to peer at others, become an expert in the evidences of grace you spot in their lives. If you are going to study anything, study the One who loves them and has taken up residence in their souls.
This is especially challenging in a tribal age, though, in which the temperature on every debate can seem set to blazing hot. Without realizing it, we can slowly begin to calibrate responses based on our distaste for certain groups, those whom Alan Jacobs calls the Repugnant Cultural Other. And these battle lines don’t stop at the church door. When somebody on our Christian “team” says or does something cringeworthy, for example, the temptation is to simply ignore it — or, if that proves impossible, to excuse it. “That’s not who he is, and not what he stands for.” Bottom line: “You still have much to learn from him (i.e., me).” And yet, the moment somebody on the wrong “team” acts foolish, we pounce. We capitalize. “See? That’s exactly who he is, and what he stands for!” Bottom line: “I have little to learn from him.”
Second, a theology of hopefulness will help us guard against a default skeptical posture toward church leaders. Mark Dever puts it plainly: “It is a serious spiritual deficiency in a church either to have leaders who are untrustworthy or members who are incapable of trusting.” Let that sink in. As a church member, you either need to trust your leaders or replace them. But don’t claim to acknowledge them and then refuse to follow their lead. “Rather than distrusting church leaders,” Dever counsels, “let me encourage you to talk behind your elders’ backs: meet in secret and plot to encourage your leaders. Strategize to make the church leaders’ work not burdensome, but a joy.”
So, what do you whisper about your pastors? What about your fellow members? When petty or unfounded criticism enters your ears, does it find a landing pad on your heart? Moreover, when you do disagree with a choice your leaders have made, are you a delight to disagree with? Imagine a world — imagine a church — filled with people who were delightful to disagree with over tertiary matters, because they didn’t take themselves too seriously and they cared more about mutual joy than individual ego.
Third, a theology of hopefulness will redirect our best energy and attention to spheres wherein we can actually make a difference. I confess that when I began thinking about this article, my mind first went to “cynicism online.” If I were a better Christian, though, I would have first thought about my local church.
Many of us are so dialed in to national conversations that we can overlook local needs. It is far easier, after all, to love a “city” or “neighborhood” or “church” than it is to love actual people within them. If you wish to grow in cynicism, be sure to follow the twists and turns of every Twitter controversy du jour. But if you wish to be encouraged, invite a couple of church members over for dinner. Ask to hear their testimonies. Laugh together. Pray together. This is where the real action is. The most important kingdom happenings take place over tables, not timelines.
First Corinthians 13:7 may be a classic Pauline flourish, but it’s far more than pretty poetry. The words crackle with tenacity. Love believes all things; and if that doesn’t work, it hopes all things; and if that doesn’t work, it endures all things. In short, it “never ends” (v. 8).
This is why self-donating love — without which we are nothing (vv. 1–3) — hopes for the best outcomes in others’ lives. Even if a person has wronged us, and we’re tempted to nurse resentment or exact revenge, love refuses to crave the worst possible scenario for them. It remembers that Jesus Christ has suffered long with us, treating us infinitely better than we deserve. Love simply wants to see God bring about undeserved good in their life, too — and faith trusts that he can.
In an age that beckons us to inhale cynicism and exhale contempt, we have a prime opportunity within our churches to show a more excellent way. Our secret is not chipperness or naivete. It is sober-minded, truth-informed hope. And by resisting the downward pull of skepticism and despair, we the people of Jesus Christ can shine as lights in a world that has lost all reason to hope. For in him, the best is always yet to come.
Matt Smethurst (@MattSmethurst) is managing editor of The Gospel Coalition and author of Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church. He and his wife, Maghan, have three children and are in the process of planting River City Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.