July 5, 2010

Fellowship and Feelings
by Pastor George Van Alstine

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:31-32

The Apostle Paul was encouraging the believers in the Church of Ephesus to be sensitive to each other’s feelings. “Kind,” “tenderhearted,” “forgiving”—these are not virile, rough-and-tumble, macho words. Paul seems to be indicating that, whether we’re male or female, our continuing Christian fellowship depends on our expressing our gentler, softer, maternal side in relating to one another.

The word translated “tenderhearted” is particularly intriguing. The original Greek root is splangchna. Try to say that out loud. You’re right, it’s an ugly word. It refers to the intestines of an animal or a person. To the people of that culture it seemed that the digestive tract was where emotions were felt, because conflict can make a person physically ill, and falling in love can ruin one’s appetite. We tend to identify feelings with the heart; people of the Bible world thought the intestines made more sense. We chuckle at the quaint King James translation’s phrase “bowels of mercy,” yet we ourselves may refer to someone who expresses deep feelings as “spilling his guts.”

In the church fellowship, many people “spill their guts” for the first time. Initially, they have exposed their deepest feelings to God in confession, remorse and repentance. Then they feel the freedom to share this openness with other forgiven sinners in the church fellowship. This makes them very receptive to healing hugs and words of affirmation. But it also makes them very vulnerable to being hurt in newly exposed areas. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to be emotionally wounded by the reactions (or lack of reactions) of sisters and brothers in the church whom they’ve trusted with inner secrets.

I think this is why Paul gives this strong encouragement to believers, using three different words: “kind . . . tenderhearted . . . forgiving.” Being part of a church fellowship involves a great deal of personal trust and sensitivity. This has to be continually renewed, especially by those who have been part of the fellowship for a long time. As a result of multiple interactions, it’s likely that they may develop a “thick skin” that newer believers don’t have. This has to be peeled away occasionally so that they may stay vulnerable themselves and not be guilty of inflicting inadvertent hurts on others.

ABC has a reputation for open sharing among its members. This is usually part of our Sunday morning worship experience, where individuals are encouraged to communicate prayer requests and reasons for praise in their lives. Sometimes I worry that people “spill their guts” too much, knowing how easily they can be hurt by reactions of others. But the Lord seems to tell me that my concern should not be to reduce the sharing, but to keep cultivating the sensitivity of every worshiper to the feelings being shared. When I see nods of identification and tears of empathy, I’m reassured that people’s splangchna have been touched, and someone with exposed splangchna is not as likely to stomp on another person’s splangchna.