My friend was recently talking about his experiences growing up in the church and later as a ministry leader. He described his 50s as “living in his own skin,” compared to the angst of his 20s and 30s, which included much wrestling, struggling, and trying to make sense of the Western evangelical puzzle when its pieces didn’t seem to fit together. His current trajectory toward peace sounds like a balm. There is something beautiful about getting older, settling in, becoming softer, less abrasive, less tortured.
But sometimes I reach cynical saturation—sometimes I just cannot handle another lengthy dissertation on our hurt feelings. Sometimes I worry that our journey toward the kingdom takes on a disproportionate level of narcissism. Jesus the One and Only can very much get lost in the story of our personal ordeal. But thankfully, while we may disagree on methods, we can surely agree that we serve an others-first, me-last Savior. That is not even a gray area.
Yesterday, another friend sent me a selfie collage posted by a grown man she knows. In every picture, he was looking stoically off in the distance while his less-tortured hand took a picture of his deepness. The photographer is in his 30s. This is not okay; such a display of self-importance wears a bit thin, and it goes to the concern I have about my generation’s spiritual journeys. I think we could do with fewer spiritually tormented selfies in the world.
Don’t imagine I’m pointing a finger—I am first in line here. As a person who constantly struggles to balance prophecy and humility, truth and grace, I’m also asking that question of myself. Do we need more public dissertations on our spiritual discontent? Has the scale tipped too far, from us fitting into God’s story to Him fitting into ours? Often the core of the narrative is me while Jesus is relegated to an outer ring. Consequently, we turn a blind eye to brothers and sisters who, having been led to the best of their abilities, built those spiritual spaces. Rather than consider ourselves part of the greater body of Christ, we prioritize our stories to the dishonor of the other limbs. (See 1 Cor. 12:12-26.)
When Jesus said folks will know us by our love, He meant that. People were drawn to His grace long before they understood His divinity.
My husband Brandon, a pastor, recently preached on 1 Corinthians 10:23-33. In this passage, the apostle Paul writes, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:23-24). This beautiful theology underscores God’s bent toward freedom as well as our responsibility to steward our liberties carefully. The entire passage boils down to a simple habit: preferring others above ourselves. It’s a habit that teaches us to think before we speak our grievances, asking questions like, How will this sound to someone else? How will this make him feel? How will this affect her? How can there be less of me and more of him in this interaction?
Preferring others is the height of Christian maturity. And it works in all circumstances.
Sometimes preferring others means considering a fellow believer’s conscience, even if, for a thousand different reasons, he doesn’t share our personal liberties, theological distinctions, or basic preferences. This means evaluating the weight of our words when we cast stones at Christians who’ve built before us or who build differently than us. We humbly admit we do not possess exclusive knowledge of God’s will and ways. The fact is, He may be active in contexts we don’t understand. We choose to honor rather than pick apart the spiritual labor of others. As the Bible tells us, “Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32, emphasis added).
Sometimes this also means preferring the conscience of an unbeliever, respecting her baggage or fears. It means not projecting our convictions or “weirding out” the conversation. It means making room in the relationship for different world-views, creating a safe space for people to belong rather than a space to be right. When Jesus said folks will know us by our love, He meant that. People were drawn to His grace long before they understood His divinity.
Preferring one another is truly the highest way to live, not just for the health of community but also for ourselves. Honestly, it is exhausting to maintain the dissenting view all the time. The anguish gets old. There is actually more pressing kingdom work than constantly kicking everyone else’s tail. I say, Let the teenagers duke it out; they’ll settle down in a few years. How about the grownups sit on the porch together and pour some sweet tea? We’re old enough to know that no one actually wins those fights.
What would it look like to prefer your nemesis? Would it mean laying down a few barbs and finding a shred of common ground to capitalize on?
Obviously, preferring others doesn’t apply to the context of abuse or terror, exploitation, or harm. Scripture isn’t a template for victimization. That is a separate conversation entirely. But within ordinary relationships among Christians and atheists and agnostics and old schoolers and young bucks and different denominations and cultures, preferring one another in a Christlike manner could quite literally change the world.
What would it look like to prefer your nemesis? Would it mean laying down a few barbs and finding a shred of common ground to capitalize on? What about preferring someone who doesn’t share your convictions? If being right took a back seat, would it change the way you communicated? Would churches regain their prophetic voice? If we preferred our spouses, would marriages leap back to life? Preferring one another is the first spiritual pavestone toward healing and mending, releasing and empowering, connecting and loving. It is the way of Jesus and the substance by which we are saved.
We can dismantle one another with precision, particularly behind the protective covering of the Internet. But when the dust settles, all we’re left with is carnage, and that’s not a legacy worthy of a Savior who washed the filthy feet of His betrayer. May we be creators, not just critics. May we prefer building over deconstructing—building up people, communities, the church of God.
How about this: I’ll prefer you, and you prefer me, and everyone wins.
Illustration by Alvaro Dominguez