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This article is a continuation of a topic which has been coming up a lot in the past couple of years. It deals with the dilemma that exists when a leader (or the community as a whole) encounters someone who shows some good spiritual signs, but who also shows an unwillingness to deal with some particular weakness or fault. Our traditional approach has been to take a grievance with the offender, and to advance the grievance from first stage to second, to third, and finally to kick them out of the community if they continue their refusal to deal with the offence. The process is scriptural and beneficial.

But at some stage we discovered that it was also helpful to give the person some "space" away from the accusations of the people in the grievance meeting, so that they could "think about" what was being said. We each recognise that criticism is often difficult to immediately accept. Rightly or wrongly, our first reaction to criticism generally seems to be to defend ourselves, to deny the problem, to blame it on circumstances or on someone else. But time away from the rest of the community usually helps us to get things into better perspective.

One of the big reasons why "space" is helpful is because, away from our critics, we do not have to deal with the knee-jerk pride that rears up the moment we are criticised. We are able to think things out, to weigh up the alternatives to accepting the criticism (e.g. being kicked out of the community), and to devise tactful ways to win ourselves back into favour with the rest of the community. Each of these points represents a spiritual compromise of sorts, a way around really smashing our pride and accepting the bitter truth the first time we hear it. But we have given people this time out mechanism because we ourselves are not perfect, and because we too suffer from the same problem when criticised.

What we really want, whether in a time out situation or in the grievance meeting itself, is for people to be totally yielded to God. Giving people space may cause them to use that space to their own selfish advantage, and not to genuinely seek God on the matter. But confronting them too harshly may also cause them to cave in to the overwhelming opinion of the majority, rather than genuinely hearing from God and internalising the truth that he is trying to teach them.

We need to see that our job as individuals as well as our job as a community is to build the kingdom of heaven, and not just to be building our own organisation. It may actually be better for the kingdom of heaven for some people to be outside of our community. We may need to give them "space" to actually leave the community in order to sort things out between themselves and God. The reason for this is because the close confines of the community exert a powerful "peer group pressure" on people to conform to the will of the majority; and this pressure can take the place of God in a group member's life. In order to build the kingdom of heaven, we must get people to see beyond conforming to the will of the community, and to discover conformity to the will of God.

People who leave the community often leave with a feeling of bitterness, because they say that they were forced to exercise disciplines in the community that they didn't really want to do. It may be that they were too gutless to speak up. Or it may be that they were too selfish to co-operate. But we should not overlook the possibility that it may also be that we were too impatient about getting them to "fit in" and we did not allow them space to fully appreciate the reasoning behind some group disciplines. In cases where it is impractical or impossible for someone to stay within the community and still do their own thing, then they may need to actually leave the community in order to find enough space to sort the issue through.

When this happens, it is easy to label the person as a backslider, a rebel, a trouble-maker, or some other equally offensive title. Whether these titles are true or not, they still constitute an attempt by the community to add "spice" to the space that we are giving the person. We want to go with them into their time out, and we want to be able to shake a finger in their face, to remind them that they are wrong and we are right... we want to rub a little salt into the wound... for their own good, of course! When this happens, however, we are not really giving them time to sort themselves out with God, because we are still trying to get them to sort themselves out with us.

God is so incredibly patient with people. He gives us a lifetime to decide what we are going to do with our lives. Most of us make some terrible decisions, and we will have to pay eternally for those decisions. But God gives us the freedom to do that. In this lifetime, the emphasis is on free will. All the evidence seems to indicate that people have abused that freedom. Adam and Eve abused it in the Garden of Eden, and virtually everyone since then has done the same thing.

But God seems to be willing to lose all those people for the sake of a single Noah or a single Abraham. Noah and Abraham had no group to exert pressure on them to conform with the will of God. They lived in a totally pagan world, and yet they each followed their conscience until they found God's will for their life.

Because of Abraham's hunger to know the truth, God met with him and worked at communicating some disciplines for him and his descendants. The problem is that his descendants did not have the same hunger to know the truth, and so they just conformed to the rules that their ancestors had received from God, and they conformed to peer group pressure more than they conformed to the will of God.

So that is when God sent Jesus to give us this new concept of the invisible kingdom of heaven. Of course, some aspects of it were not all that new. They were much like what Abraham and Noah had experienced, i.e. no visible religion to tell them what was right or wrong, just the Spirit of God speaking to their heart and convicting them of sin. Follow that still, small voice today, and you will become an Abraham or a Noah; ignore it and you will become like the rest of the world around them.

In order for us to build that kind of a kingdom, we must give people enough rope to hang themselves. By that, I mean that we must give them enough space to totally backslide without a single finger being shook in their faces. And it helps to understand that they are no more backslidden if they go off into sin outside the community than they are if they stay in the community and conform only out of peer group pressure. The fact that most people won't listen to and obey the voice of God should not make us compromise on the truth. The "truth" is the message we shout to people every day on the streets: "Follow Jesus or go to hell!" But the truth also implies, "Don't follow us." And one half needs to be preached as well as the other.

Sure, we know that people will abuse the message about not following us, and they will run off to follow their own selfish impulses. But they can also abuse the message about following Jesus, by conforming to our community expectations without true conviction.

What I am suggesting here, for those of you who want to be true spiritual leaders in the kingdom of heaven, is that we must learn to let go of our followers, to watch them run off and do things their own way, and still love them and pray for them, and actually encourage them in those areas where they are showing signs of growth. We may need to accept that they will never get over the problem that led them away from us to begin with. But whether or not they do, is between them and God.

I don't know how God draws the lines, but it seems that people are capable of being in the kingdom of God in some areas of their lives even though they are out in other areas. While we are encouraging them in those areas where they want to grow, we are building the kingdom of heaven. And we can build the kingdom of heaven in virtually anyone we meet, simply by encouraging the spark of God's Spirit that is in them. The rest of what they do (which seems so contrary to the will of God) we need to leave for God to sort out. In fact, the patience that we show toward them when they choose to exercise their free will unwisely is a part of our growth in the virtues of the kingdom of heaven.

I have been experimenting a bit with this, and I think that this kind of patience can actually help some people to grow in a way that badgering them could not. I know that it has already forced me to work on my own relationship with God more, as I consider the possibility that I may lose the people I love so dearly, and see them destroy their own lives in the process, if I don't wave my arms and shout to warn them. But I've had many years to see that waving my arms and shouting has not always worked either. I find myself actually growing into a kind of isolation spiritually where I just work on my own relationship with God, and leave everyone else to sort themselves out. Scary stuff; but it's really quite liberating. In fact, it seems to be what the kingdom of God is all about. Maybe this isolation from feeling responsible for correcting everyone is just the space that each of us leaders needs as well as the followers!

(See also A Letter Upon Release.)

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