Pastoring Amid Suspicion
Some years ago I lived in Nashville, and like many creatives in Music City, I worked at a studio. One morning a sound engineer accidently keyed in the wrong code to the alarm system, triggering a very loud and embarrassing siren. I was able to shut the system down, and I assumed the police would soon be on their way to investigate. No problem, I’ll just explain what happened and things will be fine.
A few hours went by with no police showing up, so I figured they recognized it as a false alarm. By the end of the day I had forgotten all about the mishap. As the sun set, I began to shut down the studio and head to my men’s Bible study. I cut the lights and started shoving studio equipment into my backpack. That’s when I heard it—the sound of voices in the front lobby. Suddenly, a flashlight pointed in my face. Two police officers were there, following up on a call that an alarm went off.
“Officers,” I said, “that alarm triggered hours ago.” It looked bad. There I was in a dark room shoveling expensive gear into my backpack. Should I tell them that I was on my way to a men’s fellowship? Would that arouse more suspicion? Maybe I can give them a number to call to verify that I’m the lawful operator of the building? By God’s grace, I got out of that situation without anyone getting hurt. My story checked out and they let me go. But it didn’t feel good to be in the hot seat of suspicion, even for a moment.
As pastors, we face many situations where people are suspicious of us. Sometimes the world suspects that pastors are in it for the money and the influence. That may be true for some, but not most. Besides, we can usually shake off the suspicion that comes from outside the church. But what do we do when suspicion spreads inside the church?
As a country, we’re facing difficult times. The political climate is extremely polarizing, particularly with a presidential election around the corner and the social temperature dialed up on account of issues surrounding racial justice. All this, of course, is happening while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, prompting controversies over states’ rights, personal freedoms, left-wing and right-wing agendas, and vaccines. All these issues have fostered an environment where suspicions grow and nuance goes out the window. People are either “far-left liberal Marxists” or “far-right racists.” The prospect of charitable dialogue seems to get farther out of reach.
Of all people in the world, our churches need to be places where these issues can be discussed in a God-glorifying way. Even more, our churches need to be places where people learn to practice the "one anothers" even through disagreements on polarizing topics.
So how do we pastor our churches toward health and unity in this current environment of suspicion?
THE ROOTS OF OUR SUSPICION
There’s a difference between discernment and suspicion. Christians should always discern truth from error and right from wrong based on the objective standard of God’s Word (Heb. 4:12). Discernment waits for the facts and judges accordingly. But suspicion is often “intuitive” and subjective. It judges based on assumptions, perception, or hunches. It often impugns motives.
The reason we tend to be suspicious toward one another is because we have hearts that are prone to suspicion toward God. In the beginning, God gave us everything we needed. We were made in his image. We had fellowship with him and fellowship with one another. God even put us in a perfect world where everything was good. God blessed humanity and gave them permission to enjoy the bounty of his created world. The only exception was that we were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That was the only “no” in a sea of “yes”!
The story takes a radical dive when the serpent takes God’s one “no” and made it seem as if God were stingy. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’? . . . For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:1, 5). The serpent wanted humanity to entertain the notion that God is not entirely trustworthy. Maybe he’s hiding some good thing from us. Maybe he’s lying. But that lie had deadly consequences. In the Garden and ever since, the human heart still tends toward suspicion of both God and others.
HOW TO FIGHT A CULTURE OF SUSPICION
Let’s consider a few points on how to fight a culture of suspicion in our local churches.
First, repent of suspiciousness toward God.
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God is not in the business of deception. God is light. His heart is pure, and all of his ways are true. On top of that, he gave us his Son as the propitiation for our sins. We have no reason to be suspicious of him.
Second, suspect your own heart.
“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6). Not only should we uphold God’s character as true, we should also humbly embrace the reality that it is our hearts that are prone to wander. We are prone to hypocrisy and every kind of self-deception. There’s a healthy kind of Christian self-examination and self-suspicion that clears the way for the next step (see also Matthew 7:3-5).
Third, confess your own sins.
“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). True Christian fellowship emerges as we search our own hearts and confess our failings one to another. Hostility abounds in a culture where everyone is busy calling out each other’s shortcomings to the exclusion of their own. Yes, there’s a time to confront others’ sin. But the time to confess our own sins is always. As we come to each other with a posture of humility and confession, we build the kind of relational integrity that enables us to have healthy dialogue about weighty and often polarizing topics.
Finally, lovingly give one another the benefit of the doubt.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4–7).” Love has a posture of grace. Loving one another well doesn’t mean rejoicing in a lie. It doesn’t mean we shun discernment. Love rejoices with the truth. Complex conversations about politics, race, and justice need the truth of God’s Word. Love also gives one another the benefit of the doubt. It “believes all things” by holding out the possibility that those we disagree with have a measure of God’s grace working in their lives that I may not have working in mine. Love comes with an eagerness to sustain our life together at any cost short of embracing lies or evil. This kind of love sustains a healthy congregation.
The current cultural moment is tumultuous, and having honest conversation about polarizing topics is a difficult task for any church. But we can fight suspicion as we repent of our own suspicions of God, confront the darkness of our own hearts, confess our sins to one another, and pursue love. May the Lord give us grace to foster a culture like that in our churches for his glory alone.