On Church & Relationships and Not Seeing Others as a Means to an End
I ran across this quote yesterday by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) that I found interesting and really helpful:
“Always treat people as ends in themselves, never as means to an end.”
It got me thinking about how much we treat people as a means to some other end in our daily dealings with them. We have a goal for our lives, whether it is a big overarching goal or a goal in the moment - to advance, grow, gain power, or just have a good time. Kant was addressing a notion that places oneself at the center of our own universe and that sees other people as tools in our hand to advance our own prospects. It is a temptation as old as time and one that we all fall prey to very easily. Scripture combats this temptation by saying that we are to "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves" (Phil. 2:3). Then, it says that we are to have the same attitude as Jesus.
In exploring for years why relationships break down and fail - and I mean relationships of all kinds, be they marriages or friendships or church fellowship, you name it - I keep coming back to a central truth. We are selfish, ultimately. This is not some great realization, but if we look hard enough we find that our selfishness goes straight to our core. The problem shows up everywhere, even when, perhaps especially when, we are trying to fix our relationships. Do we want to fix our relationships (or leave them) because we care deeply about the other person and their good, or because we want the other person to meet our needs and benefit us? What happens if, in trying to fix the other person or fix the relationship, the other person is helped greatly but you do not reap the benefit for yourself that you sought? Often, in trying to fix others, we are doing so to make things better for us, which is using the person as a means to an end of your own satisfaction rather than seeing their healing and good as an end in itself.
This is something that I have to take great care to avoid in my ministerial vocation. It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to help someone so that they will become ultimately useful to the church or to yourself personally rather than sacrificing to see them reconciled to God for their good and His glory. I am aware of the incredible ability that I would have to manipulate others into action by using religion and my approval/disapproval from a religious perspective to get them to benefit me or my church. That would be wrong and potentially destructive, both to my view of their humanity and to my own humanity as well. The call of God is to see each person as loved by God and valuable to Him for who they are as creatures made in His image and not to see them as spokes in the wheel. Salvation comes to the person and then those persons form a community that witness to the Savior before a watching world.
The other temptation is for the members of the community to see the Church as a means to an end - a place where they can receive what they want. I am always amazed at how people leave churches. Christians do not leave marriages lightly, and rightly so, because doing so is clearly prohibited by Scripture. But, they often think little of walking away from a fellowship of believers that they have officially joined, partnered with, shared life with, broken bread with, and committed themselves to, all because they sense that there is something better out there for them.
Pastors are not supposed to talk like this because we are not supposed to admit that there is a problem, but I I just see the church differently, I guess. I do not see it as a means to an end, either of my own advancement or my own happiness. I don't even see it as a means to the end of getting closer to God, as important as that is. Now, that probably seems completely wrong. But, if I am using others as a way to get closer to God and if I am judging them constantly as to how well they are doing in helping me get closer to God and to fulfill my "destiny" and "purpose," then am I really growing closer to the God who loved me and gave Himself up for me? Or, am I engaging in a completely counterproductive and contrary approach to Biblical spirituality?
Yes, I grow closer to God and become more of who I am created to be in the Church. But, if I use the Church for that purpose, am I not seeing it as a means to an end instead of receiving it as a gift from God and loving it as an end it itself? Can I grow closer to God when I am being selfish? I have learned that the same people who tell me how much my sermons help them and how great a pastor/preacher I am and how our church is so much better than others - well, I have learned that those same people then become my biggest critic when I am no longer new or thrilling to them and they are quite happy to leave and go elsewhere with barely a notice. The praise of men is fleeting.
If I am growing closer to God, I am also becoming less selfish and less demanding of others and I am thinking more about who they are and how God made them and what they have to say and what their struggles are and how they are uniquely made. If I am really "putting on Christ," then I am thinking about how I might lay down my life without receiving anything in return that I can arrange beforehand. Of course, God blesses us and meets our need and we receive so much from others in the Christlife that it really boggles the mind. What I am talking about here is giving up the idea that you are going to arrange your reward either before or through your actions. What if your reward was not obvious but came to you simply through how your character was shaped through perseverance?
There are good reasons to leave a church and to leave a friendship. But, those reasons should not be that you cannot get enough out of the person or even the church to please you. We are very poor at seeing what God is doing and at being a blessing to others when we do not see what we are going to get out of it. So, our life becomes a series of calculations based on what we think will happen. There is little faith involved. Better to accept people and relationships as they are and love sacrificially in the midst of them than to continually try to manage things for your own benefit.
If you are looking at your relationships from the angle of what you can get out of them and as a means to an end instead of a forum for you to give and bless, then perhaps the deadness that you often feel is coming from your own heart. I know because I have been there. The only way out is to go to God and to pray for His love for your family, friends, church, and community and ask Him to help you get over yourself. Ultimately, you will find your true self made in God's image and with the capacity to love while expecting nothing in return. You will then find freedom and joy in receiving every good gift from God and from the lives of those He has graciously put in your life.