A number of the comments on Rachel Held Evan’s latest posts about leaving and returning to the Church were a little disheartening, and have certainly got me thinking about all sorts of things. I both empathise and react to a good number of them. I suppose that’s a good thing.
The church is often a messy community. It’s the imperfect bride being made pure by Jesus, her sacrificial groom.
I realise that many are commenting from a North American perspective, and it would be tempting to pretend that the comments are only reflective of that church culture, but I don’t think that’s fair. One of the common complaints is that many churches are not places where questions and brokeness are allowed - instead, glib answers and a “fake it until you make it” veneer is encouraged. I’m in two minds about this.
I agree with the complaint, in that, if our communities are to be authentic, there needs to be room for questions, indeed, questions we don’t necessarily have answers for, yet, and we certainly do not want to encourage people to wear masks, or pretend. However, I also have a slight concern that these might also be in danger of being used as cover for not wanting to accept what Paul calls ‘sound doctrine’, and an excuse to wallow in brokenness.
I think that Paul gives us a helpful balance of recognising our brokeness, and taking hold of the power of Christ for joy amidst suffering. He doesn’t call us to pretend, but to remember who we are, and what Christ gives us.
You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus,
(2 Timothy 2:1 ESV)
This is not Paul, the celebrity pastor with a mansion and pool, this is Paul the apostle in chains:
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.
(2 Timothy 2:8-10 ESV)
Paul is not just suffering for the sake of the gospel, but for the sake of the gospel community – he’s suffering so that God’s people will share in Christ Jesus.
We are impatient people.
Too often, we do not empathise with those who are struggling, and expect broken people to be healed immediately. This is, I think, part of what leads to the fake-it-make-it mind set. Just like our own sanctification, Jesus is at work in his people in his timing. Between the extremes of wallowing in brokenness and pretending we’ve got it all together, is a balance of recognising our struggles and remembering that the risen Christ is at work within us, and wants us to be encouraged by his power. We need to remember that joy does not necessarily equal happiness. Rejoicing is not the same as smiling. Perhaps we need to remember that old cry of “how long oh Lord?”. We need to love each other where we’re at, while encouraging each other to move beyond that by the power of Christ.
Why does brokenness make us so defensive?
I think it comes down to what we really believe. Even if we reject blatant ‘prosperity’ doctrine, perhaps this shows that, for many churches, a kind of ‘soft’ prosperity gospel is being taught (or is assumed) – that if we’re a Christian, things will be all smiles? Brokenness challenges this idea, so it is a challenge to the very message such churches proclaim. But that gospel does not teach that everything will be great; it teaches that God is great, and has made a way for us to be reconciled to him. While he has promised to heal us, to restore our brokenness, it is in the fullness of his time. That which he has begun, he will finish, but the path of life is not free from trials and suffering.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
(Philippians 1:6 ESV)
Church can be tough, because it’s full of people like me, who need the transforming power of the risen Christ. If we forget that, it can be impossible.