How do you handle it when a drug addict wearing a dirty t-shirt and raggedy shoes walks into your church? What’s your response when he has something to say and it goes longer than typical for personal testimonies?
Maybe your church doesn’t get that kind of visitors, but so far, every church I’ve been a part of has experienced that at some point or another. You want to know my response?
I feel awkward.
It makes me feel uncomfortable because it disrupts the nice little box that I’ve put church life into. Oh, I know how I should respond, and believe me, I do my best to respond in a loving, caring way. But to be totally honest, I feel like staying distant and unengaging, and sometimes think critically of the person. It’s easy to have an attitude of superiority. If I do attempt to “care” for the person, it tends to be more about impressing my fellow “Christians” than because I actually care for the person who just walked in.
I don’t like this about myself. I want a deep love and acceptance of everyone no matter what background they come from, but at this point in my life I don’t. Not intentionally. It’s just that I’m so used to a safe, sanctified, pretty-much-perfect world that these things always bring an unexpected lurch to my sense of reality.
Within the Christian culture, we don’t do well at caring for broken people, especially in a church mainly filled with multigenerational believers. We’ve known all of our lives how to live appropriately and so Christianity becomes more about living rightly than faith and transformation in Christ. When we “came to know Christ” we didn’t feel a need for change. We knew we needed it, so we went through the motions of “accepting” Him, but it wasn’t really done in faith; it was what good people do.
And we did it.
Is Christ more glorified by our perfection, or by our brokenness?
My friend Casey (that’s not her real name) recently opened up to a group of women from her church about a difficult time she went through. Nobody really acknowledged her. She broke down crying as she shared, but it was kind of awkward because no one did anything. She learned in that moment that if she wants to be received by her fellow sisters in Christ, she shouldn’t share what is really going on inside her heart.
Troy and Caroline both came from broken families. Neither of their parents stayed together, but they committed their lives to Christ and desperately fought for their own relationship and family.
And were growing.
A few years ago, Caroline was killed in a tragic accident, which left Troy absolutely devastated. Understandably so! He struggled with deep depression and found himself unable to care properly for his children.
How did his church handle it?
Within a few weeks of the accident, almost everyone greeted him on Sunday mornings as if his life was as normal as the rest of theirs. Because of his apparent neglect of his kids, the church stepped in and basically took control of them. He ended up feeling abandoned, misunderstood and somewhat abused. When he quit coming to church as often, people viewed him as unappreciative and unsubmissive.
In multigenerational Christian churches, we’re so used to families who are together and relatively emotionally stable that we don’t know how to handle those who aren’t, or who haven’t come from that kind of background.
Requirements for church membership demand overcoming an addiction to smoking or wearing a certain style of clothing we deem modest. For those of us who grew up in the church, it was the way we always lived. For others, though, it’s like going to Timbuktu and learning how to do life the Malian way.
Church requirements focus more on outside sins (smoking, dress, habits of leisure) instead of internal sins such as gluttony, gossip, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, anger, rebellion, materialism and many more.
The idea is, once you have your outside life altogether you can become a member. And then, don’t show anymore imperfections after that.
I don’t think this happens on purpose. It’s just that we get good at being good. We know the lingo. We know how to share about victories and answered prayers, and we also know that disciples of Christ are supposed to be able to live with freedom and passion for God and holiness. So when we don’t feel free, ourselves, or when we bump into other people who aren’t free (especially those claiming to be disciples of Christ), we don’t know what to do.
When was the last time you shared about a struggle you’re going through? I don’t mean your struggle with lack of finances, illness you’re suffering or a really hard experience. I’m talking about the embarrassing struggles, like doubting the basics of faith, wondering if God really exists and if you’ve ever really known Him, or wondering what the point of Christianity is in the first place.
The more I listen, the more I get the feeling many of us have these types of internal conflicts.
It’s just that we don’t know how to be real about them because everyone else seems to be okay. No one else appears to have such basic struggles.
When was the last time our testimony times were filled with confessions of intense bitterness, or impatience toward family? Have we ever been honest about our pride and tendency to manipulate through influence prowess, the negative thoughts we have toward newcomers who walk into church, behind the back gossip of the needy family in the congregation, or the way we do things to impress certain people in order to get greater recognition?
I’m asking this because these are the types of sins we commit all the time within the church. And you know what’s even worse, we are good at justifying not sharing about these types of failures.
You want to know something else, though? I believe that almost all of us are getting tired and frustrated with the sense of fake-ness we feel in our churches. I doubt every church is struggling with it right now, but I’ve been involved in churches and Christian organizations enough to know that at some point everyone will struggle with it. Unless we are intentionally regularly confessing and praying together, pleading with God for deeper transformation, it is inevitable that we who know a better way to live become detached from the reality of our own hearts and spiritual neediness.
The apostle James urged us to confess our sins one to another and pray for each other so we may be healed (James 5:16). Peter told us to that above all else we are to keep loving one another, since “love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Pet. 4:8) In these passages, they are not talking about people outside of the church. They are talking about those of us inside the church who claim to be disciples of Christ.
Jason Gray has a song that says, “If you want to love someone, search their soul for where it’s broken.” How scary is that? Look for another person’s brokenness and then love them.
You know what we do in the church? We look for people’s brokenness so we can confront them and rebuke them for their sin. It’s as if we’re more consumed with slapping people than helping them.
And we do it under the disguise of pursuing holiness or life.
What is radical about Jesus Christ and the New Testament is that while He and His disciples are unwavering with conviction in the Truth of God’s Word, they are totally enraptured with helping people. Even church discipline, as described in Scripture, is clothed with love and the pursuit of reconciliation.
We use church discipline to throw our weight around.
Truth, love, obedience, relationship — these are all fruits of a true disciple of Christ. They are not competing principles. They are signs of God’s Holy Spirit within a person, and if ever any of them are missing, it reveals a fake disciple. At least, a rather immature one.
People are not attracted to perfection. God is not most glorified when we are perfect. He is most glorified when his perfection is realized in our lives through hearts of faith. People are attracted to authenticity and acceptance in spite of failures and neediness.
That is what is radical about Christ.
How do we curb this? How can we bring about change in our churches right now?
Simply start being transparent.
Go ahead and share a victory story. We need those. But also share struggles.
When others tell their struggles, care for them by sensitively asking questions that help bring understanding to their struggle and draws them out even more. Create a safe environment by sharing from your own failures, not victories. At least, not right away because it will make them feel more like a failure if you bring to light your recent win.
We have got to start caring about how people feel. We have this misconception that we must stand by truth regardless of how it makes people feel, but that is absolutely false. Truth without love is no truth at all. It’s religious rhetoric for the purpose of control or self-exaltation. That doesn’t mean we make people feel good without giving them Truth — that’s not real love. But the reality is, many people decide what to believe and how to live their lives based on how people made them feel.
Let’s quit faking it and start being transparent about our failures, because true love means caring for each others brokenness.
Make it real
Are you ready? Are you ready to quit trying to impress people and gain other’s approval and simply be yourself, honest about the struggles, failures and victories? Are you ready to show the side of you that you are afraid others won’t accept?
And here’s why: I’m tired of trying to look perfect. As if I have it all together. The reality is, I don’t. I struggle to keep my priorities straight. One of my biggest sins is impatience and anger toward my wife and family. I could call it a weakness, but it’s not. It’s a sin. And it grieves me that I commit it.
I struggle with knowing how to care for my wife when she feels pain, because I still haven’t fully figured out how to process the pain in my own life — especially the pain of losing loved ones. What do you do with that? It is so easy to quote Job because I know people admire that, but that’s not how I feel. I want to feel it. I want to bless the Lord with a whole heart, but right now, I can’t.
I struggle with procrastination.
I struggle with overscheduling myself.
I struggle with really trying to gain people’s approval.
I struggle with thoughts that make me feel like a pervert.
These are all things I struggle with right now as I write this. Not that I don’t experience victories in them, but they’re areas of my life I keep wrestling with over and over again. I don’t feel that I have many answers for them, and that’s why I share them.
Maybe you can pray for me. Maybe you have similar struggles and it will help you feel like you’re not alone. I’m sure you have input you could share with me, as well. I’m just tired of fakeness. I’m tired of seeing myself as better than the addict that just walked into church. I’m tired of pretending to be something I’m not, always.
I’m tired of acting like there’s no broken people allowed.1
Will you join me in living transparently so we can love each other more deeply and realize, together, Christ’s perfection?
Asher Witmer is a husband, father, writer and teacher from Los Angeles currently serving as a principal at a small international school in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He blogs at asherwitmer.wordpress.com, where this post first appeared.