Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Hard Stuff of Real Lives

Once on Thinklings I conversed with a guy named Matthew who said he had done the whole Christianity thing with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength and didn't get anything out of it but an empty silence and a failed marriage. He poured out his story of devoting years and years to faithful pursuit of a relationship with Jesus, of studying his Bible and believing wholeheartedly in what it said, of praying daily with a fervent and devoted heart, of attending church with commitment and openness. Of begging God to take away the same-sex attraction that had been plaguing him since as long as he could remember. Matthew believed his desires were sinful and out of faithfulness did not act on them, and day after day for years and years pleaded with God to take those feelings away. He tried counseling and community. He even tried marriage to a woman. When he was finally able to come clean about his inner struggles, almost nothing he had committed himself to survived the fallout. His marriage was over. And so was his faith.

Matthew says he trusted God and tried truly, sincerely, honestly to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. He says he was repentant and obedient. But God never kept up His end of the relationship, so Matthew gave up. In his mind now, there probably is no God, but even if there is, He ain't worth having faith in. You can't have a relationship with someone you can't see or hear, he says. He tried.

What do we say to someone like Matthew? He's not alone. There are millions of folks like him. What do we say to the Matthews of the world? To the pre- and post-Christian skeptics?

I tried to say a few things as respectfully and helpfully as I could. He was asking questions, and I felt obliged to offer some answers. But I was way in over my head. I was humbled not just by the difficulty in finding "the right words" for an experience like Matthew's, but just by the very idea that a few paragraphs of "insight" in a blog comments section could adequately address, much less honor, his decades of pain and struggles.

Not long after my conversation with Matthew, I saw that Common Grounds Online, pastor/author Les Newsom posted about his conversation with a seeker-skeptic who wanted to know why God was hiding. Newsom is a very intelligent guy, one with a great pastoral spirit, and he was able of course to work some philosophical ju-jitsu and turn the tables on the asker. Using sound biblical insight and practically flawless logic and rhetorical eloquence, he spoke the truth that it is not God who hides, but us. It was as perfect an answer as one could provide.

Yet I'd be willing to bet it did not suddenly make the skeptic go, "Oh, yes, I see. You're absolutely right."

Words can be very, very cheap. Even the best ones. Even the truest ones. Yes, it is true that God's Word will not return void, but oh how inadequate even our best words can be in "making someone believe." The Bible says that faith cannot come without hearing, so the Church must be dedicated to preaching, but isn't it humbling -- or, at least, shouldn't it be humbling -- to know that it's not our words that work faith in a person, but God's grace?

I'm a words guy. I'm big on words. I want to make a living with my words. I try to get my words published and have had a little success. I fill up too many blogs with words. I fill up a computer file with fictional words. I speak words when I'm teaching. I speak words when I want my wife to know how I feel. I speak words when I'm caring for, instructing, or disciplining my kids.
The world is not short on words, and some of us are trying to speak as many as we think appropriate in the best way we know how.

But words don't save. The Word does.

I'm a fan of apologetics, by which I mean the system and study of providing answers and evidence in defense of the validity and truth of the Christian faith. Apologetics are helpful in evangelism. But I've never heard of anyone argued into or really even intellectually convinced into the kingdom. That can often be the first step, but it's never the only one. Jesus doesn't require we love with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength by only changing our minds. He changes the rest too.

So how do we do this? For the Matthews of the world, and for everyone else? People are looking for sound words, for true words, but mere words aren't working. That there's a new "religious" best seller on the New York Times list every few months certainly proves that. Clearly not everyone was driven to a purpose that ultimately satisfied or they would not have then latched on to finding their best life now. The Church has an abundance of words.
What else we got?

Michael Spencer has an archived post that will move you. It's called To Know We're Not Alone, and I highly recommend you read it. Here's an excerpt:
His face comes back to me across the years, and as I think about my own brokenness, failures, and the desire for common humanity that drives me to nail my thoughts to the door of the world, I wonder if he wasn’t showing me the face of every man and woman I’ve ever met.

You see, the invitation concluded, and that preacher began talking. His words were nervous, not the sure and confident tones of the sermon, but the halting, breaking, fearful tones of the guilty confession. He wasn’t in preacher-speak. He was speaking differently. Humanly. It bothered me.

In my church, our pastor seemed super-human. He was God’s man. A Spirit-filled man. He was different than all of us. He spoke differently. He dressed in suits all the time, even on hot summer days when he was doing yard work. He knelt behind the pulpit when he prayed, even though it was a very large church. He cried and shouted in the pulpit. He declared the Word of the Lord, and pled with sinners to come to Jesus. He was an embodiment of heaven’s man on earth.

He was not like the rest of us, and we knew it.

He did laugh, but not in the same way or at the same things. His wife was saintly, and always dressed like royalty. He could be tender, but he could also be frightening. You knew he spent hours with God, and was different as a result. He was a holy man.

As a young preacher-boy, I wasn’t a thing like him. I’m not sure that I wanted to be. I had walked the aisle and “surrendered” to preach, but could I ever be like that? Holy and separate? Anointed with power? I did believe, I am sure, that being a preacher meant I would be different. God would give to me…..something. The mantle of the prophet. The fire of the preacher. A light in the darkness. I wouldn’t be like other people. I would be safe and protected.

But this evening I was looking at another preacher, not my pastor. And he was not supernatural or holy or other-worldly. He seemed small and frightened. He was talking about his wife. He’d come home, and found his wife with another man. He just said this, to the whole church, as if they must know. He wept. His fear and self-loathing oozed out of him and into the atmosphere of that revival. Everything changed.

His wife was not present, though we all looked around to see her. I was uncomfortable. I wasn’t the only one. I wanted him to stop talking. He was scaring me. Real humanity, and the mess of a broken marriage, weren’t welcome in this revival, or in my world.

He said he and his wife had a lot of trouble, and he’d been taking medicine. But the medicine hadn’t done any good. Now his wife was with another man, and he wanted the church to pray. We did not know what to do with this. It was too much. Too much. Too real . . .

. . . I did not realize until many years later what had happened that night. The preacher was calling out of his darkness, calling into a room of other people, looking for something. What? He was looking to know he was not alone. He wanted to know if anyone else knew and understood what it was like to be human, to hurt and be a failure. To have failed at marriage and now, to have failed at being a “good Christian.” Did anyone care that his life was a wreck, or would they just condemn him? Would they pray for him, or did they just want him to go away?

I have no idea what he found. In me, he found the shock that comes from being confronted with my illusions. I wanted this to be a freakish exception to the rule that God makes us all better and makes everything all right. I wanted this to be a bad dream that would go away, because I did not want to think about the waking realities of infidelity and mental illness and desperate, despairing people. I did want to think that the man standing in the pulpit with the answers might not have all the answers for himself.

My faith rejected such a vision. I thought of that preacher as a sick fool. Today, I know better. He was a window into my own soul. A picture of the human race. A representative of the our true nature. And even more, he was, for that moment a sacrament of honesty in a religion of pretense. He stood there, falling to pieces, asking, “Am I alone? Am I the only one?” But we couldn’t let the secret out. We had to say the “amen,” and go home to a religion that protects us and makes us better.

Some twenty years later, that preacher took his own life. I do not know his path, I only know that in the end, he could not live with himself.

How many times did he stand and tell others to trust in a God of love, mercy and grace? And what did we hear? Did we hear the truth….or did we hear, instead, the invitation to paint ourselves in colors of self-deception and denial, and pretend another week, another year?

Over and over, Jesus reached into the lives of people like that preacher. The last, lost, least, losers. The unacceptable, the unreformable. The failures and the frauds. Those whose lives could not be tidied up with a little cultural religion. And from that, we have constructed a Jesus who prefers the “good Christian.” A Jesus who wants moralizing and religious superficiality. A Jesus who hardly needs to die for us, because a little exhortation to do better and keep on the straight and narrow are more our style. A Jesus without a cross, but with smiles and blessings for our homes and marriages full of “Christian moral values.”

This is why the Jesus + nothing Gospel is vital. This is why a works gospel is worthless, whether its coming from a Pharisee in 1 BC, a fundy hellfire preacher in 1975, or a pomo pastor-buddy in 2006. Jesus must be the point of our work and words . . .

. . . and we must mean them. I don’t mean be sincere about them or speak them well. I mean we must mean them. And that is the missing ingredient in all of these real stories of real hurt in the real world. The real hope. Hope that is real. Not just words of hope. Yes, those too, but the authenticity, the pure religion that makes the words real. What is missing, then, is the living witness of the church. The community cannot just be about dispensing kingdom words but about living out the kingdom life and doing the kingdom work.

Will we respond to the Matthews of our community with just good advice? With some clever apologetics and airtight theology? Or with grace and relentless support and a consistent witness that we still believe this stuff and know it makes a difference and are going to keep trusting Jesus is faithful even if they won't? Will we carry on with love? Or with resentment or dismissal or avoidance? Will our testimony be desertion? Or the bearing of burdens?

The people who enter our doors and “test drive” our churches had better get more than words for their trouble. Some of them can subsist on good words for a while. But the substance of lives troubled by broken families, broken hearts, substance abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, adultery, pornography, grief over lost loved ones or prodigal children or prodigal parents, lost jobs, lost joys, secret sins and secret shames, doubt and hurt and need and guilt will not be healed by words, but by the living witness of the Body of Christ being the body of Christ to them. The friends of the crippled man didn’t just tear the roof off the sucker so their friend could hear Jesus better; they lowered him down into the middle of an astonished audience so he could be healed.

Jesus Christ came to preach the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God, and everywhere he went, he testified in word and deed to the freedom life in the kingdom gives to the hurt, lost, and lonely. If we, the community the Bible calls the Body of Christ, will be true to our namesake, we will do no less. Our open door must be like the hole in the roof of that house – the place of dramatic entry into a place of real hope for real people with real hurts.

Our churches cannot just be about giving people good advice to live their generic lives more successfully; we must be about living the Gospel in a world of hard stuff.

But prove yourselves obedient to the Message, and do not be mere hearers of it, imposing a delusion upon yourselves. But be ye doers of the word...
-- James 1:22

Originally posted once upon a time at Shizuka Blog.


Chanda Canup said...

Really great post, Jared. "words don't save, the Word does." I don't know what is more true about God's work in the human heart.

Anonymous said...

This is precisely why James says...

"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." James 1:22

Words are not enough... but God's Word is!

Great post, Jared.

Anonymous said...

Good post.
. . . and in my face right now. My friend and her husband are separating. This will cause a bit of talk and shock at our church for all involved. My family is involved so we are a part of the gossip.

Life is messy.

Anonymous said...

Wow. It'd be kinda stupid to try an use words to express my appreciation for this post, huh? I'll just link over at my blog:

Eric Guel said...

So true.

salguod said...

Great stuff. Really great stuff.

What I take from the little I learned about Matthew's story here is that at just the time he needed Jesus the most, the folks closest to him that were supposedly closest to Jesus, turned their backs on him rather than turning him to Jesus.

Jesus saw people's sin, plan as day. It was right there, yet he refused to turn away, in fact he went to those sinners. He sought them out.

Too many "Christians" think we are to flee from sinners, not flee from sin.

Anonymous said...

Jared, This is one of the best post I have read. I certainly feel for people like Matthew and understand how our lack of knowing what to say is frustrating. I have sat across from many in session where I wish I had the magic words. Thankfully we do have the Word and God just asks us to plant seeds. He can create the growth.

dle said...


I'm coming late to this, but I have part of an answer, only a part.

I read this post and the one thing that strikes me more than anything else is that these people were abandoned. Not by God, but by His Church.

We all know the pain of feeling that if the people around us in our churches truly knew what we were like that we would be rejected, hated even, for what we are.

So we become little islands. And when the supply ship to that island stops coming, for whatever reason, we die on the inside.

But the Lord never intended us to be islands, to be individuals disconnected from each other.

See, I don't have to know what to say to Matthew. I just need to be there to hear him confess his heart. I need to lay down my life for a friend. We all do.

What happened to the idea that I've got your back and you've got mine? We might consider that a wartime response of a band of brothers, but is this not war? Are we not brothers? How then can we sit idly by and ignore the hurting brother?

Brothers, let there be no pretenses among us! Let there be nothing of this world that we allow to stand between us. "Behold how pleasant and good it is for brethren to dwell in unity. For there the Lord commands the blessing, life forevermore."

Are we experiencing that kind of community? No. And that is why we have Matthews and preachers who die inside over the course of twenty years until they die on the outside by their own hands. Because you and I were not there for them in their dark times.

God made us a community. We will be a community in heaven. We will sit down together at the marriage supper of the Lamb, and we will be one family united by the Lord.

Don't we understand this yet? We talk about fighting for our nuclear families, but why do we fail to speak up for the Family of God?

dle said...


I read Les's response and I found it oddly sterile. Very rational, but not very human.

While he mentions in the discussion that we need the People of Faith as part of the equation, he still approaches the answer intellectually, as if just the right argument will make the case, even considering that people are deceived and can't handle the argument.

But that's totally unhelpful.

Faith and Family reinforce each other--at least they're supposed to. Too often, though, we leave out the Family and then wonder why people's faith starts to show cracks. God never intended for us to live with half that equation missing.

My own Mom was there at people's doorsteps whenever tragedy had struck. People found comfort in her ministrations. She got it. She understood the Gospel.

But when she was terminally ill, did anyone from her church come by? Hardly. What a sad, sad lesson I learned during that time. And when my father died unexpectedly in the middle of Mom's protracted demise, all sorts of people at his funeral shook our hands and told us that they would do anything we asked of them. But when we actually had "the nerve" to take them up on their offers, they fled faster than roaches when the light goes on.

And therein lies the problem.

Who's willing to walk with a soul-sick, hurting person to the extent necessary for healing to come in God's timing? Who? We're too busy adjusting our 401k investments, aren't we? We're too busy slaving so we can buy more crap we don't need, stuff that blinds us to the reality of the Kingdom of God! And then, when someone goes down for the count, we say, "Well, I guess he didn't have enough faith!" Or, "Well, he was deceived!"

Why don't we ever turn around and ask, "Just how was I there for that person in his dark days?" Why don't I ever ask myself where my faith was to lay down my precious life so a person who needed me walking with them could have the full benefit of my time?

See, we don't want to ask that question. It demands too much. It may mean I reconsider the entire way I live. In the end, it's easier to question someone else's faith than to confront our own indifference toward others.

Randy Hurst said...

No need to say much here. Other than that this was extremely helpful. I am properly compelled to ACT in love.