Church and Pain

The primary way we learn about God is through others.

There are rare cases in which someone comes to know God merely by reading a Bible they somehow gained access to. But for most of us, the primary way we learn about God is through other people. We may read and study the Scriptures, but we are always looking for and at the walking Scriptures around us – family or friends, a church, a Christian public figure. It’s often a largely subconscious phenomenon. But from our earliest days, we are filled with stereotypes, images, sensations, assumptions, about who God is, from the people we know.

And then, sometimes, that ‘walking Scripture,’ abuses us. Or someone we love. They get embroiled in a scandal. They wave a Bible in one hand and a flag in another and declare holy war on our country. They trick us into giving them all our money.

We are taught ‘lessons’ about God when people around us stumble, or use us, or hurt us.

Millennials tend to be described as ‘cynical.’ A lot of Evangelical millennials are cynical about their evangelical heritage. Sometimes it’s pointless. Sometimes it’s legitimate (mistakes have certainly been made – and who knows, maybe more in our own age than in other ages, that’s another conversation).  I don’t know if it’s because that’s our disposition, or if we have a lot to be cynical about. Maybe it’s somewhere in-between, I guess. Some get fed up and leave altogether. Some lash out in anger. Some embrace the ghost that haunted them, and inflict pain on others. Some find healing and try to serve in more constructive ways.

Some people spend years, if they are Christians, untangling their image of God with their images of their church. Or their parents. Or their pastor.

I’ve spent a little bit of time in the Balkans, in southeastern Europe, where three major civilizations meet: Western Christian, Eastern Christian, and Islamic. As you might expect, this has been a place of major conflict – often very religious conflict. I’ve met Orthodox Christians hurt by the way evangelical missionaries insensitively tore into their villages and tried to convert Orthodox Christians to Protestantism. I’ve met Evangelical Christians hurt by being marginalized by religious-political regimes that don’t recognize them as a legitimate part of society. I’ve met agnostic-nominal-atheist and everything in between Christians who don’t know what to do with their experience growing up in a church that represented little more than encouraging wars. I’ve seen mass graves dug in the name of national-religious aspirations.

We learn about God through other people. And sometimes it’s not a very good lesson.

This should, at first, be sobering for us. The lives we live are sermons, and they tell the people in our sphere of influence about God.

But what do we do with our hurts? Even if we had healthy Christian backgrounds, we certainly have been hurt by fallen leaders and examples. We all carry at least some bit of pain.

And when we get hurt, we build up our walls. We build large, expansive, internal cities, around the pain. We keep others out, or let them in under armed guard, to keep ourselves safe. And we leave God out too.

And sometimes, somewhere deep inside our armaments we scream out for rescue. We scream to have our walls torn down. We scream for God to get inside. But our hand is still on the rope that holds the gate up.

Can’t you tear the walls down and let Yourself in? 

‘I can. But I won’t. You’ve got to let Me in. I need you to take the risk that I’m not who You’re afraid that I am. But if you don’t take that risk, if I do it all for you – you won’t be free. This is the only way to be healed. You’ve got to walk out in faith, you’ve got to let yourself soak in my grace.’

So we stay inside. But if we wake up to it, we find grace. He clandestinely sends baskets of food inside. Grace is showered upon us, even when we’re too hurt and too angry to accept it if we knew it was from Him. He patiently waits for us, He chips away at our fear and slowly, tenderly, helps us loosen the grip on the caricatures we were handed. Sometimes others show up in our lives that help us – people who love us sacrificially, unconditionally, patiently. They wait for us when we fail them. They forgive us when we abandon them.

We start to re-learn about God through them. May we all learn to become such people for others around us who need to relearn who God is.

All these theological questions that take up the seminarian’s life – that of sovereign grace, free will, whether God meets us ‘half way’ or whether He brings us to faith entirely of His own will… I set them aside here.

The patient, gracious, lover of our souls, knows that we will only be able to embrace Him when we’ve let go of our fears and our reservations and the falsehoods that were modeled to us.

Or, maybe that’s not quite it.

Maybe He is able to quell our fears, draw us out of our caves, all on His own. And maybe, technically, that’s what He’s doing. I don’t know. But I do know that to be free, He wants us to tear down the walls ourselves. We’ve been hurt into submission, into nothingness, had our identity shaken and minimized by the false teachers who filled our lives. They scared us back behind our walls, and our constant fear of them in our heads keeps us inside. It’s not enough for the walls to be gone – that’s not healing. We’ve got to want it for ourselves.  And He will wait, He will love, He will quietly whisper our names, and that’s how He heals us. He heals us by goading us into freedom.

Shawn Carpenter on Fickr
Shawn Carpenter on Fickr

It is only in letting ourselves be introduced to the risen, living, Christ that we can start to be free. We gaze upon Him on the cross. We feel His hands and His feet in the hand on our shoulder that doesn’t take our wallet, or invade our innocence, or bind our wrists, or put a gun in our hands. He’s echoed throughout history in lives and friends and lovers who modeled a little grace to us, in a world of fear and anger and confusion.

 

 

Someway, somehow, I believe He is able to reach us all. And He’s trying. And whether it’s ultimately up to Him, or up to us, or some combination, I know He’s waiting, longing, hoping, that we’d let the gate open. Because that’s the only way we can begin become the whole people – we can begin to become icons of Christ: Free, full, new, forgiven, and loving. The very act of waiting on us is His act of healing and liberation.

The very act of Christ laying down everything – letting us shut Him out, tear Him to pieces, take the brunt of all the pain and injustice that was inflicted upon us in His name and on His watch – this very thing is the person that stands in the center of history to teach us who God is again. He takes our accusations against Him. He doesn’t barge in, but closes Himself in, mimicking and imitating and carrying our own brokenness and wasting Himself away in isolation and ensnared, in our place. He doesn’t tear down our walls, doesn’t force His way in, He builds His own and dies inside of them – just to show us, just to prove to us, just to be for us the very opposite of the ones who scared us into our citadels.  Sometimes we don’t encounter Him in the original at first, or only, but through His hands and His feet in others around us. But it’s still Him.

The primary way we learn about God is through others. An Other.

 

“Whatever the reasons, when forgiveness happens it is always a miracle of grace. The obstacles in its way are immense” 
― Miroslav Volf

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