Before community groups and life groups, churches held Sunday night potlucks and Wednesday night Bible studies. Whether attending a community-building event, tagging along with my dad to elders’ meetings, or helping my mom fill tiny cups with grape juice for Sunday morning communion, I was always finding myself at the church. I can still remember the smell of the church kitchen and the sound of the empty auditorium, but it’s hard to pair specific memories with the moments my beliefs took shape.
Of course there were Sunday School lessons with felt Bible characters and Vacation Bible School activities that left a pipe cleaner with five colored beads around my wrist that all emphasized popular themes in the Bible like faith, salvation, and prayer, but there were other beliefs that took shape by watching and listening to the grownups in the room. Beliefs like–being a Christian meant you had to perfectly follow a list of dos and don’ts, or that sinners (while forgiven by Jesus) were to be judged harshly by the church body, or that public appearances far outweighed private struggles. Each of these beliefs were not spoken, but they were taught.
As an elder, my dad was present in the raw moments that left the congregation shaken and often at odds. I vividly remember the day my dad was told that a member of the congregation, a mother of a girl in my Sunday School class, had committed suicide. I can recall the funeral, how my friend clung tightly to a stuffed animal, and the weeks after her mother’s death as the family felt more and more isolated because of differing opinions on suicide within the church. I also remember the Christmas Eve when my father clashed with the elder board, and we found ourselves at Wal-Mart purchasing last-minute Christmas gifts for the family of a man the church had turned away due to his struggles with substance abuse. And there were other memories, closer to home, where unspoken lessons took root in my heart and shaped my approach to forgiveness, brokenness, and humility.
Those unspoken lessons molded my character and shaped the way I relate to other people. As a Christian, I was called to live above reproach, and somehow that equated to perfection in my mind. Along with saying no to drugs and alcohol, saving sex for marriage, and attending church regularly, I also felt pressure to respond to some people differently than others in order to remain in good standing with the church.
As Chris and I dealt with the aftermath of his affair questions like, “What are we going to do?” and “How are we going to get through this?” were quickly followed by, “What are people going to think?” And while I had no idea what we were going to do or how we were going to get through it, it wasn’t long before I found out exactly what other people would think. Comments like, “Once a cheater, always a cheater,” “You have Biblical grounds for divorce,” and “No one will blame you if you leave,” were just a few of the many comments that were thrown at me from other Christians. All of a sudden, I found myself in the “other” category, and it was a desperate and lonely place to live.
All of a sudden, I was in the “other” category, and it was a desperate and lonely place to live.
Very few Christians embraced the idea of forgiveness, grace, redemption, and restoration. With our weaknesses exposed to the church, we were no longer able to hide behind the smoke and mirrors of a life lived “above reproach.” Instead we found ourselves made approachable by our weaknesses, transparency, and desperation for God’s grace. As more and more couples confided in us, we discovered a disturbing trend among other believers. Most of them had struggles, deep and sometimes dark, that they hadn’t shared with others in their church community because they too felt the fear of “What are people going to think?”
The call to live above reproach in the Christian church leaves many Christians feeling like transparency is a one-way ticket to banishment, and we felt that. We noticed as others distanced themselves from our burdens, and we saw doubt in the eyes of believers when we shared God’s story of restoration in our marriage. The irony in the situation is that the more we admitted our brokenness and our need for Christ, the more closely we walked with Him. Of course, we still make mistakes. We still struggle with denying ourselves and trying to control our own outcomes, but transparency is a vital part of our ability to live each day above reproach.
Even armed with this truth, I fight against my desire to distance myself when the transparency is coming from someone else in the other category. My natural instinct is to build a wall and protect my family, protect my reputation, and generally protect me. I’ve been hurt by the very belief that I find myself fighting against, and yet it’s so easy to let that unspoken lesson from long ago take hold of my heart and not let go.
You’ve undoubtedly seen this play out in your church, maybe even in your own life. You get a divorce, and all of a sudden your friends from church are “incredibly busy.” You confide a taboo struggle to a friend at church, and they can’t be your friend as long as you are still struggling. You are open about your depression or anxiety and others distance themselves when they realize it won’t go away overnight. Slowly, the unspoken lesson forms and takes root: If you want to remain a part of our church community, you have to hide behind a facade of perfection.
If you think this is a millennial or a generational thing, you’re wrong. Paul wrote about this exact tendency to build walls among believers in the early church.
Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important. – Galatians 6:2-3
In other words, if you think that protecting your world is more important than helping another believer, you are deceiving yourself. I love the use of the word deceiving in The Message translation. At the root of this problem is fear and pride, and both deceive us. Fear whispers in our ears that the other person’s sin is a danger to our security and well being. Pride whispers that “you’ve done all you can do” and nudges you to move on. Both can be rationalized, but neither allows for God to work through you in the life of another.
The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life. – Galatians 6:7-8
Right after Paul tells us to share each other’s burdens, he tells us to allow God’s Spirit to do the work. He doesn’t tell us to fix the problem or to walk away if our instruction is not immediately received. He tells us to listen to God, and to trust that God is at work. Often in our haste we forget that even when our efforts seem ineffective, God is still working. As vessels of God’s Spirit, sticking around is kinda vital to seeing the Spirit work in the lives of others.
A missionary spoke to our church a few months ago about his time serving in the jungles of Indonesia. Within a few weeks of arrival, he contracted malaria. He was sent back to the U.S. for treatment, and then he went back to the jungle. He contracted malaria again and again until the doctors told him that he could lose his sight if he continued to contract malaria and take the treatment. Each time he didn’t listen, and he went back to the jungle.
After the third or fourth time, the indigenous people asked him to share his message with them. They said that anyone that is willing to keep coming back to the jungle after contracting malaria that many times must have something good to say. He didn’t know at the time that God was working through his physical presence, even when he wasn’t able to speak a word. His actions and faithfulness were teaching an unspoken lesson that far outweighed anything he could have said to them, and it eventually opened doors for ministry and salvation.
It’s so easy to walk away from hard situations and hard people. I can justify walking away ten different ways until I’m convinced God is telling me to walk away, but it takes an effort to stay. Let your decision to walk alongside believers that are struggling be the unspoken lesson that screams louder and with more clarity than any words, that God is present, and that He is at work. That’s the lesson that will stick.