There was a time in my life where I didn’t feel comfortable calling myself a Christian.
There were doubts I struggled with. I was tired of living up to other peoples’ expectations. I had a hard time reconciling the Christianity I had been taught and the reality of violence in Christendom. I had a hard time figuring out why radical, zealous Christians went to the Bible and came away with oppressive teachings and eisegetical man-made rules, and managed to harm themselves and others with them. Sincere faith seemed so easily turned into Pharisee-ism, the leaven just too enticing to stay away from.
I felt that it was all too much and that I needed to hit pause, take a break and wrestle through my doubts.
For me, the problem was never with God or Jesus, but Christianity.
The question remains for us Christians today to step up to the plate – the calling and accountability that being a light on a lampstand requires.
“Owe no man anything except to love” (Romans 13:8) means that we must, somehow, imperfect as we are, figure out how to love men and women, the children of God, who struggle with doubt and who perhaps have walked away from the church. Their struggles may take many forms – they may struggle with life and church experiences, with theological questions, with moral questions, even with fundamental questions about the world and existence. We can’t solve all of these, and maybe we shouldn’t be so full of ourselves as to think we can just launch into someone’s life and vacuum their problems away. It is likely that these are deeply personal issues that we cannot fully understand, whether in the form of pain or doubt or sorrow. We must simply acknowledge that these things cannot usually be solved by throwing a blithe word, injunction, Bible verse, or worse – Christianese threats – at someone. We must at least believe that there is a genuine, legitimate, struggle, one that is beyond our lived experience and comprehension.
The last thing we want is to be dismissive. Cheap answers don’t do any good, and might do a lot of harm. “Just believe” and other clichéd phrases and Bible verses are probably not going to help, not if we’re coming from a place of trying to enforce our Christianity on someone else or maintain our status quo.
Mocking and belittling is even worse. An air of religious superiority runs through statements like “I understand, I really do, but you really should be more constructive” or “You’re speaking from a place of pain, and therefore are not qualified to comment on this issue since you’re not being objective enough for me.” I’ve even heard comments to the effect of “shut up and obey since this is what God commands” – not to myself, but to others. Is it any wonder that people are leaving in droves, drifting away? As they mourn their loss of community and belief, we are sometimes guilty of mobbing them with stones of communal judgment.
“Have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22). Not condescending mercy, as if we’re better for not doubting. As if we’re more Christian and righteous and holy. We should acknowledge the depth of someone else’s struggle and learn what it means to love them where they are. If nothing can separate us from the love of God, what is doubt?
It takes courage to come from Christian faith community, with the strong social pressure, familial ties, and, worst of all, anxiety from judgment and fear-instilling rhetoric about eternal punishment… all tied into a pretty package with an emphasis on creed and doctrine and believing the right thing or practicing things exactly the right way… It takes a lot of strength to not just keep pretending and pretending and pretending and keeping up appearances, and finally walk away at great cost.
Love the Samaritan. Love the agnostic. Love the atheist. Love the deconstructing Christian.
Love them in their journey, not in spite of it. Jesus loved us even in our distance from Him before salvation, and so should we. We should maintain lines of communication and relationships and openness and understanding as much as we can.
Christian passive aggression, cloaked in so-called kindness and concern, is possibly one of the most harmful things. It is rooted in judgment and superiority. Yet, the words, the verses, the encouraging stories that mean something to us may not mean the same thing to someone else. One person’s encouragement could be the same as another person’s pain.
An old story in Jewish rabbinical literature tells of two Russian peasants sitting at an inn.
Turning to this friend Alexei, Ivan says, “I love you Alexei.”
Says Alexei, “What hurts me Ivan?”
Ivan responds, “How would I know what hurts you?”
Alexei says, “If you don’t know what hurts me, you don’t love me.”
Ruth Krall describes Christian love as owning how we oppress and exploit, learning the pain of dispossessed people, admitting privilege and power, and being inclusive.Dorothy Yoder Nyce.
If we love someone, we would want to understand what hurts them. The fact that we the church often do not really care to find out shows how much we loved them in the first place.
Often as Christians we may feel threatened because what someone else struggles with and is hurt by may actually be someone we believe in or cling on to. Their words feel like accusations. We may be tempted to be defensive and see them as the enemy (or Satan the accuser of the brethren), rather than acknowledge that maybe our understanding and practice may in fact have fallen short of the glory of God.
We may also be tempted to accuse. Surely she must be discontent. Surely he must simply be selfish, or rebellious, Insubordinate, unwilling to have faith in God. Never truly one of us in the first place.
I believe that being honest with our flaws, and we have many as individuals and churches, and being open to hearing how the things we cling to may actually be hurting others, teaches us invaluable lessons we cannot get from all the well-intentioned books and seminars about Christian living. What is the reality, on the ground? What do people really experience?
When people accused Jesus, He was silent. Yet He was sinless, and we the church are not. He was without fault, and we have many. He loved, and we don’t always do so. It should be no surprise that we have done damage in our communities and in our words and teachings. We should be open to learning from these mistakes.
I believe that deconstruction is part of the church’s sanctification. It is part of Jesus cleansing us of that which is imperfect of the flesh and making us more like Him.
Jesus deconstructed and opposed legalism and toxic religion. He pointed out exactly how religious leaders were operating out of pride and manifesting something that may be technically scriptural but far from the spirit of God and His loving intentions. You have heard that it was said… Now I say to you.
The apostle Paul deconstructed the harmful beliefs that were in himself, in Peter and in other people around them. He opposed and fought against some believers placing themselves at the center and excluding and demeaning their brothers and sisters. The early church wasn’t perfect – they actually were treating some better than others, like the rich and poor (James 2) and the Hebrew and Greek (Acts 7). Paul sought to rid the church of an ethno-religious supremacy that lurked like a temptation in the shadows, and he gave his life to going out, reaching, empowering and ordaining the Gentile other. Not one iota, not one strip of a dismissive, supremacist attitude was allowed to remain. He was zealous and outspoken about that.
Our church communities and belief systems may perform a lot of good, but we’re not merely called to be “less dark”. We’re called to be the pure light of Christ. To be on a lampstand is not only to have our strengths visible but our flaws. What do we do with our flaws? Do non-Christians and ex-Christians have the right to hold us accountable to our calling as light?
We should have the shepherd’s heart. We cannot rest content with a church that loves and cares for the ninety-nine, but won’t put itself in harm’s way just for the one. For the least and the lowest. The one we consider the “other”. The marginalized. The one who doesn’t really fit in. We should strive for the “good of the fruit” for the “least of these”. These are the ones to whom Jesus holds us accountable
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40)
What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18:12-14)
Let us not hear the words, “I was hungry and you did not feed me. I was thirsty and you did not give me drink…”. Or, “I struggled, and you dismissed my pain, mocked me, and threatened me with divine judgment. I was in pain, and you abandoned me. I was torn between leaving and staying, and you closed the door behind me”.
We may think we are strong, invincible Christians, but one day we may struggle too. We may face something in life not so easily overcome, for which we do not have the tools and correct Bible verses. Will our communities support us then? Will they listen to and give place to our anguish?
Let us mourn with those who mourn. (Romans 12:15). Let us bear with the scruples of the weak, not deride them for their weakness.
(Thinking ourselves as “strong” is problematic in itself, really).
Maybe our brother or sister has something against us. What does Jesus want us to do? Stop our worship. Walk away from the altar of sacrifice.
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24).
Our job is not to keep others within the limits of what we consider Christianity, to make them continue talking, dressing, attending church, and behaving as if nothing is wrong, to maintain something that isn’t true or real.
Our job is not to push people to intended outcomes, to hasten their “return” or play the Holy Spirit. Their job is not to make us feel more comfortable again – OUR job is to let them make us uncomfortable, if necessary. They don’t owe us “constructive” or “reconstructive” efforts. Our job is perhaps to truly humbly wash their feet in what ways we can and to which they consent, and perhaps to be like Job’s friends when they sat with him in his anguish, and listened to him, rather than like his friends when they opened their mouths and dispensed streams of unhelpful platitudes.
Acknowledging wrongs cannot take the form of words alone. If indeed teachings, communities, doctrines and church practices have caused harm, then it is likely that in our attempts to be Christlike we have fallen short of Christ. This is more than likely. If we really want to acknowledge and listen, we must do more than nod and empathize and be sorry, but be energised to actually examine ourselves and where we have not been like Jesus. We must be willing to take courageous action to actively right wrongs.
Like the Pharisees, it is possible to believe all the right things and have all the right practices on paper, but be puffed up and arrogant in our hearts. Are we so right that we cannot bear to have our toes stepped on, the flaws in our pet doctrines exposed? We’re not called merely to perfect observance but perfect love. And we should be open to being held accountable for when we have done the opposite of love. The people pointing out our wrongs may not be perfect and do not need to be. Not everything may always apply, but God can shoot a straight mark with a broken arrow.
Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good. (Romans 12:9)
Are we willing to do this with regards to our churches and communities? Are we willing to abhor and rid ourselves of things that we love that may be evil? God will do so to us one day. Anything not of Him will be burned right up. We should be wary, anyway, of building with anything that is not solely of God. We need to stop enabling systems that perpetuate sin and hypocrisy. If something is broken, it must be repaired, or perhaps discarded for something better. Perhaps we are guilty of holding onto the things we love, that make us secure, but are not really of Christ.
Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:12-15)
Maybe God can use things like conversations around deconstruction to convict us of the planks in our eyes and the corruption in our own institutions, only if we stop picking out the specks in others’ eyes. If we’re not willing to judge what is “inside” (1 Corinthians 5:12), we really have no business being “in business”. If we are not the true light, the pure light, walking in perfect love, then we have nothing to offer the world except yet another religion, yet another form of weekend entertainment, yet another culture, yet another social club.
Upheaval is prophetic. Saying, “peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14) is false.