One year ago this day a judge signed a “dissolution of domestic relations” document, making me legally divorced. Today I look back on the worst year I’ve ever had. It’s Naomi-like, in a sense. I came to Portland full: wife, dog, and a bright future. Now the spirit and optimism (naivety?) has faded. As I look back and reflect, I realize that I stand distant from where I once was. This new vantage point has brought two things into view that were always there but essentially unnoticed.
The first is that life can turn grotesque without warning, Bach’s “Mass” becomes Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. But there is also a payoff…later. Classical musicians such as Beethoven heard in Baroque artists, like Bach, triumphal joy—a tribute to the incarnation, transfiguration, resurrection, and ascension—and he knew that that portrayal of our world, though true, was incomplete. It had a serious lack. What of the opposition to Christ’s ministry, his weeping over Jerusalem and Lazarus, what of his loneliness and sorrow in Gethsemane, what of his scourging, of the cross? These are no less integral aspects of Christ’s life, work and human (HUMAN!) experience. The music of the Classical period often reflects this dark, unpleasant side of life, and it is equally as essential as the triumphalism of Bach.
I grew up in a Christian world of poor imitations of Bach. Be happy, healthy and hopeful and if you find yourself lacking such experience, find out where you went wrong—are we getting enough Bible reading in, enough prayer, confession, and time serving the community—as though these activities are the correct recipe for Christian life and happiness. I am not down on any of these activities in their own right, but if our goal in them is to maintain some form of happy comfortable existence (American dream), we have missed something. The practices themselves devolve into a sort of spiritual Botox, giving others and our self the impression that our souls are healthier and more attractive than they actually are. They are impressive veneer that cannot hold up under the weight of real life.
Which begs the question of what the goal, aim, and purpose of Christian life is. Though we would vehemently deny it when questioned directly, a glance into how we actually live would reveal that we are trying to be happy, healthy and comfortable, to have all woes be gone, to live in a state of endless (and inevitably smug) satisfaction. If this is the goal of Christianity, then Christianity is a failure. Or at least I am, along with countless others. I know this because I’ve done these “Christian” activities with the best of them, and my life fell to pieces. Not that I was flawless in my performance, but I have come to see that our idea of what it means to follow Christ is so incredibly shallow that we lack not only the knowledge of how to respond when our world implodes, but the categories to make sense of a world that falls to pieces in the midst of rigorous, faithful activity and ministry. Of course, we can make sense of a world in which some (that is, someone else) will suffer, but surely God would not allow (let alone cause) such agony in the life of his servants who so adamantly trust and work for him! Or would he? Ask Job, or Moses, or David, or Daniel, or Jeremiah, or Paul—the list goes on and on.
As one who has felt distanced by our Disneyland Sunday services (happiest place on earth) filled with bright and happy tones, always sung in major keys, I often find consolation rather in the world. Don’t get me wrong; I said the world, not worldliness. What I mean is this: that those who do not have Christ or the expectation that God will make them happy actually FEEL what is happening to them. They don’t have a Jesus pillow to make them comfortable and insulate them from harm. They take the punches with genuine feeling, genuine humanity, screaming with every blow as they try to get out however they can—drugs, sex, success, etc. It is not how they cope that I identify with, nor employ; it is their honesty—their willingness to scream out in pain and agony, to be hurt by evil—that I can identify with.
I do not see this in Low Church Protestantism. If we actually acknowledge our pain, we cling to our Jesus pillow until it all goes away. Thus, we never fully embrace (nor experience) the actual pain of pain, the hurt of hurt. We anesthetize ourselves with our endless prayers and Bible verses quoted to remind us only of God’s comfort (Oddly, we never quote the Ps. 88). I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pray or take comfort in God’s word; I’m saying that we shouldn’t hide from God in His word. We tend to build walls around ourselves to shelter us from storms and pain, and sometimes the bricks in those walls are verses from Scripture. Other times, they are promises we think he’s made to us: that he’ll give back what was lost but a better version of it. Our attachment to our ideas of what God will give us are actually barriers erected between us and the painful, but only source of life available. Can I be so bold as to say that God is not impressed with our architecture? Perhaps we are nobler at times and say we cling to God. But what God? The one who will make it all better? Sometimes that Jesus pillow is a Jesus brick that is cold and uncomfortable. That’s because Christ isn’t captured in some idea. He’s a real person who can and does refuse our requests when He sees fit to. The Jesus we see from inside our self made prison cell is a lot more safe and manageable; we have a very low tolerance for the real, uncontrollable, Lion Christ.
Since my PR rating just took a nosedive, I’ll go even further and say that we flat out refuse to embrace the fact that this is how we actually are. Nevertheless, its truthfulness is revealed on the faces we see every Sunday. I’ve developed an allergy to evangelical smiles. Even Mormons aren’t that happy all the time. When we talk and sing about the cross, we simply repeat stock phrases that only have reference to an ethereal world of some 2,000 years ago, not this one—not the one that kicks us and drags us around, not the one we actually have to deal with. I grow sickened by the glib, feigned smiles and happy greetings that mask our own hearts’ hurts. Everyone has disappointment at some level, but we refuse to go there. We do not share these hurts with each other because we refuse to be brought low ourselves. We, on some unconscious level, think that we should always be happy, at least around other people who are supposed to be happy too. I’m not saying we should always walk around doleful a sullen. But maybe it’s time to let some of that exterior polish wear off, to look the way we ACTUALLY feel regardless of how we think we OUGHT to feel. It’s okay; Jesus got genuinely upset, angry, and experienced real anguish. He was traumatized. At one point he was so weighed down with sorrow, he asked his friends to stay close by because he could not hold up on his own. Could we follow his example here too?
The way we think about God (our theology) must change . We estrange the world insofar as we cannot feel them. We lose both our connection as fellow human beings and relevance in our message without a robust theology of suffering. Not only this, but our own spiritual lives are impoverished. To think of God as only present in the joys and not the sorrows of life is a lie from Satan. When God feels absent, there He is most present. There we learn to love him, not because he’ll give us something to make it all better, but simply because he is there. The only way to Christ—to Life—is through being nailed to pieces of timber. The destruction of our life as we know it is not only possible, but to be expected. If we cannot comprehend a God fully present when this happens as he promised, we are doomed to shallowness and unbelief. Christ wants to spare us this juvenile, pubescent, inchoate, hollow existence.
His primary aim for us is that we become new creatures, creatures that look exactly like Christ—his beauty, his perfection, his whole person. With this as his goal is it any surprise at all when we face fiery trials of every kind? These are not just trials inflicted upon us by others because we are Christians. This is EVERY kind. They are not deviations from the narrow path of faithfulness, but part of the path itself (why do we think he calls it narrow, and why are so few on it?).
The real payoff of facing our world—all its pain, ugliness, and tragedy—is depth. We become truly human, and in a limited sense, divine. Nothing else will make it so (or at least, God chooses it to be so). We are even given the reasons for God’s bringing (allowing) hardship into our lives in James 1 and Romans 5: that we might become transformed, perfected through the love of God shed abroad in our hearts. Honestly, sometimes I don’t want to be transformed or perfected. It hurts too much. I’d rather be a cranky, whiny, immature, hormonal teenager, crying because the injustice of my candy being taken from me. Once again it comes down to a matter of trusting God, like a child. I don’t know what I am becoming. I can say without doubt that I will look back on this anno dolorem meum and see that it was one of the best years. That is because in this year I began to trust and love Christ truly more than ever before. Only when I embraced the agony of life did I see just how much God loves me. And how is it that he has such great love for us to give Himself for us? It is in his nature. It is precisely because he comes near and FEELS everything at it’s deepest, without anesthesia or dilution. He hurts more than we; that is how he can love so much.
Christ honors us with pain; he glorifies us through it. Our hurts are pathways into areas of his heart that have not yet been reached. He forces our head underwater, not to kill us, but to show us all the treasures he’s hidden beneath its surface. If we stop trying to get out and just open our eyes and plunge into the seas of loss, disappointment and despair, we will find great joy. We will find ourselves walking where Christ walked, experiencing what He experienced. In the end this path makes us truly worthy of the name “Christian” (little Christ). Christ himself awaits us there at the bottom with open arms, ready to embrace us. He wants us to experience everything WITH him. And that is cause for great joy, which will be celebrated not as obligation to a command, but as delight over a lover.
The second thing I’ve learned is this: we are made for one another. By this I mean that we are not made as complete, self-sustaining units, regardless of what our culture tells us about independence and individualism. We are made with gaps. Some of these can be filled by various ways of organizing our own life—by practice, discipline, habituation—but not all of them. There is no person who is perfectly balanced, psychologically, spiritually, or otherwise. It is not up to us to try and figure out the perfect balance of life, always working towards Aristotle’s golden mean. Introverts and extroverts should remain as they are, only changing insofar as they become better introverts and extroverts.
The introvert’s lack of extrovertedness is not to be made up by his own efforts, but complemented by personal contact with extroverts and vice versa. The old soul should not strive to seize his youth again in a burst of carpe diem enthusiasm, nor the light hearted, life lover, try to make himself too heavy and serious. Mr. Lighthearted, we old souls need you to be light hearted. Mr. Oldsoul, us optimists need your realism. There is mutual need of one for the other. This isn’t about using others, nor about self actualization through some kind of utopian community, but us humbling ourselves and recognizing the fact that we need others, and that this need is not evil, but good.
I came to realize this through my faintheartedness. I refuse to take a triumphalist attitude towards the pain of life. I refuse to medicate (at least inasmuch as I am aware). I take God as He presents Himself to me, not as a Santa Claus. I give Him room to rescue me from darkness as well as work within it. So far no rescue has come. This makes life in my situation a wearisome task. I look to ways of bettering my person, of forming new habits of thought, ingestion, service, recreation, etc. None of these bring about the fullness or wholeness I seek in life. Not even seeking God on my own—for hours on end. He didn’t design us to relate to Him solely on a personal level, but a communal.
This is what drives my first observation about the Christian community. When I realize my need for others and come to them, I receive shallow encouragement. And when I have to describe the encouragement that is truly encouraging, it makes the encounter contrived. It isn’t the common man’s fault per se; he hasn’t been adequately equipped. He lacks the categories and/or experience that make such encounters truly fruitful. Perhaps this is how Christ is making me into that man I wish I had. It’s not about me feeling better, but us becoming a community that truly is the presence of Christ on earth. A community in which we mutually depend and lift one another, where we pick up our brothers’ garbage and take all the rawness and pain of it into our being, is a community in which the world will want to live.
Due to our natural lack in the solitary self, we long and search for a circle of sufficiency. Usually when we think we’ve found it, we discover its insufficiency. We begin with family, then friendships, romance, even our own family. Yet it is only in the church that we will find our true circle of sufficiency. Only here is Christ present enough and others different enough for us to become both bothered and healed. Usually the former is a vehicle for the latter. The working out of this is what the world will find attractive, because it truly involves sacrifice (meeting another’s need) and also humility (having a need met). Only in the church will the world find its circle of sufficiency. We are collectively needy, needy of God and needy of each other. Only when the Divine community crashes into and unites with the redeemed community is the individual truly living in a circle of sufficiency; only then, is he truly whole.
— Joshua Wilder
reprinted with the author's permission
reprinted with the author's permission