April 1, 2020

iMonk 101: When I Am Weak: Why we must embrace our brokenness and never be good Christians

This is perhaps my favorite statement of the Gospel that I’ve ever written. The best sermons should preach to yourself. The Luther quote at the end still rocks me. I’ve been working on this to make it “book friendly,” and I wanted to share it with the IM audience again. If you’re a “good Christian,” go do something else. If you are a mess, this is my gift to you. From 2004 I think.

The voice on the other end of the phone told a story that has become so familiar to me, I could have almost finished it from the third sentence. A respected and admired Christian leader, carrying the secret burden of depression, had finally broken under the crushing load of holding it all together. As prayer networks in our area begin to make calls and send e-mails, the same questions are asked again and again. “How could this happen? How could someone who spoke so confidently of God, someone whose life gave such evidence of Jesus’ presence, come to the point of a complete breakdown? How can someone who has the answers for everyone one moment, have no answers for themselves the next?”

Indeed. Why are we, after all that confident talk of “new life,” “new creation,” “the power of God,” “healing,” “wisdom,” “miracles,” “the power of prayer,” …why are we so weak? Why do so many “good Christian people,” turn out to be just like everyone else? Divorced. Depressed. Broken. Messed up. Full of pain and secrets. Addicted, needy and phony. I thought we were different.

It’s remarkable, considering the tone of so many Christian sermons and messages, that any church has honest people show up at all. I can’t imagine that any religion in the history of humanity has made as many clearly false claims and promises as evangelical Christians in their quest to say that Jesus makes us better people right now. With their constant promises of joy, power, contentment, healing, prosperity, purpose, better relationships, successful parenting and freedom from every kind of oppression and affliction, I wonder why more Christians aren’t either being sued by the rest of humanity for lying or hauled off to a psych ward to be examined for serious delusions.

Evangelicals love a testimony of how screwed up I USED to be. They aren’t interested in how screwed up I am NOW. But the fact is, that we are screwed up. Then. Now. All the time in between and, it’s a safe bet to assume, the rest of the time we’re alive. But we will pay $400 to go hear a “Bible teacher” tell us how we are only a few verses, prayers and cds away from being a lot better. And we will set quietly, or applaud loudly, when the story is retold. I’m really better now. I’m a good Christian. I’m not a mess anymore. I’m different from other people.

Please. Call this off. It’s making me sick. I mean that. It’s affecting me. I’m seeing, in my life and the lives of others, a commitment to lying about our condition that is absolutely pathological. Evangelicals called Bill Clinton a big-time liar about sex? Come on. How many nodding “good Christians” have so much garbage sitting in the middle of their lives that the odor makes it impossible to breathe without gagging? How many of us are addicted to food, porn and shopping? How many of us are depressed, angry, unforgiving and just plain mean? How many of us are a walking, talking course on basic hypocrisy, because we just can’t look at ourselves in the mirror and admit what we a collection of brokenness we’ve become WHILE we called ourselves “good Christians” who want to “witness” to others. I’m choking just writing this.

You people with your Bibles. Look something up for me? Isn’t almost everyone in that book screwed up? I mean, don’t the screwed up people- like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Hosea- outnumber the “good Christians” by about ten to one? And isn’t it true that the more we get to look at a Biblical character close up, the more likely it will be that we’ll see a whole nasty collection of things that Christians say they no longer have to deal with because, praise God! I’m fixed? Not just a few temper tantrums or ordinary lies, but stuff like violence. Sex addictions. Abuse. Racism. Depression. It’s all there, yet we still flop our Bibles open on the pulpit and talk about “Ten Ways To Have Joy That Never Goes Away!” Where is the laugh track?

What was that I heard? “Well….we’re getting better. That’s sanctification. I’ve been delivered!” I suppose some of us are getting better. For instance, my temper is better than it used to be. Of course, the reason my temper is better, is that in the process of cleaning up the mess I’ve made of my family with my temper, I’ve discovered about twenty other major character flaws that were growing, unchecked, in my personality. I’ve inventoried the havoc I’ve caused in this short life of mine, and it turns out “temper problem” is way too simple to describe the mess that is me. Sanctification? Yes, I no longer have the arrogant ignorance to believe that I’m always right about everything, and I’m too embarrassed by the general chaos of my life to mount an angry fit every time something doesn’t go my way. Getting better? Quite true. I’m getting better at knowing what a wretched wreck I really amount to, and it’s shut me up and sat me down.

I love this passage of scripture. I don’t know why know one believes it, but I love it.

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)

Let me attempt a slight retelling of the text, more in line with the Christianity of our time.

But we have this treasure in saved, healed, delivered and supernaturally changed vessels, to show that God has given to us, right now, His surpassing power over ever situation. We are no longer afflicted, perplexed, in conflict or defeated. No, we are alive with the power of Jesus, and the resurrection power of Jesus has changed us now…TODAY! In every way!. God wants you to see just what a Jesus-controlled person is all about, so the power of Jesus is on display in the life I am living, and those who don’t have this life, are miserable and dying.

Contextual concerns aside, let’s read Paul’s words as a basic “reality board” to the Christian life.

We’re dying. Life is full of pain and perplexity. We have Christ, and so, in the future, his life will manifest in us in resurrection and glory. In the present, that life manifests in us in this very odd, contradictory experience. We are dying, afflicted, broken, hurting, confused…yet we hold on to Jesus in all these things, and continue to love him and believe in him. The power of God is in us, not in making us above the human, but allowing us to be merely human, yet part of a new creation in Jesus.

What does this mean?

It means your depression isn’t fixed. It means you are still overwieght. It means you still want to look at porn. It means you are still frightened of dying, reluctant to tell the truth and purposely evasive when it comes to responsibility. It means you can lie, cheat, steal, even do terrible things, when you are ‘in the flesh,” which, in one sense, you always are. If you are a Christian, it means you are frequently, perhaps constantly miserable, and it means you are involved in a fight for Christ to have more influence in your life than your broken, screwed up, messed up humanity. In fact, the greatest miracle is that with all the miserable messes in your life, you still want to have Jesus as King, because it’s a lot of trouble, folks. It isn’t a picnic.

9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Here is even more undeniable, unarguable language. Weaknesses are with me for the whole journey. Paul was particularly thinking of persecutions, but how much more does this passage apply to human frailty, brokenness and hurt? How essential is it for us to be broken, if Christ is going to be our strength? When I am weak I am strong. Not, “When I am cured,” or “When I am successful,” or “When I am a good Christian,” but when I am weak. Weakness- the human experience of weakness- is God’s blueprint for exalting and magnifying his Son. When broken people, miserably failing people, continue to belong to, believe in and worship Jesus, God is happy.

Now, the upper gallery is full of people who are getting upset, certain that this essay is one of those pieces where I am in the mood to tell everyone to go sin themselves up, and forget about sanctification. Sorry to disappoint.

The problem is a simple one of semantics. Or perhaps a better way to say it is imagination. How do we imagine the life of faith? What does living faith look like? Does it look like the “good Christian,” “whole person,” “victorious life” version of the Christian life?

Faith, alive in our weakness, looks like a war. An impossible war, against a far superior adversary: our own sinful, fallen nature. Faith fights this battle. Piper loves this verse from Romans, and I do, too. But I need to explain why, because it can sound like the “victorious” life is not Jesus’ life in the Gospel, but me “winning at life” or some other nonsense.

13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put (are putting) to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13)

The complexity resides right here: Faith is discontentment with what I am, and satisfaction with all God is for me in Jesus. The reason that description works so well for me is that it tells us the mark of saving faith is not just resting passively in the promises of the Gospel (though that is exactly what justification does), but this ongoing war with the reality of my condition. Unless I am reading Romans 8 wrongly, my fight is never finished, because my sinful, messed-up human experience isn’t finished until death and resurrection. That fight- acceptance and battle- is the normal life of the believer. I fight. Jesus will finish the work. I will groan, and do battle, climb the mountain of Holiness with wounds and brokenness and holy battle scars, but I will climb it, since Christ is in me. The Gospel assures victory, but to say I stand in a present victory as I “kill” sin is a serious wrong turn.

What does this fight look like? It is a bloody mess, I’m telling you. There is a lot of failure in it. It is not an easy way to the heavenly city. It is a battle where we are brought down again, and again and again. Brought down by what we are, and what we continually discover ourselves to be. And we only are “victorious” in the victory of Jesus, a victory that is ours by faith, not by sight. In fact, that fight is probably described just as accurately by the closing words of Romans 7 as by the “victorious” words of Romans 8.

23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:23-25)

I fall down. I get up….and believe. Over and over again. That’s as good as it gets in this world. This life of faith, is a battle full of weakness and brokenness. The only soldiers in this battle are wounded ones. There are moments of total candor- I am a “wretched man” living in a “body” of death. Denying this, spinning this, ignoring this or distorting this reality is nothing but trouble in the true Christian experience. The sin we are killing in Romans 8 is, in a sense, ourselves. Not some demon or serpent external to us. Our battle is with ourselves, and embracing this fact is the compass and foundation of the Gospel’s power in our lives.

What lands us in churches where we are turned into the cheering section for personal victory over everything is denying that faith is an ongoing battle that does not end until Jesus ends it. Those who stand up and claim victory may be inviting us to celebrate a true place in their experience at the time, but it isn’t the whole person, the whole story, or all that accurate. They are still a mess. Count on it. This battle- and the victories in it- are fought by very un-victorious Christians.

I will be accused of a serious lack of good news, I’m sure, so listen. At the moment I am winning, Jesus is with me. At the moment I am losing, Jesus is with me and guarantees that I will get up and fight on. At the moment I am confused, wounded and despairing, Jesus is with me. I never, ever lose the brokenness. I fight, and sometimes I prevail, but more and more of my screwed up, messed up life erupts. Each battle has the potential to be the last, but because I belong to one whose resurrection guarantees that I will arrive safely home in a new body and a new creation, I miraculously, amazingly, find myself continuing to believe, continuing to move forward, till Jesus picks us up and takes us home.

Now, let’s come to something very important here. This constant emphasis on the “victorious life” or “good Christian life” is absolutely the anti-Christ when it comes to the Gospel. If I am _________________ (fill in the blank with victorious life terminology) then I am oriented to be grateful for what Jesus did THEN, but I’m needing him less and less in the NOW. I want to make sure he meets me at the gate on the way into heaven, but right now, I’m signing autographs. I’m a good Christian. This imagining of the Christian journey will kill us.

We need our brokenness. We need to admit it and know it is the real, true stuff of our earthly journey in a fallen world. It’s the cross on which Jesus meets us. It is the incarnation he takes up for us. It’s what his hands touch when he holds us. Do you remember this story? It’s often been told, but oh how true it is as a GOSPEL story (not a law story.) It is a Gospel story about Jesus and how I experience him in this “twisted” life.

In his book Mortal Lessons (Touchstone Books, 1987) physician Richard Selzer describes a scene in a hospital room after he had performed surgery on a young woman’s face:

I stand by the bed where the young woman lies . . . her face, postoperative . . . her mouth twisted in palsy . . . clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, one of the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be that way from now on. I had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh, I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut this little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to be in a world all their own in the evening lamplight . . . isolated from me . . .private.

Who are they? I ask myself . . . he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously. The young woman speaks. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says, “it’s kind of cute.” All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with the divine. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers. . . to show her that their kiss still works

This is who Jesus has always been. And if you think you are getting to be a great kisser or are looking desirable, I feel sorry for you. He wraps himself around our hurts, our brokenness and our ugly, ever-present sin. Those of you who want to draw big, dark lines between my humanity and my sin, go right ahead, but I’m not joining you. It’s all ME. And I need Jesus so much to love me like I really am: brokenness, memories, wounds, sins, addictions, lies, death, fear….all of it. Take all it, Lord Jesus. If I don’t present this broken, messed up person to Jesus, my faith is dishonest, and my understanding of it will become a way of continuing the ruse and pretense of being “good.”

Now I want to talk about why this is important. We must begin to accept who we are, and bring a halt to the sad and repeated phenomenon of lives that are crumbling into pieces because the only Christian experience they know about is one that is a lie. We are infected with something that isn’t the Gospel, but a version of a religious life; an entirely untruthful version that drives genuine believers into the pit of despair and depression because, contrary to the truth, God is “against” them, rather than for them.

The verse says, “When I am weak, then I am strong- in Jesus.” It does not say “When I am strong, then I am strong, and you’ll know because Jesus will get all the credit.” Let me use two examples, and I hope neither will be offensive to those who might read and feel they recognize the persons described.

Many years ago, I knew a man who was a vibrant and very public Christian witness. He was involved in the “lay renewal” movement in the SBC, which involved a lot of giving testimonies of “what God was doing in your life.” (A phrase I could do without.) He was well-known for being a better speaker than most preachers, and he was an impressive and persuasive lay speaker. His enthusiasm for Christ was convincing.

He was also known to be a serial adulterer. Over and over, he strayed from his marriage vows, and scandalized his church and its witness in the community. When confronted, his response was predictable. He would visit the Church of Total Victory Now, and return claiming to have been delivered of the “demons of lust” that had caused him to sin. Life would go on. As far as I know, the cycle continued, unabated, for all the time I knew about him.

I understand that the church today needs- desperately- to hear experiential testimonies of the power of the Gospel. I understand that it is not good news to say we are broken and are going to stay that way. I know there will be little enthusiasm for saying sanctification consists, in large measure, in seeing our sin, and acknowledging what it is and how deep and extensive it has marred us. I doubt that the triumphalists will agree with me that the fight of faith is not a victory party, but a bloody war on a battlefield that resembles Omaha Beach more than a Beach party.

I write this piece particularly concerned for leaders, parents, pastors and teachers. I am moved and distressed that so many of them, most of all, are unable to admit their humanity, and their brokenness. In silence, they carry the secret, then stand in the place of public leadership and present a Gospel that is true, but a Christian experience that is far from true.

Then, from time to time, they fall. Into adultery, like the pastor of one of our state’s largest churches. A wonderful man, who kept a mistress for years rather than admit a problem millions of us share: faulty, imperfect marriages. Where is he now, I wonder? And where are so many others I’ve known and heard of who fell under the same weight? Their lives are lost to the cause of the Kingdom because they are just like the rest of us?

By the way, I’m not rejecting Biblical standards for leadership. I am suggesting we need a Biblical view of humanity when we read those passages. Otherwise we are going to turn statements like “rules his household well” into a disqualification to every human being on the planet.

I hear of those who are depressed. Where do they turn for help? How do they admit their hurt? It seems so “unChristian” to admit depression, yet it is a reality for millions and millions of human beings. Porn addiction. Food addiction. Rage addiction. Obsessive needs for control. Chronic lying and dishonesty. How many pastors and Christian leaders live with these human frailties and flaws, and never seek help because they can’t admit what we all know is true about all of us? They speak of salvation, love and Jesus, but inside they feel like the damned.

Multiply this by the hundreds of millions of broken Christians. They are merely human, but their church says they must be more than human to be good Christians. They cannot speak of or even acknowledge their troubled lives. Their marriages are wounded. Their children are hurting. They are filled with fear and the sins of the flesh. They are depressed and addicted, yet they can only approach the church with the lie that all is well, and if it becomes apparent that all is not well, they avoid the church.

I do not blame the church for this situation. It is always human nature to avoid the mirror and prefer the self-portrait. I blame all of us who know better. We know this is not the message of the Gospels, the Bible or of Jesus. But we- every one of us- is afraid to live otherwise. What if someone knew we were not a good Christian? Ah…what if…what if….

I close with a something I have said many times before. The Prodigal son, there on his knees, his father’s touch upon him, was not a “good” or “victorious” Christian. He was broken. A failure. He wasn’t even good at being honest. He wanted religion more than grace. His father baptized him in mercy, and resurrected him in grace. His brokenness was wrapped up in the robe and the embrace of God.

Why do we want to be better than that boy? Why do we make the older brother the goal of Christian experience? Why do we want to add our own addition to the parable, where the prodigal straightens out and becomes a successful youth speaker, writing books and doing youth revivals?

Lutheran writer Herman Sasse, in a meditation on Luther’s last words, “We are beggars. This is true,” puts it perfectly:

Luther asserted the very opposite: “Christ dwells only with sinners.” For the sinner and for the sinner alone is His table set. There we receive His true body and His true blood “for the forgiveness of sins” and this holds true even if forgiveness has already been received in Absolution. That here Scripture is completely on the side of Luther needs no further demonstration. Every page of the New Testament is indeed testimony of the Christ whose proper office it is “to save sinners”, “to seek and to save the lost”. And the entire saving work of Jesus, from the days when He was in Galilee and, to the amazement and alarm of the Pharisees, ate with tax collectors and sinners; to the moment when he, in contradiction with the principles of every rational morality, promised paradise to the thief on the cross, yes, His entire life on earth, from the cradle to the Cross, is one, unique grand demonstration of a wonder beyond all reason: The miracle of divine forgiveness, of the justification of the sinner. Christ dwells only in sinners.

 

Comments

  1. Michael,

    Thanks for this. I’m going to be using it. This post reminds me of how AA was able to see something in the NT that most churches miss–and put it into workable practice.

  2. Scott Eaton says

    Amen, amen.

  3. IMonk,

    What books do you recommend that covers this very subject?

  4. Thanks. I really needed that, Michael.

  5. Great essay.

    If I had only read and been able to accept/believe this kind of sermon 40 years ago I might have had a very different life. Perhaps not a better one but a different one, free of seeking that magical cure for my raging alcoholism and egomania.

    It is true that part of AA understands brokeness better than some churches. But there is also a prosperity gospel sect in AA: “Since I got sober I got a great job, a wonderful wife and family and a giant pickup truck.”

    But we all need a lot more of what you are talking about and a lot less of almost everything else.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I’ve loved this post since the first time I read it, probably in 2004. It reminds me of Steve Taylor’s song “Jesus is for Losers.” — Recovering Christian

    More like “Jesus is for Losers” in the midst of “I Wanna Be a Clone”.

    Thank you for this excellent post. I think another element in the tendency to lie to ourselves is insisting on having a “date” you were saved. I have met people who don’t believe I am truly a Christian because I can’t give an exact time when my life changed… — Damaris

    You too, huh? Except it’s not just “a date you were saved”. I’ve seen bragging about the exact date/hour/minute/second, in a “Can You Top This” game of One-Upmanship.

    And it all comes down to “I’m Really Really SAVED! And YOU’RE NOT!” All the hedging, all the date/hour/minute/second bragging, all the Shiny Happy Christian pretending, all the parsing of your experience to PROVE You Weren’t Really Saved or Have a Demon or whatever — it’s all a Big Game of One-Upmanship.

    I have no black & white, “Before and After” conversion experience. — Mike

    Well, that makes two of us. At least I’m in a Church (RCC) that acknowledges both abrupt and gradual conversion experiences as valid.

  7. “To us who are being saved, (the word of the cross) is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18) seems to give lie to the concept of “once saved…”

    Cynthia’s story should, in my opinion, give pause to the number of my fellow Catholics who seem to think married priests are a great idea, and I have an aunt who married one (he’s no longer serving, but did get dispensation from Rome and had their marriage regularized.) I think they would be okay as long as the priests who were married were not pastors, but understood they would not normally rise above the associate pastorate (RCCs only have ONE pastor per parish) or “parochial vicar.” That would help us with having enough priests for confessions, etc. and not put undue strain on their marriages.

  8. ProdigalSarah says

    Last night I read Jean Vanier’s ‘From Brokenness to Community’; Thank you to whoever recommended it. Anyway, I read that little book and read this post and comments. I was left with too many thoughts to organize.

    Jean Vanier talks about something I was forced to wrestle with a couple of years ago. This world tells us to be strong, tough it out, grow thicker skin, be in control. With arrogance I looked at people of faith as being too weak to take control of their life. Being in control, to my mind, was the first step to becoming a winner.

    Then when I first came to Christ I prayed for more strength. If I wanted anything from Christ it was the ability to be stronger and tougher and more in control. After all, somehow my mind had condensed all of faith into the need for a helper in becoming a winner.

    God told me TRUST, not STRENTH. I took this to heart and I saw that tougher skin only kept me from communicating honestly. Control is a lie and an illusion, but I have found it very difficult to surrender.

    “Christ dwells only with sinners.” This is good news.

  9. You people with your Bibles. Look something up for me? Isn’t almost everyone in that book screwed up? I mean, don’t the screwed up people- like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Hosea- outnumber the “good Christians” by about ten to one? And isn’t it true that the more we get to look at a Biblical character close up, the more likely it will be that we’ll see a whole nasty collection of things that Christians say they no longer have to deal with because, praise God! I’m fixed? Not just a few temper tantrums or ordinary lies, but stuff like violence. Sex addictions. Abuse. Racism. Depression. It’s all there, yet we still flop our Bibles open on the pulpit and talk about “Ten Ways To Have Joy That Never Goes Away!” Where is the laugh track?”

    I make it a whole lot higher than that. If you look at the characters in the Bible you have only two that do not see death. One guy in Genesis who goes out for a walk with God one day and doesn’t come home and one prophet of Israel who rides off in an Angelic Chariot. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Gideon, Samson, David, Solomon, just to keep the list short. Then in the new testament things aren’t much better. Peter, Paul, James and John (the thunder boys), John Mark (Barnabas’ Nephew) ….

    The crazy thing is with everything we know about psychology now, we would have to be insane to think that we had any chance of being better than the folks listed above. And in the Best Life / Name it, Claim it; Blab it, Grab it philosophy of American christianity we are in fact institutionalizing and internalizing a failed and insane model. The wonder isn’t that brothers and sisters are falling under the bus because of this load, but that more have not.

    In Alcoholics Anonymous a common definition of Insanity is doing the same thing, the same way and hoping for different results. We need to go back to the old formula: We are saved from the penalty of sin; we are being saved from the power of sin; we will be saved from the presence of sin. (Apologies to A. W. Pink for any errors in the formulation) For all except a very small number, the transition from Church Militant to Church Triumphant occurs at death.

  10. Chris Lake: For what it is worth, I don’t believe the advice you have gotten about refraining from relationships until you have a better income is good at all. It was perhaps well meant, but horrific in its implications. Are we to compound poverty with loneliness? I don’t know if you’ll find someone, but don’t be afraid to try. For heaven’s sake don’t put it off until you have more money.

  11. God bless you Michael. I really mean it….God BLESS Michael with the insight and ability to continue writing things like this.

    This causes me to worship Him in a way that is almost painful. Exquisite.

  12. C. A. Johnson says

    Thank you so much, Michael. A lot of today’s American Evangelical “Christianity” is precisely the opposite of what the NT teaches. The hooray for me, “I’m Saved”, crowd has driven many of our younger generation into total skepticism regarding the faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this “Cheap Grace”, meaning grace without repentance, and regarded it as deadly to the church.

    C. S. Lewis said (paraphrased) that a moderately bad man knew he was flawed, but a really bad one never did.

  13. Thanks for saying what the unbelievers around us already know.

  14. Great post… reminded me of my first time reading “The Ragamuffin Gospel” and getting some honest and realistic commentary on brokenness and God’s grace. It was a turning point in my own post-evangelical wilderness wanderings, eventually leading me to the Lutheran church, where real confession, real grace, real Law and Gospel were vibrant in ways I’d never seen before.

    The One-Upmanship that Headless Unicorn Guy so accurately describes is at least in part due to the terrible insecurity that many Christians are laboring under. If they can prove that other “bad” Christians aren’t really saved, they can hope to validate the reality of their own faith on the basis of comparing themselves to others. Whole Sunday School curricula are written around ranking yourself on a 1-10 list on how well you think you’re doing with this or that virtue. Comparing your own “fruits” to others, rather than trusting Christ’s word of promise, becomes the entire basis for assurance of salvation.

  15. treebeard says

    Oh Lord. What a post. And the comments. I really don’t have the words.

    I struggle with depression as well, and am married to someone who doesn’t understand or sympathize. (But she also has experienced so much abusive behavior from me that I don’t blame her.) I honestly thought I would be better by now.

    Yet I feel like I am much closer to the Lord now than I was many years ago when I was a well-respected and prevailing Christian worker (in the context of our little sect). Because who I really am is obvious to me now, and there’s simply no getting around all the sins, and all their consequences. I can’t pretend anything. So I’ve been praying a lot lately, “Lord, just have mercy. I’m so sorry for who I am. I need You.” Not much has changed, and yet a lot has changed. And I know He’s present. I would rather be broken, than be as self-deceived as I once was. I really need Him now.

    I don’t know what to say to those here who are dealing with depression or other limitations. But I hope it helps to know that you are not alone. And I thank you for giving me that assurance as well.

  16. Theophilus says

    1Cr 9:27 but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

    1Jo 5:4 For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith.

    1Jo 4:4 You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.

    2Ti 4:7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith;

    I still believe that though the fight be long and bloody, it is winnable.

  17. treebeard says

    If I can add a “PS,” some readers of this blog may remember that I once wrote about how my wife and I have a very good relationship. For the most part that’s actually true, despite the depression issue and my own bad temper. It’s weird, just like the Christian life. It’s a wonderful marriage and a disaster all at the same time.

  18. ProdigalSarah says

    You wrote:
    “Evangelicals love a testimony of how screwed up I USED to be. They aren’t interested in how screwed up I am NOW.”

    I visited a TINY evangelical church last Sunday evening and found it refreshing that everybody seemed so honest about their lives. Is it possible this TINY evangelical church is TINY because it welcomed honesty?

    You wrote:
    “Why do we want to add our own addition to the parable, where the prodigal straightens out and becomes a successful youth speaker, writing books and doing youth revivals?”

    If he “straightens out” he must deny his inner prodigal. He must live a lie. But when the goal is to build a successful anything, one must never show weakness. I know this is true. I receive this message a hundred times a day in a hundred different ways.

    Reflecting on a Bonhoeffer quote I read last night in From Brokenness to Community. “He who loves community destroys community; he who loves the brethren builds community.”

    If the goal is to build the biggest and most dazzling church, community will be sacrificed. Of course. It’s not about the brethren, it’s about becoming number 1.

    I love these lines from Michael Card’s song ‘The Sunrise of Your Smile’

    “Reject the worldly lie that says,
    That life lies always up ahead.
    Let power go before control becomes a crust around your soul,”

    I don’t want the prodigal to buy into the worldly lie and believe himself straightened out. This lie is far too pervasive and even when you know it is a lie and a trap, it’s too difficult to let go.

  19. Thank you so much for this! Amen!

  20. Great post!

    Martin Luther once said:

    “The saints in being righteous are at the same time sinners; they are righteous because they believe in Christ whose righteousness covers them and is imputed to them, but they are sinners because they do not fulfill the law and are not without sinful desires.

    They are like sick people in the care of a physician: they are really sick, but healthy only in the hope and insofar as they begin to be better, healed, i.e., they will become healthy. Nothing can harm them so much as the presumption that they are in fact healthy, for it will cause a bad relapse”.

  21. “I will groan, and do battle, climb the mountain of Holiness with wounds and brokenness and holy battle scars, but I will climb it, since Christ is in me.”…Great image. Not to be trivial, but another image that comes to my mind a lot is from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where the only way through the decapitating-contraption is by kneeling.

  22. Memphis Aggie says

    I was clinically depressed once myself, not quite suicidal, but not too far away either. I was not a believer until many years later, long after I recovered. My thoughts then were so despondent I doubted I could ever be happy, but here I am today serene and practically giddy by comparison. God was a big part of it to be sure, but some part of it was just me learning how weak I really was and how my pride and anger were so falsely based, petty, childish, and self serving. I had to be broken first before I would seek God at all. Not sure how much different that journey would be if I had faith at the time.

  23. pennyyak says

    I cried through my reading of this post and comments, prayed, and after a bit, laughed. When I first came to know Jesus, I was a pre-teen, young teenager in a Southern Baptist church. It was a “good” church. I received pretty fair instruction in lots of things ((I was there on Wednesdays, Sunday nights, youth meetings, and one of probably 6 people (out of thousands of members) who would show up weekly for door-to-door witnessing.)) Well, I have some different thoughts about knocking on doors now.

    Anyway, I most sincerely wanted to follow Jesus Christ. I most sincerely believed in Jesus. I still do. It was unfortunate that I began to suffer from chronic depression at age 12, but could not put words to this until I was 18. I did not know what was wrong with me.

    My church practiced “easy prayerism”. Odd that I came upon that term just last night (see website… http://www.wayoflife.org/database/unscripturalpresentations.html – and yeah, I disagree with lots of opinions expressed in the articles therein, but I like to know all about Christianity of every sort everywhere). And as I had quite given my all in this “sacrament” (believing rather magically about it – I was not really sure if one could change those words much and really be saved), repented and changed and repented and changed and repented and changed and…. Was this the way it was supposed to work? I had no clue from committed fellow believers that maybe their life was not a bowl of cherries. I must be doing something wrong. Must need to go through that again, or re-dedicate my life or get baptized again. And that seemed good, and I would get it “right” again, and so on until I couldn’t get it “right” any more. For years.

    I was exhausted.

    Astoundingly (or not at all astoundingly) none of this made me want to stop trying to serve God, from believing in his Son. Not because I was so faithful, but because God is faithful, and His mercy quite beyond definition.

    And so eventually I, with many stops and starts, found a church where I could live with who I am, and continue to try to be who God wants me to be. What a blessing the internet is. To live long enough to be able to put a framework around what was incomprehensible. To quote Finney, His yoke is easy (“agreeable, gentle, gracious, useful, kind”).

  24. Amen!

    I was having just this discussion with some friends the other day about how the points when doubt and questions arise (what some consider signs of a ‘bad’ christian) are some of the most beneficial points in faith!

    I personally never ever trust a leader who doesn’t limp and have noticed that actually the people that God has used to do great things are those who are broken and have wounds that they display – not as a trophy but as a sign of their ‘unfinishedness’

    It reminds me of the Casting Crown’s song “Stained Glass Masquarade”;

    “Is there anyone that fails
    Is there anyone that falls
    Am I the only one in church today feelin’ so small

    Cause when I take a look around
    Everybody seems so strong
    I know they’ll soon discover
    That I don’t belong

    So I tuck it all away, like everything’s okay
    If I make them all believe it, maybe I’ll believe it too
    So with a painted grin, I play the part again
    So everyone will see me the way that I see them

    Are we happy plastic people
    Under shiny plastic steeples
    With walls around our weakness
    And smiles to hide our pain
    But if the invitation’s open
    To every heart that has been broken
    Maybe then we close the curtain
    On our stained glass masquerade

    Is there anyone who’s been there
    Are there any hands to raise
    Am I the only one who’s traded
    In the altar for a stage

    The performance is convincing
    And we know every line by heart
    Only when no one is watching
    Can we really fall apart

    But would it set me free
    If I dared to let you see
    The truth behind the person
    That you imagine me to be

    Would your arms be open
    Or would you walk away
    Would the love of Jesus
    Be enough to make you stay”

    Love that song…

  25. This is the mark of Christianity–however much a man toils, and however many righteousnesses he performs, to feel that he has done nothing, and in fasting to say, “This is not fasting,” and in praying, “This is not prayer,” and in perseverance at prayer, “I have shown no perseverance; I am only just beginning to practice and to take pains”; and even if he is righteous before God, he should say, “I am not righteous, not I; I do not take pains, but only make a beginning every day.”

    St. Macarius the Great

    And whoever mentioned Jean Vanier and l’Arche… indeed, the Gospel is good news for the permanently broken. One reads about or sees such places, and for a brief moment, the thought occurs: “Yes, this is goodness. This is the Gospel.”

  26. Saint Rich got it…..

    Now people say maybe things will get better
    And people say maybe it won’t be long
    And people say maybe you’ll wake up tomorrow
    And it’ll all be gone
    But I only know that maybe is just ain’t enough
    When you need something to hold on
    There’s only one thing that’s clear

    I know there’s bound to come some trouble to your life
    But that ain’t nothing to be afraid of
    I know there’s bound to come some tears up in your eyes
    That ain’t no reason to fear
    I know there’s bound to come some trouble in your life
    Reach out to Jesus and hold on tight
    He’s been there before and He knows what it’s like
    You’ll find He is there

  27. Excellent post. This is absolutely accurate: they are interested in how screwed up you WERE, not how screwed up you are NOW.

    I have been to my share of conferences, talks, retreats, et al; and you articulated something that had been nagging at me all along–it’s “happy problems.” These are the problems that are easily solved by “Ten Steps to that,” or “Five Principles for this.”

    No one wants to deal with the present brokenness. There is a bias or judgment that one’s problems are of one’s own making (like it’s your fault you’ve got depression, for example); and that if you prayed harder, tithed better, or whatever, you’ll be fine.

    This probably sounds cynical, but to me, one of the reasons people don’t reach out and help others with their present brokenness, is simply that it will inconvenience them. It is easier just to tell them that “I will pray for you,” than to say, “What can I do to help?”

    During a period of difficulty a few years ago, I had to take a second job to make ends meet, and that meant that I had to work on Sunday (when I could get hours) and I didn’t get to church. I missed it, but what I missed most was that no one called to ask where I was. (This was a reasonably small church where people knew each other, not one of the mega-ones where you’re just a face, if that). But the kicker came one day when I was at work and the pastor came into the store to shop.

    He recognized me and asked where I’d been–when I told him that I had had to take a second job, he paused briefly, then said, “Well, that’s life,” and went on his way.

  28. pennyyak says

    Sorry. Let me just add to my post – I am not indicting Southern Baptists. When I said it was a good church (good in quotes) I really did mean it was good in most ways, for spiritual growth etc. It was there that I learned the foundational aspects of my faith. I probably should have not been that specific, as what I said can be said of many sorts of churches.

  29. …NOW THIS IS THE IMONK WE WANT TO FOLLOW….THANK YOU!

  30. I feel that I don’t have the right to comment here because I came into this discussion late and I have not had time to read all the previous comments (but most of them). I will just add again, excellent work imonk! Again, with so many responses it seems that you’ve hit a raw nerve.

    But, this is the hard thing. You come to this cyber-place, almost like an underground church, and you feel loved, normal, and safe— in Christ. But as soon as I leave and re-enter the local Christian world (above ground), it is like walking into to Disney World. The flowers, bricks, trees, all look real but they are really fake! There is the extreme expectation, if you claim to be a Christian, then you must live like you’re inside (think Mary Popins here) a Thomas Kincaid painting!

    But life here often sucks. God agrees. Solomon agreed. Job agreed. But to admit it, looses a lot of Christian friends.

    The worst part, is looking through the cracks in the fiberglass castle and getting glances of the—supposedly good—saints emotionally abusing their spouses, using guilt manipulation to get their way (as a church leader), and who knows what lurks in the really hidden places. At least I know I’m a jerk, often depressed, anxious . . . I just wish they would let me be honest about it.

  31. Indeed we are simul eustis et pecator, at the same time saint (thanks be to God for declaring us righteous for the sake of Christ) and sinner (all thanks to us).

  32. Christopher Lake,

    May I share a woman’s view? (I admit that I am probably more of an outlier than most women are.)

    At one time, when I was open to the possibility of marriage, I was open to being the stronger partner. Being the one who made more money etc., while the man would be doing what God called him to do, etc. I never got close to finding out whether I could have handled that. (Unspoken assumption, my partner would have to be able to allow me to be weak at times.)

    I never did find anyone like that, so I consider myself past the marital expiration date.

    I hope that you find some like I was back then.

  33. Amen to iMonk’s great post and to the comments. I particularly enjoyed the insightful observation by j. michael jones, who likens this blog to “almost like an underground church,” where “you feel loved, normal, and safe – in Christ.” I doubt I’ll ever meet anyone who comments here, including iMonk, but so many of you are enormously encouraging – in Christ.

  34. I am so impressed with your writing. I was raised a Calvinist, spent some time as a Buddhist, and 18 months go found out I was a Christian at an LCMS church to which I now belong. I have also read your article on the fall of Evangelism. I am so thankful that Jesus wants me as a sinner because I am never going to be good, thin, give up my temper, or a thousand other things. But those things are what make me a useful servant on some days. And on others, just a sinner.

  35. The most profound piece I have ever read. You say things that most of us have thought and experienced in ourselves and others but were unable to give voice for fear of being critical, judgemental and, of course, honest. I still want to believe, however, that He can save us from some of our misery, that we can really change with His power and I have seen in a “few” people I have known. When does he “deliver” and when does he not and why?

  36. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Excellent post. This is absolutely accurate: they are interested in how screwed up you WERE, not how screwed up you are NOW. — Anna W

    I wonder how much of that Spectacular Testimony shtick is Christian Voyeurism, i.e. “All This Spectacular Sin Sin Sin — JUICY! JUICY! JUICY!” They want to drool over the spectacular past you had (and maybe wish they had), but don’t want to associate with someone so Corrupted on a day-to-day basis. There’s a reason why Spectacular Testimonies were associated with travelling itinerant evangelists.

    No one wants to deal with the present brokenness. There is a bias or judgment that one’s problems are of one’s own making (like it’s your fault you’ve got depression, for example); and that if you prayed harder, tithed better, or whatever, you’ll be fine. — Anna W

    AKA “Five Fast Praise-the-LORDs Will Solve Everything!”

    But what if you pray harder, tithe better, Praise God like a Talibani, and you’re STILL messed up? And you’ll get turned into a pile of rocks if you admit it, like a flock of chickens pecking a “defective” to death?

    It is easier just to tell them that “I will pray for you,” than to say, “What can I do to help?”

    Which is why, when someone says “I will pray for you (TM)”, I paraphrase Captian Sheridan of Babylon-5:

    “You have a saying: ‘I’ll pray for you.’
    We also have a saying: PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS!”

    I’ve never been popular with Shiny Happy Christians…

  37. “There’s a reason why Spectacular Testimonies were associated with travelling itinerant evangelists.”

    FABULOUS.

  38. Luther was right – “simul justus et peccator” True words we should (I should)always remember.

  39. Chris Link says

    Well, I can see honesty is required here. I found much to agree with and praise, but think it is dangerously incomplete, almost like the flip side of the Evangelical thought that is so fun to despise. Seems like a lot of pride in our brokenness. I kinda liked Theophilus’ comments. But I could be wrong; I often am.

  40. Keep the faith Michael, and stay broken please. Recently listened to your most recent interview with the beloved Steve Brown—good stuff. This post hits home with me, needed the reminder. I don’t see the pride (who doesn’t have any?) here near as much as I sense a humility and a recognition of who God is and who you are.

    Pascal’s words came to mind… “There are only two kinds of men: the righteous, who believe themselves sinners; the rest, sinners who believe themselves righteous.”

  41. i had dinner and rinks tonight in a national chain restaurant at the bar.
    I met several interesting people.
    The first was a woman whose husband is dying of cancer.
    She is not religious but has complete faith that her husband will be healed. If not it is OK.
    The next couple I talked to were 2 gay women who were completely OK with who they are and who they will be. They are not “partners”.
    One of the girls was a Southern Baptist and knew all the right answers.
    Lastly, I met a woman who had lost er sister and best friend to cancer in December 08.
    Her husband, who had been laid off, commit ed suicide in January.
    I don’t perfectly know the point.
    I know people are hurting and in need.
    What are we and the evangelical church doing to help?
    What are we doing at all except building giant corporations disguised as churches?
    I’m sick of all of it and I can only guess that it is parts of the reason I am being pulled to the RCC.

  42. Spell check is not perfect when you are tired and have been drinking.

  43. “Christ Dwells Only With Sinners”

    this is echoing around in my head… like a hammer striking the bell..

    “In our weakness He is made strong”..

    I am convinced, until we offer the full-weight of ourselves to our brethren, to our families our communities that we will remain as effective as a mannequin in a relationship. We are no longer human and we are something they can’t relate to, in fact nobody can – not even other mannequins, for there is no “real self”, we remain dead, as wood carved into an image of a real thing.

    Thank you for bringing it all here Michael.

  44. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I don’t perfectly know the point.
    I know people are hurting and in need.
    What are we and the evangelical church doing to help?
    What are we doing at all except building giant corporations disguised as churches?
    I’m sick of all of it and I can only guess that it is parts of the reason I am being pulled to the RCC.
    — Rob Lofland

    Some comment buried in one of IMonk’s threads pointed out that the RCC is a Serious Faith, while a lot of Born-Again Bible-Believers are NOT serious. (Happy-Clappy Praise Choruses, Joel Osteen, Todd Bentley, Harry Potter book-burnings, Keep Me Comfortable, not only reject the meat but spit out the milk, etc)

    When you’ve been force-fed cotton candy for every meal, ANYTHING is substantial in comparison. And twenty centuries of Catholicism has substance and weight.

    I am convinced, until we offer the full-weight of ourselves to our brethren, to our families our communities that we will remain as effective as a mannequin in a relationship. — pmonk

    Why am I thinking of “Real Dolls”, Inflatables, and plushies when I read that?

    Maybe not “ineffective” per se — there IS a market for Real Dolls and inflatables — but do we really want that kind of “relationship”?

  45. IMonk,

    I think I got lost in the sea of blog entires. I was just wondering if you knew of any books that you would recommend that deals with this subject?

  46. Vicki in NC says

    Forgive me if I speak out of turn, but to BRIAN may I recommend Messy Spirituality by Michael Yaconelli.

    Vicki in NC

  47. Vicki in NC says

    Sorry to butt in again, but for Brian, another book recommendation: True Faced by Bill Thrall.

    Vicki in NC

  48. Mike Yaconelli
    Every single word by Robert Capon. Start with the Parables.
    Brennan Manning
    Luther. Get the Dillenburger reader or just read his commentary on Galatians.

  49. Thanks for the recommendations.

  50. Anna A,

    My wife was simply ready for me to talk to her. It went well, she always responds to my broken spirit. God has given me an amazing helper.

    Of course, the return to brokenness was exactly what I needed. I found this blog just days ago and even today’s post about canon is so relevant to me. I’m not the blog type either.

    Also, I actually finally found a job. (Yes, I understand the irony of the article and that fact – **I found the internetmonk and God gave me a job – Amellujah!**) It was the one place I swore I wouldn’t apply and sure enough, they hired me.

    I have sent a few people to the iMonk article here, I hope they read it. I know so many of my friends that are struggling and can’t even approach church and Christians because they deny their brokenness.

    Thanks for your concern Anna A.