Shame. It’s really what the American church is all about, isn’t it? Sure, we claim to be a warm, welcoming oasis where people can come and experience the love and acceptance of God without condemnation. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t seem like the body of Christ in America actually knows how to be this place.
Now, don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of angry critics out there who pick apart the church and Christianity, just waiting to pounce on every flaw and imperfection they can find. These critics do not give Christians the same human allowances that they grant to those outside of the church, but rather expect faultless adherence to the things we preach. They call us hypocrites without realizing that hypocrisy is really just the nature of humanity. Everyone – Christian and Atheist alike – has a value system and each one of us has placed standards on others that we are somehow willing to overlook in our own lives and the lives of those closest to us. Yet, perhaps we have brought these characterizations on ourselves because of the pedestals on which we stand. Or, could it be because this is the image that so many Christians project to each other and the world, scared to death that someone, somewhere, might find out that we are not, in fact, sinless?
Inside and outside of the church walls, the stories are devastating. A couple, struggling with their marriage, but unable or unwilling to utilize the free counseling the church provides because of the judgment they would receive and the gossip that would fly five minutes after someone saw them walking into the counselor’s office. A woman who suffers from the emotional pain of an abortion that she hides from other Christians, terrified of what they will think. Sure, everyone will say the right things to her face, but she’s heard how they talk about the sins and struggles of others behind their backs. A man struggling with addiction who would never think about entering a church – pornography, alcohol, drugs – it doesn’t matter because he knows that the church is not the place to find love and acceptance, but only judgment and condemnation. A single mom who stopped attending church because she cannot deal with the shame that she feels when surrounded by married women who have no idea what she is going through. A man riddled with anxiety and depression, teetering on the edge of suicide, that does not feel safe confiding in anyone in his church. There are many more stories. Stories of people whose lives fall apart, or even end prematurely, because the church is not what it should be. They should be loved, accepted, understood and restored within the church walls, but instead they face shame. Many think (and some are even instructed), “Once I get my life together I will go to church again.” But they never do.
No doubt, many will read these words and believe that they apply to someone else. We can be so blind to the way we make others feel. What we believe to be compassion is really condescension. When we believe that we are following Paul’s instructions to, “restore gently” (Galatians 1:6), we are actually behaving as the Pharisee in Luke 18, who prayed, “’I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else, especially like that tax collector over there! For I never cheat, I don’t sin, I don’t commit adultery, I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” While the words may not be spoken aloud, the heart’s attitude is the same, and believe me, people can hear it.
So, what should we do? How do we create a warm, caring environment without compromising our beliefs or neglecting the scriptures?
Well it starts by changing the way we see ourselves. Do we really see ourselves as sinners saved by grace alone or do we come to the throne of God content with our own goodness? Are the sins and/or faults of others constantly on our mind and in our speech, praying that they would become more like Jesus us?
Consider the following examples of the way we should view ourselves.
“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” Luke 18:13 NKJV
“When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!’” Luke 5:8 NKJV
“Brethren, if any person is overtaken in misconduct or sin of any sort, you who are spiritual [who are responsive to and controlled by the Spirit] should set him right and restore and reinstate him, without any sense of superiority and with all gentleness, keeping an attentive eye on yourself, lest you should be tempted also. 2 Bear (endure, carry) one another’s burdens and troublesome moral faults, and in this way fulfill and observe perfectly the law of Christ (the Messiah) and complete what is lacking [in your obedience to it]. 3 For if any person thinks himself to be somebody [too important to condescend to shoulder another’s load] when he is nobody [of superiority except in his own estimation], he deceives and deludes and cheats himself. 4 But let every person carefully scrutinize and examine and test his own conduct and his own work. He can then have the personal satisfaction and joy of doing something commendable [in itself alone] without [resorting to] boastful comparison with his neighbor. 5 For every person will have to bear (be equal to understanding and calmly receive) his own [little] load [of oppressive faults].” Galatians 6:1-5, Amplified Bible
Oswald Chambers explained in best when he said, “The greatest curse in spiritual life is conceit. If we have ever had a glimpse of what we are like in the sight of God, we shall never say, ‘Oh, I am so unworthy,’ because we shall know we are, beyond the possibility of stating it. As long as we are not quite sure that we are unworthy, God will keep narrowing us in until He gets us alone.”
You see, it doesn’t matter what we say or do, but what we think of ourselves. If we think of our own goodness and compare ourselves to others in our hearts – even if we would not dare to speak the words – hurting people will never be fully transparent with us and there are countless souls that the church (you and I) will never reach. These souls will be lost forever and we will be held accountable for them before God. However, when we come to the realization of who we really are, what is truly in our hearts and what we are capable of, no longer will the sins and weaknesses of others make us feel better about ourselves and we will begin to walk in the humility that is befitting of those who have been shown the mercy of God.
Once we have come to this place in our lives, we must learn to be fully transparent with others. This is difficult, because of the reasons that I have outlined, but it is absolutely necessary if the body of Christ is ever going to be what it is supposed to be. We are instructed to confess our sins to each other. This is not only for our own healing and freedom, but it is also to help lead others to the same. How many of us, after all, would prefer to share our struggles with someone that has been where we are?
God wants so much for the church, but if we are ever going to experience all that He has, we have to learn how to be honest with each other and stop hiding our weaknesses and pretending to be perfect Christians who are leading charmed lives.
Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” Matthew 9:12-13 NKJV
We, like the Pharisees, believe that Jesus was speaking of the “tax collectors and sinners”, but if you know anything about Jesus’ ministry, you will realize that He was referring to all of mankind, especially the Pharisees (and I dare say, today’s church-going American Christians). He was pointing out, here, that the Pharisees, the religious leaders of their time, were no less sinful than the people with whom Jesus spent most of his time. They were simply less aware of their desperate spiritual state.
So, let us pray today that God will show us what is in our hearts. Let us seek His face continually, for it is only when we catch a glimpse of His glory that we will realize the depths of our sinful hearts and it then and only then that all comparison and judgment will cease and the church will finally become a place of unconditional love and acceptance at the feet of Christ, where hurting people can receive healing for their broken hearts, and freedom from all bondage.