Monday, August 26, 2013

The Church Is No Place for Sinners

Be Honest with God 

But You Might Not Want to Risk It 
in Church

When Adam and Eve sinned, they hid. Hid from God and hid from each other. They experienced bodily shame. No longer naked and unashamed, they covered themselves with makeshift clothes. They experienced psychic or spiritual shame. No longer looking forward to walking with God in the cool of the day, they hid themselves in the trees.

But God came looking for them, and they were flushed out. Their sin was exposed as God asked, “Who told you you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I told you not to eat?” Judgment was pronounced on the man and the woman - thorns and thistles in the workplace and pain in childbearing, and expulsion from the garden paradise.

But there was more. Even before God announced the consequences for the woman and the man there was the Gospel. God took their side against the serpent and the one who used him. God would put enmity between the serpent and the woman, between the serpent’s seed and the woman’s seed. Eventually the Seed of the woman would fight that Old Serpent, the Devil, to the death. The Serpent would bruise the Messiah’s heel, but the Christ would crush the Serpent’s head. Eventually God will crush Satan beneath his people’s feet.

Meanwhile God made clothes that would cover the shame of the man and woman while they lived in this present age looking forward to the day when Christ would raise their vile bodies and make them like his glorious body with perfect wholeness and harmony of body and soul. On that Day there will be no more shame along with no more death or tears.

Shame is, in part at least, the fear of being found out and rejected. The thought in the heart is, “If anyone knew me as I am, they would reject me. They would cast me out of their company." Underlying this and always accompanying it is the fear that, if God knew us as we are, God would reject us. The irony, of course, is that God does know us just as we are. Still we hide, not only from others, but from God and from ourselves. We pretend he doesn’t see or that we are not so bad as in our dark moments we know ourselves to be. As we do not come clean with others, we do not come clean to God, acknowledging the ugly mess that were are in our stupidity and sin.

Before we come out from hiding, we have to become convinced: (1) That knowing us as we are, God comes seeking us because he wants to be reconciled to us. That the Offended looks for the offender because he wants the enmity between us to end. (2) That Christ hung naked and ashamed on the cross so our sins could be covered by his blood and our persons clothed with his righteousness. (3) That forgiveness of sins and perfect righteousness are received not by our efforts but by faith in Christ whose saving work is fully sufficient. (3) That all this is really true. God wants fellowship restored. Christ did everything necessary for peace with God. There is nothing at all for us to do but believe.

The work we have to do is to work at believing this, because believing it is so hard. It is counter-intuitive. It is counter to so much of our experience with fellow human beings, both our dealing with them and their dealing with us. This is no once and done thing. True it is that the faith that trusts in Christ is decisive and enduring. But, we are constantly harassed by the Accuser of the brethren, by our own accusing consciences, and perhaps by the accusations of others. And in our defensiveness we accuse others - of doing the same things, of doing worse things, of doing more things, of being no better than we. As though that helps us.

Sometimes the accusations we feel are the result of specific sins. “I did that. I said that. It is an offense against God and his grace. It damaged others. It is self-destructive. How could a Christian do or say that?” Sometimes the accusations come from a look inside ourselves. “I am that. It is awful to know it, but that is who I am. How can a Christian be that?” The devil, our consciences, and perhaps others, yell or whisper these things to us, and we are convinced.

There is nothing to be done but to believe the Gospel over and over again. With Abraham to hope against hope. To accept that Christ covers our sins, that God forgives and accepts. To accept fully the trustworthy Word, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.”  To be reassured, “Yes, it is true, and yes, it’s for you.”  To receive the sealing sacrament and hear Christ saying, “This is my body which is given for you. This cup that is poured out for you is the blood of the new covenant.”

Now you’d think all this would mean something for life in the church where we hear the Word and receive the Sacrament. But, I am afraid it does not - at least not as it should. The church is too often a place where we “play pretend”, because we dare not do otherwise. We cover ourselves with clothing (some females not so much as they should, which is another issue), go to church (not that most feel a need to “dress up” anymore), but we also cover ourselves with an image when go. We have to look like we’ve got it all together. Like we are not struggling with sin and doubt and depression. Like we’ve got this being a Christian thing figured out and working.

We look like we know we know we are forgiven. Like we have full and unbroken assurance. Like we are so transformed that we enjoy victory over our sins. Like we never have dark thoughts about God’s goodness and even his existence. Like Romans 7 has little relevance to our Christian experience.

We sing with smiling faces (even though we don’t believe in perfection),

Perfect submission, all is at rest,
I in my Savior am happy and blest.
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with his goodness, lost in his love.

Why do we do this? Because we are afraid to do otherwise. It’s the shame. It’s thinking, “The minister and everybody else are different from me. I am the exception. If they knew, they would turn away from me.” And you might be right. Well they might.

Sometimes the conservative church rouses itself to admonish the unruly. But too often it does not do so well encouraging the faint-hearted or helping the weak. So the church becomes a place for hiding and covering up. The unspoken message is, “We won’t ask; you don’t tell. But if you do tell, we (1) may not know what to do, or (2) do nothing as though you did not tell us or (3) shame you, or (4) come down on you like a hammer.” That means there are defeated, discouraged, hurting, and sinning believers who dare not expose themselves and who, if they did, would not experience the acceptance, empathy, compassion, and practical support they need.

To my observation, when it comes to the local church and its members, the most likely results of honesty will be one or more of 1-3 above. When it comes to church courts and ministers, the most likely results of honesty will be 3 and 4.  Honesty becomes not the best policy. Smiling faces may be hiding all the truth. Don’t get real unless the real is cleaned up and pretty.

We hear a lot about “Gospel-driven” churches and ministry. But it seems to me that much of this is contrary to the Gospel. God does not treat people the way the church often treats them. Too often the experiences that believers have with the church makes them afraid that God is like his church. Don’t tell him the truth about yourself. Don’t be transparent when you pray.

A Lyle Lovett song says to a lousy lover about forgiveness, “God does, but I don’t; God will, but I won't; and that’s the difference between God and me.” I wonder if that’s not what the struggling and failing think they hear from the church. However, the reason God tells us to forgive our brother as often as he repents, at least 490 times, is because God is that way. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Gospel churches are places where the Gospel is not only proclaimed to people but demonstrated in its treatment of people.

Perhaps the church itself needs to listen to Jesus: "First go and learn mercy.


Lee said...

Great word Bill thank you so much.

Curt Day said...

This is an excellent post. Thank you.

Because the church is no place for sinners, it must be the place for those who live in denial. Anyway, one of the ways the church is correcting this problem is to sing songs that are about the believer rather than about God as the example taken from this post showed.

mozart said...

Boy, I can't stand that Fanny Crosby hymn. Yuck--bad melody and bad theology.