“As we read the Psalms, we are entering into the sanctuary, the place where God meets men and women in a special way. We will see that the conversation between God and his people is direct, intense, intimate and, above all, honest.”
Last Sunday I previewed our study of The Psalms with an invitation to honesty, sharing some of my own story. I’ve been asked a few times since then, in various ways, why I gave the sermon I did. I’ve also picked up a few hints that people wanted to push back on or add to the discussion. So I thought I’d supplement Sunday with a few more thoughts. If you haven’t listened to the sermon yet, you can do so HERE, or on our PODCAST.
Why Such Transparency?
There’s a model of ministry where the role of pastor is something like that of a self-help guru. The goal is to embody success for the people, giving them a target to shoot for in their own lives, and then inspiring them in their pursuit. In such a paradigm, a pastor should not show weakness for fear that it would be disheartening to the congregation. The assumption is that the congregation would lose their motivation for gaining any victory in the Christian life. Because if THE PASTOR doesn’t have it all together, what hope do the people have?
I do, without qualification or exception, believe that pastors are called to a higher standard. That’s biblical truth (1 Tim 3:1-7, etc.). And in that sense, pastors ought to provide a picture of Christian maturity, and every Christian ought to be striving for maturity. But, this side of glory, Christian maturity does not mean getting past our weakness. Quite the contrary, it means consistent acknowledgment of our weakness, resulting in surrender, repentance, and dependency upon the Lord (2 Cor 12:9). It is in fact harmful for leaders to give the impression that the truly mature in the faith have fully arrived and are rock-solid, fully-enlightened, victorious, and joyful one hundred percent of the time. It provides a false, un-attainable goal that only leads to frustration among the people. It also creates a culture where, to be seen as mature, a person must appear to have arrived. And then once a person is seen as mature and given an elevated position, they DEFINITELY cannot show any weakness. Put those together, and you get a church of people faking it. And faking it leads nowhere good.
Ironically then, the best target for people to shoot for, and the most helpful thing a pastor can model, is a recognition of weakness in which the grace and power of Christ is amplified.
The idea of “creating space” is clichéd at this point. But I think what people usually mean when they use the phrase is that they want to contribute to a culture that gives permission for something to be brought out into the open and addressed. By leading the way and addressing my own weakness I wanted to push on some perceived boundaries and open up space for others. I want Redemption Scottsdale to be a place where we can acknowledge our weakness by honestly working through our sin, our hurts, our fears, and our questions. I want Redemption Scottsdale to be a place where people can say “I’m not OK” and not have to fake it. Truth is, we can give lip-service to all of this and talk about “authenticity” and “being real”. But if we’re going to actually be a place where people can be honest it WILL be messy and lead to some uncomfortable moments. So be it.
Lastly, in addition to creating the conditions for real healing and deep faith, a culture of honesty also creates opportunity for the body of Christ to truly bear one another’s burdens. How can we help one another if we’re all pretending everything’s fine? As a pastor, I’m never going to pretend that I don’t need support, prayer or otherwise. I would ask the same from you.
Yes, But …
“Shouldn’t we just be encouraging people to get past their issues?” – Not necessarily. We do not want people to stay in their pain, fear, confusion, or anger. But, as I said in the sermon, I find that our tendency is to want to fix things to get back to the comfortable status quo as quickly as possible (and I think there’s a mixture of motivations for that). As a result, we often respond to people with “time to get over it / it’s not that bad / it’s actually a positive” platitudes (I’ve received a few since Sunday, in fact). Sweeping things under the rug or rushing people to resolution tends to short-circuit the steps we need to go through for real healing. Or it just alienates people and drives them away. And often times it’s the long seasons of honest wrestling that ultimately draw people closest to Jesus. So coming alongside people well will involve empathy and patience and a recognition that sometimes there isn’t a simple answer or fix to be applied.
“Sometimes people do need to just get over it though. Right?” – Sure. There is need, at times, for the body of Christ to speak into one another’s lives and give perspective that things might not be as bad as they seem and/or that the circumstances won’t last forever. And, truth be told, there are times when someone might be throwing a pity party for themselves and needs to be called out on it. We need to start from a place of empathy though. We need to recognize our own sinful tendencies to elevate ourselves or even deal with our own angst by discounting the angst of others. We need to remember that our capacity changes in life and the nature of what feels overwhelming varies from season to season. We need to remember that there may be more to a person’s story than we realize, and so on. In other words, “get over it” should not be our default response.
“Are we saying that we are supposed to be ruled by our emotions and not by God’s truth?” – No. But a biblical anthropology recognizes that human beings are more than just minds that receive and process information. Therefore, a cognitive understanding of God’s truth is central and key (Psalm 119:15-16), but it is only part of what shapes us and directs our worship. Consider Psalm 28:2, which says, “Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands.” There is an understanding of truth (God gives mercy and help), but it is not being accepted or applied in a rational vacuum. The Psalmist is not simply working through the theological concepts that are applicable to his situation. He is wrestling through it emotionally (cry for helping) because he is an emotional being! He is even addressing his physical posture (lifting hands) because he is a physical being! Emotions can be deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9), but so can the mind (2 Cor 4:4, among many others). Being honest about our emotions does not equal being ruled by them and, ironically, we are probably more prone to be ruled by our emotions if we don’t acknowledge them and their significance. Growing closer to Christ is about aligning our hearts and minds (and bodies) to his will.
“But we can’t just be opening up to every stranger who asks how we’re doing.” – That’s true. I did not intend to suggest that everyone should be ready to dump everything on every person they meet. Rather, I hope to give permission and encouragement for people to be fully honest with 1) themselves, 2) God, and 3) a selective group of safe people. In a culture dominated by a bootstrap mentality (i.e. never complain, keep your head down, solve your own problems) people are often reluctant to be honest with themselves that they’re not OK and that they need others. In a culture dominated by a works-based understanding of the Gospel, people are often reluctant to accept grace and approach God with transparency, feeling instead as if they need to get their act together before they can come to church or pray. In a culture where everyone is pretending or, worse yet, competing, people will be reluctant to let anyone know just how much they are struggling. It’s foolish and unproductive to open up to everyone. I will continue to be transparent as a pastor. But I will not tell everyone everything from the stage. Even what I shared Sunday was a small window. But I will strive to be honest with myself, honest with God in regular prayer, and continue to confide in a few close friends who love me, have proven to have wisdom, and are willing to bear my burdens with me.
quote at the top from Tremper Longman III in “How to Read the Psalms”