09 May How to quit being a successful Christian.
I prefix this post by saying: The church is made up of humans who are flawed and messed up, and get lots of things wrong.
And despite everything, on Sundays you will find me in church. Because even though this family is dysfunctional, it is home.
Like everyone else, we Christians love success.
We love the sheen of it and the triumphant music. We love the way it smells and makes us feel. We love to wave our golden ticket, while we are GETTING IT RIGHT AND TELLING YOU ABOUT IT. We want to be heroes in our neighbourhood; helping the sick and defending the weak. The old people smile at our wisdom, the youth recognise our cultural sensitivity. Our peers are pleased to know us. Who wouldn’t want to be around someone this perfect?
We are not trying to be judgemental, it just comes so easily when
you think you are superior.
But the allure of success has misled us. It has crippled and corrupted us. It has prevented us from seeing the truth.
There came a point when I realised I had major problems with the ‘victorious life’ narrative.
Somewhere deep down it smacked of deception.
We were glossing over reality. Pretending life wasn’t hard. Putting a smiley sticker on it.
Platitudes. It was platitudes and cliche.
And it was a lie.
I hid this thought for a long time. Buried it deep beneath my guilt and failure. I thought it was my weakness talking. Not my spirit crying out.
We Were Pretending. (Scratch that, I can’t talk for anyone else). I Was Pretending.
I thought I could have my ‘best life now’ if I was a good christian. If I tried hard enough.
The Western Christianity I imbibed had mixed the gospel with a business manual and a self-help book in an attempt to look appealing. One part biblical truth, one part sweat, one part inspirational stories.
And if I didn’t manage a ‘victorious life’ it was because I was weak or worse still, sinful. I didn’t have enough discipline or faith in my life.
(And, to be clear, I’m not blaming anyone else for this. I was not being force-fed. I was a passive consumer for any idea that might give me the success I craved).
But, I have come to realise, through the kind of pain that turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, this is not the gospel. The gospel is not formulas and frameworks and five point plans. It is not progressing up a ladder of holiness until I am like Jesus. The gospel is mystery.
The illusion of the triumphant Christian life might look good for a while. But it’s veneer disguises a rotten core.
A core of self-salvation projects. Where I think I can do something to contribute to my salvation.
A core of denial and superficiality as I think I have to look like I have it all together.
A core of fist-clenched hard work which starts as pride and becomes control.
The hard work seemed reasonable:
Holding it together and attempting to parent my children in a Godly way and behave how holy people should behave. Trying not to smoke and swear, and turning the other cheek and being relentlessly gracious and having capacity for everyone else’s pain, and not giving up, and turning up when I was expected, and not ever letting anybody down.
Doing my best to impress God and everyone else. Living the message: “Accept Christ and your life can be as brilliant as mine!” I was trying to sell Jesus. To sell Christianity. (I think of Jesus turning over the tables in the temple.)
When I was successful the hard work became pride:
Salvation was less about being rescued and more, ‘I can do it’. Maybe even, ‘God needs me on his team’.
It was possible to maintain this appearance for a while. Peddling frantically backstage to maintain an air of respectability and success in front of the curtain. Never acknowledging my pain, ignoring the dark thoughts, keeping all the plates of service and relationships and responsibility spinning.
But eventually it became control:
In an attempt to manage life so it didn’t topple over, I became rigid and inflexible.
I stopped taking risks because the failure would be too much to bear.
And then, trust me because I KNOW THIS, sooner or later you cannot control it all and you feel your world is falling apart.
Maybe it is a relationship that suffers, maybe you become physically ill as the stress of it ALL becomes overwhelming.
It ends in collapse.
Shame. Guilt. Failure.
And then, later, when I had given up all hope: a glimmer of truth as Winter gave way to Spring and the flowers appeared regardless:
The gospel is relief.
Like a bullet hole through the glass I had imprisoned myself behind. The fresh air of grace rushed in.
And the mystery, that I may well spend the rest of my life trying to figure out is: I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to serve relentlessly and have no needs. I don’t have to keep it all together and manage behaviours. I don’t have to work hard, or look right. I don’t have to be living victoriously, in continual health and happiness, with no grey days and blue months. I don’t have to be the ultimate advertisement for my faith, I don’t have to defend Christianity, or worse of all, sell it.
The only thing I have to contribute to my salvation, to being known and loved and accepted,
is my brokenness.
And I’ve got that on tap.
This is good news.
I can let go of the burden of responsibility.
I can cease to define myself by what I can do, what I have achieved and how shiny all my badges are.
I can simply be a witness. Someone on the journey.