A few years ago, my wife and I spent three weeks in Great Britain and Ireland, visiting locations where the presence and power of God had been felt in genuine spiritual revival in years past. We were part of a group of 50 people, all evangelical Christians from the United States. I returned from that trip with two convictions etched deeply into my soul. The first was this: our world is in desperate need of a renewal of biblical Christianity. The second: contemporary American evangelical Christianity is not it.
What I observed among my fellow travelers, many of whom were pastors of evangelical congregations, was a sterile, superficial imitation of biblical faith. I don’t question the genuineness of their conversion experience, but my heart aches when I consider how much the character of their religion reflected the spirit of American consumerism—how they described the scope of their ministries in terms of programs and property, budgets and buildings, nickels and noses. And it seemed clear to me that they marketed Jesus the way American businesses market their products… “Try our brand and your life will be better. Just ask our satisfied customers.”
The truth is, however, the Christian life is not materially better than any other kind of life. In fact, our effectiveness as witnesses for the gospel, in many cases, will require us to show evidence of struggle and pain as a way of relating to the experience of those to whom we minister. As Brennan Manning writes in his book, Ruthless Trust…
The bromides, platitudes, and exhortations to trust God from nominal believers who have never visited the valley of desolation are not only useless; they are textbook illustrations of unmitigated gall. Only someone who has been there, who has drunk the dregs of our cup of pain, who has experienced the existential loneliness and alienation of the human condition, dares whisper the name of the Holy to our unspeakable distress. Only that witness is credible; only that love is believable.
Anyone God uses significantly is always deeply wounded… We are, each and every one of us, insignificant people whom God has called and graced to use in a significant way. In His eyes, the high-profile ministries are no more significant than those that draw little or no attention or publicity. On the last day, Jesus will look us over, not for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars.
And, I might add, many of those scars will be from wounds self-inflicted or suffered as the result of foolish choices, bad decisions, intemperate behavior, and carelessness. Out of those messy situations, however, will emerge a vessel tried by fire, purged and purified, and fit for the Master’s use. But in the midst of the trials, when our patience is exhausted, our behavior inconsistent, and our eyes temporarily blinded to the vast store of spiritual resources we have in Jesus, we will need someplace… a group of people among whom we can be real.
What is it that will turn the people of God from a legalistic, pretentious conclave of impostors to a safe haven for struggling pilgrims who fail as often as they succeed? It will be a renewal of confidence, implanted in us by the Holy Spirit, of one simple, abiding truth. And that truth is this. We are loved by God. We are loved by Jesus Christ… absolutely, unconditionally, and forever.
As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome,
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is only by focusing on that truth and making it the foundation stone of our lives and our ministries that our churches will be transformed into places of refuge for struggling, lonely, fearful, hurting, discouraged, sinful people… people like us.
For years, the late Mike Yaconelli wrote a column called “The Back Door” which closed each issue of The Wittenburg Door magazine. On one occasion he told of the time when, dejected and demoralized, he trundled off with his wife, Karla, to Toronto, Canada, to spend a five-day retreat at a community for mentally and physically handicapped people called “The Ark.”
Henri Nouwen, the godly Roman Catholic priest who wrote such classics as The Wounded Healer, had joined the staff of the community, and Mike Yaconelli hoped to draw inspiration from Nouwen’s presence and preaching. Instead, he found his true self and, in the process, learned how to “be real.” Here are his words…
It took only a few hours of silence before I began to hear my soul speaking. It only took being alone for a short period of time for me to discover I wasn’t alone. God had been trying to shout over the noisiness of my life, and I couldn’t hear Him. But in the stillness and solitude, His whispers shouted from my soul, “Michael, I am here. I have been calling you, but you haven’t been listening. Can you hear me, Michael? I love you. I have always loved you. And I have been waiting for you to hear me say that to you. But you have been so busy trying to prove to yourself that you are loved that you have not heard me.”
I heard Him, and my slumbering soul was filled with the joy of the prodigal son. My soul was awakened by a loving Father who had been looking and waiting for me. Finally, I accepted my brokenness…. I had never come to terms with that. Oh, I knew I was broken. I knew I was a sinner. I knew I continually disappointed God, but I could never accept that part of me. It was a part of me that embarrassed me. I continually felt the need to apologize, to run from my weaknesses, to deny who I was and concentrate on what I should be. I was broken, yes, but I was continually trying never to be broken again—or at least to get to the place where I was very seldom broken.
At “The Ark,” it became very clear to me that I had totally misunderstood the Christian faith. I came to see that it was in my brokenness, in my powerlessness, in my weakness that Jesus was made strong. It was in the acceptance of my lack of faith that God could give me faith. It was in embracing my brokenness that I could identify with others’ brokenness. It was my role to identify with others’ pain, not relieve it. Ministry was sharing, not dominating; understanding, not theologizing; caring, not fixing.
What does all this mean?
I don’t know… and to be quite blunt, that is the wrong question. I only know that at certain times in our lives, we make an adjustment in the course of our lives. This was one of those times for me. If you were to look at a map of my life, you would not be aware of any noticeable difference other than a slight change of direction. I can only tell you that it feels very different now. There is an anticipation, an electricity about God’s presence in my life that I have never experienced before. I can only tell you that, for the first time in my life I can hear Jesus whisper to me every day. “Michael, I love you. You are beloved.” And for some strange reason, that seems to be enough.