As we face a transition in leadership this week in this country unlike any we’ve experienced before, I am praying we in the Church may find that this moment brings us healing, clarity and unity like we’ve not experienced to this point. There is an incredible amount of incendiary anger swirling around and through us like a virulent illness, and it has affected us all. Before you go calling me a Pollyanna, I will affirm that things look pretty bleak. I’m not given to optimism as a rule. But when I read, say, the diagnosis and correctives given to the churches in Revelation 2–3, I am reminded that the Spirit’s goal isn’t band-aid treatment of an ailing local body, but a cure.
And we are ailing, aren’t we? There is anger directed at the Church from those on the outside over issues including (but not limited to) moral hypocrisy, abuse cover-up, and an addiction to culture warring. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Some of this is well-deserved. How much is “some”? I’ll leave that to you.
On the other hand, there seems to be plenty of anger percolating within the Church related to these very things, plus a host of in-house issues ranging from gender roles to the color of the carpeting in the nursery. It occurs to me that we spend a lot of time focusing on the anger via blogs, podcasts, twitter battles, sermons, our media opiners of choice, gossip and face-to-face argument.
Anger in the body of Christ is a sign that something is out of alignment. That misalignment can be a small bit of offense – say, an awkward social exchange in the church lobby – or it can be the expression of deep, long-standing poison. A measure of this is good and righteous anger. For example, anger can be a healthy, God-honoring response to racial injustice if it leads to change, dialogue, repentance, and healing. But a lot of the anger among us points to our fears, and is a good way to assess our general lack of health in the Body. (Yes, I include my own moments of anger-expressed fear in this diagnosis.) The last year in America seems to have surfaced new wells of fear and anger among believers, and it seems to matter not how those believers voted, what kind of congregation they attend, and whether they’re in the Done category or whether they’re well-established denominational leaders. We are often a deeply hurting people.
I’d like to suggest this anger is a symptom of deeper untreated pain in the body of Christ. C.S. Lewis has called pain God’s megaphone, and we’d all do well to ask for ears to hear what he may be saying to us.The 1993 book coauthored by Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand originally entitled Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants (later versions have been re-titled The Gift of Pain) illustrates the purpose of pain. Dr. Brand’s work with leprosy patients revealed that most of the damage and disfigurement suffered by the patients happened because the disease attacked their nerves. As a result, they couldn’t feel pain. This left sufferers prone to injury and infection – conditions that caused them no discomfort at all. The inability to feel pain led to the damage and disfigurement associated with the disease. The book is an extended meditation on physical pain’s recalibrating relationship with health in the body.
I learned this lesson first-hand a few years ago. I was in the Old City in Jerusalem, and rolled my ankle on a narrow street’s ancient pavers. As I lay sprawled on the ground in pain, I had three nearly-simultaneous thoughts: (1) “Ouch”, (2) “This is going to put a huge damper in our trip”, and (3) “Ouch!”
I was determined to quell any possibility that number two would happen by doing everything I could to ignore numbers one and three. I wrapped the ankle like a mummy, took handfuls of ibuprofen, iced and elevated when we weren’t touring, and gimped my way through the remainder of the trip.
When I returned to the U.S., I went to see a doctor. “There’s not much we can do for this,” he told me. “It’s probably between a grade 2 and 3 sprain. But it’ll take you longer to heal because you ignored what the pain was trying to tell you, which was that you should stay off of it.” Ouch.
A lot of churches are like this, aren’t they? We try to contain our anger and pain because there seems to be no safe way to express honestly it to one another. We may try to drug it with church-program busyness. If the pain gets out of hand and anger erupts, we may split and go our separate ways. Instead of nourishing our lives together with worship, prayer, study, and service, we ingest either spiritual junk food or whatever our particular self-curated media echo chamber is serving up that day. Too many have disconnected from relationship with the Body altogether.
When I read Revelation 2–3, I see instruction given to churches dealing and not dealing with their own ills. It is instruction meant to heal: Repent and do what you did at first (2:5); don’t be afraid even though suffering is coming; (2:10), cut yourselves off from false teachers (2:14-15); hold on to your faith (2:25); wake up and stay vigilant (3:2-3); hope in God and hang on to that hope for your very lives (3:11); accept his discipline and return to him wholeheartedly (3:19).
I suspect our cure here and now might not contain different ingredients than these.
What do you think? How are you seeing fear, anger, and pain manifesting themselves in your church context?