If I had to name the most debilitating problem with Christianity, I might say it’s the “everything’s great, I’m so blessed” syndrome. Christians often feel compelled to show only their happiest and most saintly faces to their ministers and fellow churchgoers.
They live in fear that if they admit they’re struggling with their faith or their marriage or their children or an addiction or lust or their finances–with whatever–other Christians will scorn them. Sometimes, sadly enough, they’re right.
But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that honesty about these matters is vital, not only for the people who confess, but for their fellow pilgrims.
The fact is, everybody’s messed up in one way or another. Everybody. Even pastors. Even music directors. Even elders. Even Sunday school teachers.
It’s the human condition. We all like sheep have gone astray. We all fall short of the glory of God.
It’s just that hardly anyone wants to admit it.
What ends up happening, then, is that dedicated Christians frequently live in private hells. They think they’re the only ones with problems. They’re guilt-ridden. They’re spiritually hamstrung. They wonder why all those scriptures and positive confessions work so well for their brothers and sisters in Christ, but not for them.
Recently I received several e-mails from a woman I’ve never met. She reads my newspaper columns and wrote me, she said, because she had no one else she could talk with. She’s a lay leader in her church. She’s married.
She’d dallied in an inappropriate relationship with a man in her congregation, more an emotional affair than a sexual one. Someone else had found out and was threatening to expose them.
My correspondent was wracked with shame, regret and dread.
My advice to her: Break off the relationship, of course. But if and when you’re confronted about it, just tell the absolute truth. Admit it. Express your sorrow. Then, whatever else happens, however other people respond, hold your head up and press forward in your faith.
“But won’t everyone think I’m awful?” she asked.
A few people may, I said. On the other hand, you’ll be amazed at how many kindred spirits you’ll find, how many others right in your own church have made similar mistakes. They’ll forgive you, and they’ll also be relieved to discover they’re not alone, that even someone like you, a woman they may consider more “spiritual” because you’re a leader, can be tempted and stumble.
In any case, I said, you can’t live your life in other people’s heads. All you can ever do is to do the best you can. Make amends when you err and trust God that his grace is sufficient to redeem your failings and bring something good from them.
A few days later she wrote me again. She’d confessed to her pastor–and was amazed and humbled by how compassionate he was. He did ask her to step down temporarily from her leadership position, but even that had proved helpful.
“It will be nice, for the first time, to just show up and be real instead of pretending to be Mrs. Perfect who has no problems,” she wrote. “So many times I fought back tears and faked a smile. I literally would feel myself saying on the inside ‘do any of you have a clue how desperate and alone I feel in here?’ “
I suspect a lot of people in her congregation would indeed have a clue–because they feel equally desperate and alone.
Jesus said the truth will make us free. I genuinely believe that. If our enemy can isolate us, he can prey on our minds and make us feel as if we’re hypocrites and weaklings. Our sins fester. We lose respect for ourselves. We begin to think God couldn’t love us and that others wouldn’t love us, either, if they knew how rotten we really are.
Confession cleanses us. It removes the enemy’s chief weapon. We don’t have to fear him exposing us if we choose to talk about our sins ourselves. There’s nothing for him to hold over our heads. Meanwhile, we open ourselves up to healing, growth and regeneration, and we reassure others who are struggling, too.