Why the Church Will Always Fail You

“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

This Sunday, after sitting through yet another sermon that left me feeling guilty and inadequate and worn out rather than refreshed, loved, and encouraged, I just wept. Our church of four years preaches social justice while neglecting the gospel, leaving a hollow shell of a community, rife with burnout, bitterness, and false piety. I was angry, but more than that I was just sad. Sad to see yet another church community fail to embody the truth of the gospel, the love of God.

It wasn’t the first time. When you’ve been a Christian and a part of Christian communities for as long as you can remember, you begin to rack up a significant list of the times the church has failed you. Personal sleights, leadership failures, organizational crumbling, members giving themselves over to sin. My heart breaks when I say that I’ve seen it all.

And like every other time I’ve been disappointed by my church community, I feel terrible about feeling this way. I mean, who am I to tell a church that they’re doing things wrong, that they’re missing the mark? For a long time, despite my previous experiences, I’ve been unwilling to admit that my current church has its problems too. People smarter and more spiritual than me have to be in charge, and they know what they’re doing.

But yet again I have to acknowledge the disappointing truth: the church is imperfect.

And I have to ask myself: why haven’t I just left? Why haven’t I given up on this project altogether? I know plenty of people who have left, who have rejected God because of His people. And I’ve heard it over and over again from people who have heard my war stories: “I just don’t see myself staying in the church after something like that.”

So why have I stayed?

I can narrow it down to a few foundational truths.

1. God is not people, not even church people.
The goal of the church is to be a community that embodies and reflects the heart of God through love, worship, thanksgiving, and service. In an ideal world, in which we do not reside, the church would be a perfect and accurate representation of God’s character. However, in this world, full of sin, trying to see God in the church is like trying to see an image in a broken mirror. We do our best, but because we bring our sinfulness with us into the community of the church, this community of people will never be a perfect reflection of God’s character.

This is why I have difficulty with the idea that I should have left God because of the ways I’ve seen church people fail. I admit that I have felt the temptation in my pain and disappointment to equate God with those who have hurt me or the community. After all, people are right in front of us while God is invisible, and sometimes it’s just easier to believe that how people treat us reflects how God feels about us. But in these moments of despair, I have to come back to the truth of God’s Word: He loved us enough to die for us, and He had to die because humanity is enslaved to sin. God is perfect love, and we are broken. Was God the pastor who had the affair? No. Was God the person who said something about me behind my back? No. God is Himself, perfect and blameless and loving and forgiving. People may fail in their attempts to emulate God, but this does not change God’s character. Our failure to embody Him does not make Him any less of a perfect model. God is not people.

2. The church is a community of sinners.
Though this was already touched on in the first point, it’s worth its own mention because it’s a truth so often forgotten. We would all like to think that when we go to church we are somehow escaping the evils of the world, that we’ve found a safe haven where we never have to worry about conflict and temptation and difficulty ever again. We want to feel completely safe, isolated from the sin we know lurks around in the world outside. In principle, this isn’t a bad desire. We are longing for heaven, and in its attempt to bring heaven to earth the church should look brighter and more heavenly in comparison to the rest of the world. But the church is not heaven. Its members are not completely sanctified, washed clean from all sin, except in the sense that they have been forgiven of those sins through the blood of Christ.

We all bring our sinful selves with us to church. In fact, that seems to be the point. In seeking out a church community, we seek out brothers and sisters who can help us combat our sinful desires in order that we may live closer to the holiness God desires for us. An acknowledgement of our sinfulness, then, seems a necessary first step for a healthy church community; unless we recognize sin in the church, we can’t do much to work on it, much the same as how an individual must recognize their sinfulness before God before they can receive forgiveness and salvation.

Bonhoeffer discusses this “necessary disillusionment” at length in his book about church community, Life Together. He insists that “only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both.” In other words, Bonhoeffer argues, a church can only truly begin to understand God’s plan for community when it comes to terms with the reality of its own brokenness, when each individual member realizes that their church is not perfect, but rather a place where imperfect people have come together to strive toward holiness. To believe in the perfection of the church is to hinder its progress toward that holiness. “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself,” Bonhoeffer insists, “becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

To avoid in the first place the illusion that the church is a perfect community, it helps to remind myself who I am. I am a member of the church, and I am not perfect. I am a sinner. Everyone else in this endeavor with me is a sinner. Therefore, why should I expect the church to be perfect?

So what do we do when the church disappoints us? Every time I’m disillusioned with the church yet again, I come back to this critical decision. It’s never an easy situation to face. But in addition to remembering the two most important points above, I try to determine the source of my disillusionment and my response to it by asking the following questions:

1. Is my disillusionment being caused by the church community as a whole or just one person?
Though it seems silly, this is an important question. I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I know for me sometimes a person just ticks me off, and instead of dealing with my feelings towards this individual, I start lashing out against the community within which I am forced to interact with them. We might have been spurned or judged or rejected by one person, and yet we point to the music or the sermons or dissatisfaction with the children’s programming as our contentions. And we leave. As I’ve already beat to death, people are sinful. There will always be individuals or even groups of individuals who we don’t get along with at church, whether because of our sin or theirs or both. I have learned not to blame the church for the sins of individual members. Dealing with sinfulness is just a part of being in a community.

There are, however, also those times when we realize that our church is not theologically sound, and that is a more serious issue. Rather than our frustration being centered on the unavoidable sin of other church members, we realize that the church as an organization is not following the direction of God’s word. I won’t tell anyone what they should do in this situation. Certainly, discussions with pastors and elders about your concerns are a good, though difficult, first step. Sometimes, as hard as it is, this problem might even require leaving to find a different church community. But the first step is just determining whether this is actually the problem, or whether we are simply frustrated with the reality of the sinfulness of fellow members.

2. Is this a me and church problem or a me and God problem?
Sometimes church rubs us the wrong way because we just don’t want to hear what the community needs to say. For example, that annoying tithing sermon. Or that sermon that tells you that you shouldn’t be having sex outside of marriage, but you just really want to stay with that person you’re living with. Or when the pastor talks about the end times again. Some subjects of the Christian life just aren’t comfortable for us to hear. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to hear them. If I’m sitting in church and find myself getting angry at the pastor and/or the church I have to ask myself: Am I angry at the church because they’re making me feel guilty over something I should probably feel guilty over? The converse also needs to be asked. Am I angry because someone is making me feel guilty over something I don’t need to feel guilty about? This is an important question. In these situations, I take the time to search my heart and look to Scripture, godly advice, and what I know of God’s character. Sometimes we get angry at the church because we feel convicted, and that conviction is a good thing. But if a community is making us feel guilty in a way that doesn’t line up with God’s Word, we need to take a second look at what is being taught.

3. Is this something I can fix instead of just complain about?
This question always kicks me in the gut. It’s really easy to complain, but much harder to be a part of the solution. But the reality is that if no one in the church actively seeks to improve the community, then nothing will ever change or progress. If you see a visitor alone in a corner, don’t just get angry that your church doesn’t have a better greeting ministry. Instead, remind yourself that you are the church, walk over there, and say hello. Better yet, talk to your pastor about setting up a greeting ministry, so you can recruit more people to help you out in your goal. A handful of pastors and elders can’t be all things to a church. So if you see a place where your community is falling short, step in and fill up the gap.

These truths and questions can help us consider wisely our place within a Christian community and the reality of disillusionment due to sin. Just because we accept disillusionment as a part of the project of the church, however, does not mean that we should not also mourn whenever it occurs. When yet another sex scandal breaks on a church like a storm, we mourn. When someone we trusted as a fellow believer betrays that trust, we mourn. When we are unnecessarily hurtful or unkind toward one of our brothers or sisters, we mourn. But in our lament over our sinfulness, we should also look to God and His plan for the church in hope. No, this community is not perfect. But the fact that it exists, that God is moving it toward perfection, and that we have each other to lean on as we limp slowly toward that glory: this is a gift and a mercy on which we should never give up.

Truth and Comfort in the Wake of Tragedy

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will get neither comfort nor truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair. – C.S. Lewis

Five times I’ve been shocked out of my routine by a phone call telling me that someone I loved had died, and strangely, all five times those calls have come on a Saturday.

The first call came during the summer between my first and second years of teaching. A student who had been in my class – my first class – had fallen out of the back of a truck and died instantly.

He’d approached me halfway through the season the previous year to ask if he could join my football team, but it was too late for that season. He’d have been a great addition to our team, but we told him he’d have to wait until the next year.

He didn’t make it to the next year.

The second call came while my wife and I were out on a photo shoot – she was taking senior pictures for one of my students. The father of a beloved family in our community had not woken up that morning. He left behind a wife and four children who still needed him. They still need him now.

The third call woke me up early to tell me there had been a fatal car accident only a few blocks from my house. We found out later that day that one of the people killed was a teenage girl who had been in my Bible class for several months during her sophomore year of high school. When she arrived at our school, she didn’t own a Bible, so my wife and I bought her one to use in my class. In the days following her death, her mom told me how she’d been baptized in the ocean in the Philippines, the home of her ancestors, and I gave her parents a letter she had written to herself about what following Jesus really meant to her. I had planned on giving the letter back to her later that year.

The fourth call interrupted a drive home from a youth retreat to tell me that another of our students, a precious, joyful, intelligent little girl who had been a light every day she walked through the doors of our school had finally lost her battle to the brain tumor that had been ravaging her body for years. She never made it to her sixteenth birthday, and though it was “expected,” her death was no less tragic for not having been a surprise.

And the fifth was the worst of all for me personally. The fifth was the closest to home, because that call woke me up to tell me that a young man who had been in my class for four years, who I had seen on weekends at youth group, who had been to my house to record a video project for my class, who had shared with me some of his deepest pain and the dreams closest to his heart, and who had once helped me push a car out of the snow for a person neither of us had ever met, was dead.

He was strong. So strong, in fact, that I called him a rhinoceros when he walked by my classroom. He was young and healthy, and he loved God. But one morning his heart just quit working.

In April of my Junior year of high school, two students at Columbine high school took the lives of thirteen of their classmates and teachers. When baseball practice started that day we didn’t know the extent of the massacre, but we brought a radio to the field with us and listened to the news as we took batting practice. But when we started hearing about bodies being carried out of the school, we ended practice early to go home to our frightened and weeping parents.

I remember seeing an interview of a student who was wounded in the shooting. He was a baseball player – a pitcher, just like me. We played Columbine the next summer, and even though it was months after the massacre, seeing him walk on to the field that day was surreal. It’s not easy to play a baseball game against a kid who got shot in his school cafeteria.

About two and a half years later, my college classes were cancelled when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

A few months ago a highly-anticipated movie premier turned horrific when it was interrupted by gunfire.

And over the past two weeks our community has ridden a roller-coaster of shock, fear, hope, and horror as the details of the abduction and murder of a ten-year-old girl have come to light.

In each of these situations, in addition to dealing with my own grief, I’ve been the recipient of countless questions about God’s goodness and power, and particularly about how that goodness and power can still be asserted in the midst of such unthinkable evil. I’ve been a friend, teacher, counselor, coach, and pastor when these events have taken place, and I’ve learned over and over again that much of the real work of healing takes place in the aftermath, when the wounds of the past are re-opened by the death of someone else’s dad, or son, or brother. And in those conversations, the ones that take place a year, two years, or five years down the road, I get to see the real impact of the answers we give on days like today, when the questions are fresh and the wounds open for the first time.

A number of responses to such tragedies keep popping up in my conversations with people far removed from their own tragedies and still trying to heal. They’re answers that have been given by well-meaning, wise people who have a deep concern for the hurting. They’re given in an attempt to provide some sort of comfort and understanding in the midst of confusion and pain.

The problem is that they’re just not true.

At least not in the ways they’re received by a person who is overwhelmed by pain and searching for answers.

I don’t pretend to have answers that will bring healing to the hearts of those who have been directly affected by tragedies like the ones I listed above. No amount of truth will ever “fix” a tragedy, nor should we try to make it “fix” a person who is hurting. Often, our biggest mistakes in situations like these come from trying to explain away someone’s pain, or from trying to convince them that they should be “ok” by now. Let’s be clear that grief doesn’t work on a predictable timeline, and the acceptance of truth about a situation does not remove the emotional fallout of encountering evil.

But if we’re going to give answers (and we are, at some point, going to try to give some kind of answer), let’s give answers that will help rather than hurt. And let’s remember Jesus’ claim that the truth sets us free.

If our responses to tragedy result in more bondage and guilt than freedom, then we need to honestly evaluate whether or not those responses are true, both propositionally and systematically.

Here are a few examples of responses that, when given without explanation or clarification, I’ve seen do a great deal of damage in the lives and hearts of the hurting:

1. “God has a plan.”

Is God in control? Absolutely. Does He have a plan? Undoubtedly. But in the midst of severe emotional pain, the distinction between God’s plan and his desire becomes quite difficult to keep straight. Telling a hurting person that God has a plan is roughly equivalent to telling the parents of a stillborn child that God wanted their baby to die because He didn’t have any better ideas about how the day might go. We present God as the kind of dad that throws a four-year-old boy into the ring at a UFC fight to try to make a man out of him and then yells at him for crying about his broken leg.

What we’re probably trying to say when we give this response is that someday, somewhere, God is going to sort everything out, but in the moment it tends to feel like telling people that God is an abusive monster who they should trust just because He says He loves them. There’s really no other way to hear this one than “God wanted your dad to die, and if you can’t accept that, then you really don’t have much faith.”

2. “God will bring good out of this.”

Often, this response quotes or nearly quotes Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The principle of the verse is, of course, true, and we must always assert God’s omnibenevolence – all things He does are good and He is able to bring good out of even the most horrendous evil. But as we saw above, the application and interpretation of truth must be tempered by wisdom. And in the wake of tragedy, telling people that God brings beauty from ashes sounds more like excusing a cosmic villain than explaining the actions of a benevolent God.

Here’s a rough translation of what this response sounds like to a hurting person – “I know you’re hurt by the fact that your baby only lived for three months, but now you appreciate your other kids more, so it’s ok.”

Please forgive my bluntness – I know that we’d never say such things, especially to parents who have just lost an infant, but when we tell them that “God is going to bring good out of this” in the midst of their pain, how can we expect them to hear anything else?

And where in the world did we get the idea that if good comes from tragedy, it justifies the tragedy?

I can think of a few people in history who have acted out a belief that tragedy was worthwhile if the end result was good. The most famous one is Hitler, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting his name on the same list with God’s and pretending that, even though their methods are the same, God is good and Hitler is evil.

Let’s keep Romans 8:28 within its context of an ultimate, cosmic restoration of all things through the redemption of both human beings and the creation itself and not try to make evil look like good just because God doesn’t give up hope when bad things happen.

3. “It was their time to go.”

This oft-repeated response to death has a measure of truth to it, because God certainly knows the exact time and location of every person’s death, but in the moment it can come across as more than a little trite. The primary weakness of this response in tragic situations is that it tends to completely ignore the glaringly obvious element of human choice by reducing the complex web of the divine-human relationship to “God’s timing.” And in the case of suicide, for example, such a response comes quite close to a deterministic justification of evil by implying that, had the individual in question not taken his own life, he would certainly have died that same day and time by some other method. Thus, the means of death becomes meaningless, and we become pawns in God’s cosmic game of chess.

So how do we respond when evil interrupts our lives? What can we say to people who have come face to face with the unthinkable and are unable to reconcile an unstoppable flood of despair with the claim that God’s goodness has invaded our world and forever transformed the human experience for all of us?

The Bible teaches us a few truths that, though not so “tidy” as those above, may in the long run prove much more helpful and effectual for those who must certainly face tragedy again.

1. God hates death.

It has for some time been my conviction that the primary reason for Jesus’ tears in John 11:35 was His deep pain over the presence of death on Earth. We say that death is simply a part of life, but it was never meant to be. In the perfect world that God created in the beginning of all things, there was no death, no pain, no suffering. Its presence among us now is a constant reminder that we are not home, that things are not as they were meant to be, that the very foundation of our existence is broken and torn.

In Jesus’ tears at Lazarus’ tomb we see God Himself mourning the pervasive consequences of the sin that He warned Adam and Eve to avoid. And though God is unceasingly joyful, He is also unceasingly aware that the great pain of the human condition and the immeasurable devastation of sin in the lives of every man, woman, and child who has ever been born never had to be. Had we trusted Him enough to choose His way in the beginning, no one would ever have died, and our intimacy with Him would have remained unbroken from the very first day of our existence.

From Abel forward, every death that has ever taken place has been a reminder that the very best plan of God existed in reality only until Adam and Eve chose to listen to the voice of the serpent instead of the voice of God.

Every death is a reminder that, by default, we are at war with the God who has loved us enough to shed His own blood on our behalf.

We do not mourn like those who have no hope; nevertheless, we do mourn. We must, for our pain need never have been possible.

2. God is making all things new, but He’s not finished yet.

We simply do not have to act like we’re already at the end of the story. God has won, but the loving law of God does not yet fully reign in our cities and towns. The blood of Jesus has torn the veil of separation between God and man and in so doing has forever conquered the power of sin and death, but God’s choice to be a benevolent King rather than a tyrant guarantees that so long as men choose to rebel against Him and He chooses to delay His return to earth, we will continue to experience the devastating consequences of sin.

The refrain of the Psalmists – “How long, O Lord” – can and should be our cry as well when we experience the evil of a broken world. And the presence (in various forms) of such a refrain throughout not only the Psalms but the Scriptures as a whole should tell us that God not only understands but commends the kind of honesty that says, “God, I know that you’re going to fix all this, but I can’t help but wish the fixing process was over, because the pain I’m feeling right now seems like it’s going to paralyze me forever.” God asks us for faith, of course, but He also asks us for honesty. In the midst of our own tragedies, let us join with the Psalmists in crying out to God, full of honest pain and full of faith that the long road He has chosen is the best road possible, even if we can’t see around the next bend.

3. God brings beauty from ashes, but the ashes are still ashes.

I think the book of Lamentations may be the most comforting book in the Bible, but most of it is spent in meditation on suffering, and a basic reading could easily leave us with little hope for the future. But right in the center, in the section that the structure of the book points us to as the central and most important passage, we read these words:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,

For his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning;

Great is your faithfulness.

-Lamentations 3:22-23

Lamentations never ignores the ugliness of the ashes that Jeremiah sits in while he writes the book. But it doesn’t let him (or us as we journey through the book with him) stay in those ashes.

The point is this: We shouldn’t mourn forever, but we don’t have to lie about the devastation we’re facing. And sometimes the best prayer we can pray is, “God, I hate this.”

Jesus wept. And then He woke Lazarus up and told him to get out of his grave. Let’s join him in both.

4. God is able to simultaneously seek both justice and forgiveness.

Understanding the theological paradox of God’s simultaneous desire for both justice and forgiveness will help us avoid the kind of false dichotomy that says we can either forgive and love our enemies, as Jesus commanded us to do, or we can hope for the perpetrators of great cruelty to be caught and punished.

The truth is that God wants justice more than any of us, because He alone understands the full horror of sin. He alone has felt and experienced every detail of the suffering of countless victims of countless tragedies stretching back to the beginning of human history.

And He wants mercy more than any of us, because He alone understands the full horror of sin. He alone knows the crushing weight of guilt experienced by those who bring horror into the lives of others.

We need not try to choose between justice and forgiveness.

Tragedy, and our ability to deal with it honestly, proves the necessity of hell, and the necessity of the horror of the cross for its escape, for only in the cross do we fully see God’s simultaneous passion for both justice and mercy. Only in the cross is there any hope of forgiveness for the grievous evil that invades our lives, and for the grievous evil that we ourselves commit. And only in the cross do we see a God that does not keep Himself distant from our pain, but chooses instead to join us in our deepest tragedy and our deepest mourning. Not only does He join us there, but through the cross He conquers that pain and that mourning so that someday we will never have to face death again.

5. God will never lie to us, either by word or by experience.

God’s primary method of teaching us truth is His Word, but He has designed our universe to teach us truth as well, and when appropriately interpreted, the events of our lives, and the consequences of those events, can be trusted to tell us what God is really like.

He does not deceive us, and there are many things that we desperately need to know.

We need to know that evil is real, and powerfully destructive. For God to soften the effects of our sins or the sins of others would be to lie to us about the true ugliness of rebellion against His laws.

We need to know that the consequences of some sins are permanent and irrevocable. Forgiveness does not erase the consequences of sin here on earth. It never has, and for God to make it otherwise would be to deceive us.

We need to know what a world without His moral guidance actually looks like. Despite the pain we must experience in learning what happens when we live our lives in rebellion against God’s intended way of living as expressed in His moral laws, and despite the pain that He experiences when He sees us rebelling against those laws, God chooses not to stop us from living as fools. He chooses to let us see what happens when we reject the moral truths He has so graciously revealed to us.

And finally, we need to know that the consequences of our personal sins are never only personal – they will always impact those we love, those we have only just met, and those we don’t even know. We cannot escape the communities in which we live our lives, and for good or ill, our actions affect those communities. As we are confronted by the suffering and horror one person can cause by evil deeds, let us remember also the great good that one person can do by righteous deeds.

6. There is no good that can make a tragedy “worth it.”

We know that God can redeem even the worst of circumstances. We know that He brings good out of evil. But no amount of good can justify tragedy – and God never attempts to justify tragedy.

After 9/11, our nation came together in unity in a way that I had never seen. After Columbine, students cared for one another in ways they never had, and they joined together to pray for each other. During the search for Jessica Ridgeway over the past couple of weeks, countless parents (including me) have renewed their commitment to love their children well, and an entire community has left aside its many political, religious, and socio-economic differences to join together to look for a lost little girl.

These are all good things. They’re things we should be thankful for, and I believe with all my heart that they come from God.

But they don’t justify the evil.

They don’t erase the terrible things that have taken place among us.

God does not send tragedy so that we will grow from it. He does not beat us up so that we’ll get stronger.

Good comes out of evil because God doesn’t get discouraged and give up when sin seems to be winning. And good comes out of evil because we carry His image, and deep down, we know that evil can never win.

The question is, will we allow the tragedy to continue to triumph in our lives by allowing it to paralyze us, or will we take our places as God’s image bearers and, like Him, work to bring beauty from ashes?

Will we move forward in a way that honors the lives of those we’ve lost, or will we spend our days in a disheartened stupor and effectually make ourselves one more casualty?

“Why?” will never yield a satisfactory answer, because even the best answer will never bring back what’s been lost. But if we’re honest, and if we’re courageous enough to move forward into hope, we’ll honor both those we’ve lost and the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Last night I had the privilege of attending Jessica Ridgeway’s funeral. Among the many things I experienced was a profound sense of hope, not particularly because of anything that was said, though the things that were said were stunningly powerful and captivatingly true. I felt hopeful there because, though the evil we remembered last night was gruesome, it was hidden in shame and darkness, but the beauty of the Body of Christ, the truth of God’s Word, and His great love for His children were proclaimed in the light among a crowd of thousands and were broadcast to countless more.

You see, light never hides.

Truth never flees in fear of evil.

Good never shies away from a confrontation with evil.

When good men and women stand together in unity under the authority of a good and strong God who refuses to lie to us, who refuses to let the story end before the good guys have triumphed, who refuses to take shortcuts to avoid the pain and struggle of justice, evil slinks away in inglorious defeat.

So God, let us not lie about the pain and evil we experience. Give us the courage to stare long and hard at the bleeding wounds we carry. And give us the hope not only to stand in your truth, but to move forward as you encourage us, challenge us, and sometimes even carry us, knowing that the wounds are real, but knowing also that in the light of your profound goodness and grace, those wounds shrink away to shadows and dust.

May we stand with God in triumph, not because we’ve excused away the pain of our tragedies, but because we’ve taken them to Him and let His strong and gentle hands heal us. And because the future is worth it.