The Scandal of Weakness

Internally Displaced Person

On the December 10th edition of “Breakpoint This Week,” John Stonestreet and Ed Stetzer discussed the news that Bill Lenz, the Senior Pastor at Christ the Rock Community Church in Menasha, Wisconsin committed suicide on December 4th.

As Executive Pastor Curt Drexler told the Christian Post, “Lenz was sent on sabbatical after he revealed to elders and other ministry leaders that he had begun experiencing sudden panic attacks. ‘Over the last three months, he had what he would have just called anxiety. He would have bouts where he would be close to panic attacks or he would have panic attacks.’”

Making Lenz’s suicide even more poignant was the fact that, according to Drexler, Lenz was “an optimistic suicide prevention advocate,” who started a ministry that reached out to people with “life-controlling issues,” such as “alcohol, drugs, certainly poverty, homelessness,” and suicide.

I had never heard of Bill Lenz before listening to the podcast, but his death resonated with me. I have made no secret of the fact that I have been diagnosed with Type II Bipolar disorder. I’m all-too-familiar with the anxiety attacks Lenz experienced. I’m on a first-name basis with what writer Andrew Solomon calls “The Noonday Demon,” the immobilizing bouts of depression that leave you wondering how you are going to do endure another seventy-two hours, never mind the rest of your life.

And I was one of the estimated 9.8 million Americans who had “serious suicidal thoughts” in 2015. And 2016. And 2017.

Every time I share my story, I get messages from Christians who thank me for my “courage” and share their own stories or those of a loved one. This makes me happy and sad at the same time. Happy that I’ve helped someone and sad that it strikes people as “courageous.” Isn’t this the way that the Church is supposed to operate?

Apparently not. I grieved at the story Stetzer told of a pastor friend who was fired by his church because of his struggle with depression. Stetzer’s friend felt obliged to hide his condition, and felt that taking his meds was somehow akin to illicit drug use and, as it turned out, he had ample reason to feel the way he did.

In his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace?,” Philip Yancey tells the story of a drug-addicted prostitute who had pimped out her young daughter. Yancey’s friend asked herif she had ever thought of going to church for help.” Yancey’s friend told him that “I will never forget the look of pure, naïve shock that crossed her face. ‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.’”

The sad truth is that you don’t have to be a drug-addicted prostitute who pimps out your kid to understand her response. As Stetzer’s pastor friend learned the hard way, all you have to be is weak.

By “weak” I mean failing to live up to other people’s expectations of what the “victorious” Christian life should look like. Sometimes, the expectations are unmistakable, as in the names of churches Shane Morris listed at The Federalist:  “Champion Life Church,” “Action Church,” “Church on the Move,” “Empowerment Center,” “No Limits Fellowship.” (Disclaimer: They may all be great churches. That’s not the point.)

Most of the time, though, the expectations are subtler if no less real. We lack what might be called a “theology of weakness.” We don’t know what to do with what the late Brennan Manning called “the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out.” We’re not sure how to minister to “the sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other.”

A great deal of American Christianity isn’t especially welcoming to “the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together . . . [the] inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker,” or “for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents . . . who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God.”

For these people, the Christian life is, in Manning’s memorable phrase, a “victorious limp.” We stumble and fall. We are “battered by our unruly emotions.” Some of us have even “gotten handcuffed to the fleshpots and wandered into a far country.”

Yet, we keep coming back to Jesus because of our hope that “On the last day, when we arrive at the Great Cabin in the Sky, many of us will be bloodied, battered, bruised, and limping. But God and by Christ, there will be a light in the window and a ‘Welcome Home’ sign on the door.”

This kind of talk made people nervous twenty-three years ago when Manning wrote it, and it still makes them nervous today. More than a few people used the word “antinomian” to describe his work.

What they miss is that the “bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out” are very aware of their failings. That’s why they believe that their lives are “a grave disappointment to God.” If they believed in the God of what Christian Smith calls “moral therapeutic deism,” there wouldn’t be anything for God to be disappointed about.

That’s why being welcoming isn’t about telling people that they are free to do whatever they want. It’s about assuring them that they don’t have to pretend to be strong when they’re not. They don’t have to pretend to be going from strength to strength when, in reality, they’re barely holding on.

It’s also about a willingness to accept and even embrace the reality that inconsistency, unsteadiness, and failure are a part of the Christian life. R.C. Sproul Jr., commenting on the bumper sticker slogan “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” has written “We’re not perfect. We are forgiven. But the forgiveness we have from the Father works itself out, takes on feet, when we in turn forgive others.”

The problem is, as Sproul noted, is that we often don’t live as this was true, which is perhaps why the woman Yancey wrote about dismissed the idea of going to church. As Sproul put it, “they [i.e., the world around us] know us too well.”

Making matters worse is the way we zero in some sins, e.g., sexual sin, while giving other sins a pass. I once heard a well-known Christian leader, during a discussing of sexual sin, say that he wasn’t tempted by things like prostitution. What made his statement memorable was that, one, he sounded like he was “humble-bragging,” and, two, he was notorious for being a thin-skinned martinet.

We all know people like this who, in some areas of their lives tithe mint, dill, and cumin, while neglecting what really matters: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. And we all give them a pass. That is, if we think that something is amiss in the first place.

In her story “Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor tells the story of Ruby Turpin, a “respectable” Southern woman who, as O’Connor told readers, “Sometimes . . . occupied herself at night naming the classes of people.” “Usually,” O’Connor continued, “by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven.”

Not that she was a monster. On the contrary, “of all she had to be thankful for, she was most thankful” for the fact that “She never spared herself when she found somebody in need, whether they were white or black, trash or decent.”

The “revelation” came after a visit to a doctor’s office where an “ugly girl” threw a book at her and called her a “wart hog” and told her to go back to Hell. A shaken Ruby Turpin berates God for sending her a “message like that” and, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, tells God about how good she is.

Then, in a vision, she sees “a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven.” The procession was led by the people Turpin had looked down on all of her life: “white trash,” blacks, and “battalions of freaks and lunatics.” Bringing up the rear were people like her known for their “good order and common sense and respectable behavior.”

And as O’Connor tells us, “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.”

Our virtues will also be burned away. We are all weak. We are utterly dependent on mercy and, as Jesus made clear, mercy will be shown to the merciful. In that case, a “Welcome Home” sign might be in order.

 

Image: iStock 

Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.


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