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Covering Up the Truth with God Talk

Tim Finley from Mars Hill Media sent this article from Christianity Today. Chances are, if you’ve ever worked with churches or minsitries, you’ll resonate with this:

How to Create Cynics
Everybody knows when we’re covering up our confusion with God-talk.
By David P. Gushee

Are Christians also human beings? Are we permitted to talk about our lives the way other humans do? Can we admit mistakes, confess uncertainty, and be honest about conflicts? Is it okay not to have an airtight spiritual explanation for everything that happens?

One of the greatest causes of cynicism among Christians is the way we lather God-talk over our lives in order to obscure realities we consider too painful to discuss directly.
Consider this example from church life (though such situations are not confined to local churches). A minister is not happy in his place of service. He wonders whether he was right in accepting this call in the first place. He has dealt with painful personality conflicts, constant power struggles, and criticism. Now he is leaving. He is leaving because he can’t take it anymore. His future is most uncertain.

But he believes that he can’t say any of these things. There is an unwritten Code in the church (and not just this church) that dictates how a minister says goodbye. So he says, “God spoke to me and is leading me to a different place of service at this time. I appreciate the opportunity to be your pastor. I now must move on to wherever God leads me next.”

Everybody on the inside of the situation knows what these words really mean: “I am miserable here. I can’t take it any more. At this point, I would rather be unemployed than continue to serve here. I’m not sure exactly where God is in all of this, but in any case, I know that I must move on. I sure wish you would deal with the issues that have led me to this point, but I won’t tell you what those are, so I doubt that you will actually deal with them.”

A departing pastor does a church no favor by not discussing its dysfunctions. How much better to be candid with the leadership group—perhaps bringing in a third-party consultant—in order to equip them to deal in a more health-giving way with their next pastor.

Seduced by Certainty

There are several reasons most of us don’t feel comfortable speaking directly about our confusion. One is that we want greater certainty about life and our decisions than we often feel. We want to be able to say that we are certain God has led us in such and such a direction and now is leading us in another direction. To articulate uncertainty seems to communicate lack of confidence in God.

It might help us to remember that human beings (even Christian ones) are fallible and “see through a glass darkly.” Surely there is plenty of biblical evidence of faithful people who misunderstood God’s will or did not receive clear direction about every decision. Is it really impossible for us to say, “I think I misunderstood what God was leading me to do”? Or even, “I made a mistake in coming here”?

Perturbed by Conflict

A second reason for the Code is that Christians also dislike telling the truth about conflict. The divisions that open up in our relationships and in our churches embarrass us. We think they should not occur. Perhaps we don’t want to shake the faith of younger Christians by admitting that we just could not work out our differences. And so we paper over such conflicts with Code-talk about God leading us somewhere else.
But Paul highlighted his differences with Peter about table fellowship with Gentiles (Gal. 2), and Acts frankly describes the conflict between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark (Acts 15), a conflict that caused them to go their separate ways. Why can’t we likewise say that our differences in vision and personality were irreconcilable, and despite hard efforts for unity, we have been unable to achieve it?

Better yet, why not treat organizational conflict the way C. S. Lewis taught us to think about bodily pain—as God’s megaphone. If we pay attention to the pain, we can learn what God might truly be saying to a congregation.

That kind of God-talk gives birth to discernment. But when we use God-talk to paper over the truth, we risk taking the name of God in vain. Scripture is clear that God does not appreciate it when we misuse his holy name for our purposes. Hiding behind a veneer of God-talk that everyone knows is just a way of obscuring painful realities invites cynicism about all our words about God.

If we could admit that we are fallen and uncertain and that we don’t always know how to interpret every situation, can’t always resolve our conflicts, and sometimes simply choose to move in new directions, we could break the power of the Code and end the cynicism we create by misusing words about God.

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One Comment

  1. Good post! I've grown up in church and I'm always amazed at people's unwillingness to be honest about certain situations. I can understand not wanting to "air" differences but even behind closed doors people don't want to keep it real!

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