Fifth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:
We’ve been discussing some of the core principles of how the Christian faith works — not by adhering to a new set of moral dictates or rules to follow, but by undergoing a transaction which begins with forgiveness and judicial innocence, empowered by a profound inner change, a new inner man which draws us toward the fulfillment of new purpose and direction, aligned with God’s will. This inner transformation creates conflict, as the habits and strongholds of a lifetime of self-will do not die easily. While our course is being realigned toward a new direction, our free will remains fully intact — and often quite committed to the comfortable and convenient paths which, while hoary and familiar, still prove destructive and counter-productive.
Some of these old patterns change quickly under the assault of grace and the insight and changed motives of our new life. But many are stubborn — fortified fortresses, hewn from heavy stones, built up over many years as survival skills for coping with the pain and emptiness which is the hallmark of the self-centered life. These challenges take many forms: bitter resentments; irrational fears; addictions in their many forms; compulsive deceitfulness; rage and anger; arrogance, condescension, manipulation, and many other manifestations of our self-centered, self-serving dispositions. Many Christians falter while assaulting these lofty walls, throwing themselves repeatedly against their bulwarks in futility and frustration, only to fail yet again.
But not all meet these insurmountable challenges with frustration and failure. Some — almost ironically, those most profoundly defeated by these very assaults — find another way — a way which turns their very defeats into powerful, yet humble, victories. They find in their brokenness, wholeness; in their hopelessness, hope; in their shattering, salvation and strength. It is a victory not achievable by force of determination or strength of will; its power lies in utter defeat, sanctified and empowered by the embrace of grace.
One of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith is this: those who are most profoundly defeated are best equipped to help others suffering these same defeats. No one helps an alcoholic like a recovering alcoholic; no one can touch and comfort one mired in depression like one who has experienced that dark hell themselves — and transcended it through grace. We are afflicted that others may be healed.
There is in today’s culture a toxic strain of Christianity, a bastard born of a great faith incestuously whored with the shallow nihilism of obscenely prosperous materialism, which teaches that we should all be wealthy, all be healed, all be delivered from every difficulty by a simple word of faith or healing prayer. But quick-fix Christianity is a Golden Calf, an empty shell of a faith made great not by wealth and comfort but by the suffering of its saints. We are delivered to deliver others; it is our pain which purchases true freedom.
There is no easy path on the road to grace; indeed, we will never choose willingly those roads which lead to deliverance. The signs will point downward when we wish to go up; they will lead to narrow ledges and steep cliffs when the easy roads seem broad and safe. It is perilous to travel these pathways alone: Christianity is a journey of companions. The path will never be the same for any of us — but those markers which guide us have been placed by many pilgrims who have gone before.
Christianity promises to be the triumph of light over darkness: “The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” But beyond this compelling imagery, what exactly does this imply? The Christian often conceptualizes this luminance as transpiring in the realm of the intellectual: we have, as a result of our recreated life, a deeper understanding of right and wrong, a fresh appreciation for the things of God and the destructiveness of sin. We “see the light,” in the sense of insight, thought, and moral compass.
But the light which casts its brilliance upon us is not merely confined to the mind, for the mind is quick to rationalize and deceive, all too eager to accommodate and justify that which is both dark and destructive. The true power of the light of Christianity shines most brightly in a most frightening place — the place of transparency.
At the heart of our displacement from God, our existential angst, lives the dark angel which goes by the name of shame. While often confused and conflated with guilt, shame is not about behavior which violates a standard — the essence of guilt — but about an inner worthlessness, an empty and terrifying conviction that we are unclean, rejected, contemptible, and hopelessly flawed. To gaze upon this terrifying truth is to stand face to face with destruction, to suffer the catastrophic rejection of any and all who might glimpse our ghastly secret.
This terror drives us, a vicious and merciless master, energizing and engendering a host of fortifications which shroud the secret while simultaneously lending power to its dark dominance. The engine of shame drives before it an endless train of ragged, wretched slaves: condescension and arrogance; fears of every kind; manipulation and control; rage; lust; obsessive and compulsive behaviors conscripted to distract from the death within and kill its ungodly pain.
When these feeble defenses are finally stripped away, as their utility spectacularly fails in some life catastrophe, sundering our lives apart, we come at last to the point of grace: our shame becomes exposed, a gruesome corpse no longer hidden in its shallow grave, its decaying limbs uncovered by the torrential storms of life. The alcoholic hits bottom; the marriage ends abruptly and unexpectedly; a child dies; financial disaster strikes. Whatever the crisis, whatever the circumstances, we come to a point where there is nowhere to fall but into the arms of a graceful and gracious God.
It is at this moment we finally become honest with God, even while enraged at the injustice He has allowed to befall us. It is a severe mercy, a crucifixion not sought yet divinely ordained. Our rage at God is nothing if not honest — indeed, it may prove to be the first honest thing we have done in many a day.
Yet to be honest with God alone — whether in anger, or desperation, or fear, or faith — is to but glimpse the beginning of a transparency which transforms. If we are to seek out the fullness of grace, and find the redeeming and transforming power which grace alone can bring, we must do something else, something far more frightening: we must share our darkest inner lives with others.
Uncomfortable yet? You should be.
The recoil and horror you feel at this prospect is natural — it is the reflexive response of years of defending the darkness, pandering to its relentless demands as it strangles the lifeblood from us. It is the reluctance to have surgery though the cancer will kill you, the end of a deadly dance whose suffocating embrace is asphyxiating your soul.
Such work cannot be done alone. Transparency with God alone is not adequate to the strongholds which enslave us in ways both brutal and ruthless. We must expose our inner selves, our shame, our failings, our fealty to evil — and we must do so with another human being.
The Church exists for a reason: it is the body of Christ on earth. This is not merely a theoretical or theological construct, but a crucial fact: we are the hands, heart, eyes and ears of Christ on earth. Flawed, fallen, feckless, failing, to be sure — yet chosen by God to be very instrument whereby He brings healing and wholeness to its members. The Church is not merely choir members singing hymns, or liturgy, or sermons on Sunday; it is a hospice, a hospital, the tangible instrument whereby Christ, having touched our brokenness with healing grace, uses our very failings as the surgeon’s knife, the lenitive balm to restore and rescue others. Redemption — to be “purchased back” its core meaning — is not just about saving our selves, but salving the souls of others. In the upside-down, counter-intuitive paradox which is the kingdom of grace, our very diseases bring healing to others. The toxic illness which is self-will run riot is broken — and after it is hopelessly shattered and utterly worthless, only then is repurchased by God, at full price, and made into something of great wonder.
When we begin to open our souls to another, our agonized words find common ground in their experience, not only in the depths of our pain but in hope for our deliverance. Our secret shame finds not judgment, but understanding; not criticism but gentle correction; not rejection but relationship with another who has walked these same dark paths and found restoration and wholeness at their end.
Transparency: what you see on the outside is what resides on the inside.
It is, in its simplicity, terrifying yet profoundly liberating. It must be done with wisdom: it is not wise to cast our swine before pearls. Quite often, it will not be found in those who are most religiously righteous. If you look carefully, however, you will find those whose grace and humility bespeak the chrysalis of a new life arisen from brokenness.
Seek them out, and take a risk. You will never look back.