As a pastor, I was taught never to wrestle with difficult truths in front of the congregation. Give them simple three-point, alliterated answers to life’s problems.
That may have been the right thing to do years ago. Perhaps we really did live in a simpler era when answers were easier, God made sense and the church always did things well.
But not any more.
Today, people don’t trust answers that come too easily. At least not when we’re dealing with the big questions of life. Neither do I.
That has led some people to give up on the idea that we can find truth at all.
Not me. More than ever, I’m committed to the reality that there is a God. He does exist. That Jesus is the only way to heaven. And that the Bible really does mean what it says.
The details of Christian life are messier than we’d like to admit. So here are a few of those messy details that I’ve come to be OK with in recent years. I’m even OK with acknowledging them to my church, from the pulpit.
Just don’t stop until you get to the end of the story. The road may not be as smooth as it once was, but the destination is more than worth the trip.
Six Messy Truths
1. Church is not efficient.
I appreciate the efforts of efficiency experts who try to design better systems for churches. And I’ve learned from many of them. But, no matter how wise their counsel seems to be and no matter how well it worked elsewhere, there’s always a part of me that knows the church is limited in its ability to do what they’re talking about.
After all, Jesus was not efficient. He was never wasteful, but he wasn’t efficient either.
He lingered at parties. He got sidetracked on his way to life-and-death meetings (literally). He interrupted important theological discussions to play with kids. And he spent agonizingly long periods of time alone in prayer when there were urgent matters to attend to.
Church is the same. We can get a service done within specified time parameters. But the important things take time. They require lingering, waiting and pondering.
2. People are sinners.
According to Romans 7, we all still struggle with the sin nature. Going to a church and being surprised to find sinful, unhealthy people is like going to the hospital and being surprised to find sick, unhealthy people.
I get that it’s very painful when we’re hurt in a toxic church environment. I’ve been there. I know.
But it sometimes amazes me when people give up on church because people hurt them, while being completely oblivious to the people they hurt along the way, themselves. It’s easy to find someone to blame. But it’s so hard to find anyone to step up and admit that they were ever the culprit. But someone has to be doing the hurting, right? Sometimes that someone is me.
When we’re judging the church, we all need to start with a hard look in the mirror. Like it or not, the church is us.
That is not to diminish the reality of those hurts or to excuse bad behavior. But the bottom line is that the church is filled with people. People are sinners. And sometimes we still act like that.
3. Life is messy.
There used to be a TV commercial with the tagline “Life Is Messy—Clean It Up.” If only it were that easy.
I think pastors and other church leaders do church members a disservice when we offer too-easy answers to the messiness of life.
I’m not a fan of longing for the way things used to be—or the way things will be some day. I like facing reality here and now. But I don’t think it’s healthy that we’ve replaced almost all references to heaven, in favor of songs and sermons telling us that God will give us everything we want here and now.
That’s not an accurate way to look at the messiness of life. And it’s a recipe for disappointment.
4. The Bible is confusing.
I wish all the arguments we made from the Bible were as clean-cut as we like to think they are. But the Bible wasn’t written as a rule book. Certainly there are rules in it—lots of them. And they matter. But the essence of the Bible is a story. A true story of God’s love for us, our rejection of that love and God’s immeasurable sacrifice to win us back.
Because the Bible is a true story from real life—and life is messy—the Bible is also messy and confusing at times. I don’t think we do anyone a favor by pretending it’s not.
5. God is frustrating.
And the Bible acknowledges that. Just read the Psalms. Or Jesus’ agonizing prayer in Gethsemane.
But that’s OK. A god I could understand wouldn’t be much of a god.
I’ll take the frustrating God who actually exists over any easy-to-swallow god that our minds made up.
6. Theology is inadequate.
No one is born a Methodist. Or a Baptist. Or a Calvinist, Fundamentalist, Catholic, Pentecostal or Atheist.
Yes, you may have been born into a Methodist household. And that may give you a higher-than-usual chance that you’ll end up a Methodist yourself. But no one is born fitting into any of our pre-made theological or denominational molds.
Theological designations often come down to little more than an attempt by sinful humanity to make sense of messy lives, a confusing Bible and a frustrating God.
Three Helpful Realities
The Gospel always starts with bad news. That’s what makes the good news so good. There’s no resurrection without a crucifixion. No Easter without a Good Friday.
So here’s the good news.
1. God is real—and He loves sinners.
And the sacrifice of Jesus is powerful enough to turn sinners into saints. Not perfect. Not sin-free. But saints.
2. The Bible is true—and God still speaks to us through it.
I appreciate people who struggle with God’s Word, but come up with a different interpretation of things than I do—especially on some of the more confusing parts.
What I have no patience for are so-called ministers who dismiss the Bible’s teachings because they don’t like them.
A well-known former pastor, whom I used to respect, has recently written that the church can’t stay relevant if we stick to the teachings of a 2,000-year-old book. That’s like saying we can’t live well by breathing air, eating food or building things out of wood—all of which have been around a lot longer than 2,000 years, but are still very useful and relevant.
Truth is truth. And the Bible is still true.
3. The Church is filled with messy sinners—loving Jesus and living life together.
The church will never be a perfect place. But it can and should be a safe place.
A safe place to bring our faults and sins, joys and hopes, guilt and shame, victories and celebrations.
I don’t trust a too-perfect church. But I am grateful that I can go to a church filled with people I trust. Led by Jesus. Who is always trustworthy.
Only Jesus makes sense of any of this.
Church is not efficient. But Jesus is present in a special way when we meet in his name. That makes it more than worthwhile.
People are sinners. But Jesus makes us saints. And when Jesus works in and through us, I’ve seen Christians change the world.
Life is messy. But Jesus makes it worth living. Even the hard parts.
The Bible is confusing. But Jesus is in the middle of it. And all the way through it.
God is frustrating. But Jesus said “anyone who has seen me, has seen the father.” So God looks like Jesus? I’m more than OK with that.
Theology is inadequate. But Jesus is everything. He defies explanation. He won’t be manipulated to fit our petty agendas. He speaks to us through history, meets with us when we need him and is waiting for us to come and live with him forever.
So what do you think? What would happen if more pastors and church leaders embraced the messiness of life, church and the Bible?