A decade ago I attended in my first inductive Bible Study. I was never the same. All that autumn I sat at a rickety wooden table from IKEA in a splash of southern sun, and poured over my workbook. The Word of God came alive and began to inform the way I saw God, the Church, the world, other humans, sin, faith, and so much more. Where the Father had been a far off caricature before, he was now full of character. Where Jesus had been merely a role model for goodness, he was now goodness itself. Where the Spirit had been the gift I never thought I’d fully have, he was now living, active, within me, helping and comforting. I was like any new convert, a missionary for this way of seeing.
That zeal led me to marrying the gift of writing I’d nurtured for over ten years with the fullness of God I was now seeing. And, like most of us would, other Christians lapped that up. My blogs were being shared, I was being asked for write for publication after publication, speaking requests were coming my way, agents asked to sign me, my social followers were growing. Armed with my zeal and my seeming appeal to these platforms, I began to have a distorted view of myself. Maybe most people wouldn’t have picked up on that, I’m a gentle soul and can be a bit of a pushover. But when my values were clearly threatened, I didn’t back down. I thought I knew the right way to do things because the gospel changes everything. Doesn’t it?
The problem is, the gospel hadn’t yet changed me.
Oh yes, of course, there were minute changes here and there. I was more patient, more centered, less prone to a depressed state, a little less wavering in my belief. I had words for theology I didn’t have before, words like justification, sanctification, vivification, complementarian. I was just as adept at stringing phrases together as before, but now they were sprinkled with phrases like, “My good and God’s glory,” now they were baptized with a retweet or a share by someone Christian-famous. But deep, down inside me, I was still the same person. The only difference was where once I had been blind, now I could see Jesus.
Christians love a good testimony, especially if it’s the grimy darkness to light one. We love the six year old who gets baptized by his dad too, but it’s the grimy testimony we’ll talk about later. Especially if the change is big and loud and everywhere you turn in church, there they are now, serving, speaking, sharing, caring. We applaud that kind. We promote that kind. Even better if there’s visible giftedness to buffer the less refined points.
I lament the shift that happened in my life that catapulted me prematurely into places I didn’t belong. There were far more faithful, stalwart, and mature believers around me who had been tested and proven in a way I hadn’t. I had good ideas and a swift pen. I had a quick mind and a slow tongue. I had ready hands and no depth behind them. Maybe that’s all excessive, I am not given to seeing myself in fully honest ways. I think I meant well, truly thought I was doing good and right, was surprised to see so much affirmation poured on me. I didn’t mean to get ahead. I just did. I was very much the same person as before, still writing voraciously, but now that writing was being seen where before it had only been practiced.
I am not the story of every person and I don’t mean to communicate that I am. But I am, sadly, the story of many who got caught up in the Christian celebrity machine of the past fifteen years. Social media is the perfect mechanism to elevate gifted voices prematurely and we keep seeing the effects of that elevation. I wrote this past week that platform like that is like standing on an empty cardboard box, eventually it will crumble.
God, in his grace, pulled the rug out from under me before it could all really go my head and down to my heart. As hard as the past four years have been, the cardboard box crumbled and I landed on my face. My view and love of a particular strain of theology and church kind was obliterated. My belief in the kingdom of Christian busyness was proven unstable. My commitment to church membership was tried. My understanding of discipline became unsustainable. Virtually no part of my Christian faith, formation, or practice, looks the same as it did ten years ago.
I’ve been thinking a lot the past few weeks about how the essence of the Christian life is one of change. There is no sameness in the day after day of one who believes and trusts in Jesus Christ, we are always being conformed and transformed. And yet so much of the structures we set up around Christians and beneath them do not make space for that change. And when the Christian himself changes, we aren’t sure what do with him either, so we either cast him aside or become hell bent on ruining him for his “hypocrisy.”
A hypocrite is one who knows better and does differently. But the lamentable thing in all this frenzied Christian celebrity culture is that most of us don’t know better until we know. We talk the talk, we have information, we have good intentions, we know what the Bible says, we know what will work with people and what will promote whatever we embody, but we don’t know. Until we know.
Knowing only comes through life, suffering, difficulty, and sometimes through the experience of joy or a fleeting delight we couldn’t capture if we try. But once we know it, we know it. We’re changed by it. And the thing about that kind of knowing is none of us will actually know we have it even if we knew we had it. Read that again if you need to. What I mean is there are seven or eight points along my life at which suffering was so intense I could hardly breathe through it (the death of my brother, the divorce of my parents, a particularly difficult breakup, the loss of our many babies, the whiplash of the past few years, and so on), and after each I had insight into suffering I hadn’t had before. And although it may have prepared me for the next blow, it could not predict what I would learn through it.
One bout of suffering might have taught me one side of the prism of God’s grace or ferocity, and another bout of suffering enlightens me more, while yet another weakens me more, making me aware of my frailty. These “bouts of suffering” as I’m calling them are really just the refinement of sanctification that every believer goes through, where we become more and more like Christ and less and less like the person we thought we were (for good or bad).
As we go through life we will change, we cannot help but change. Some change will be minute, some will be catastrophic, some will be glorious, some will feel shameful, some will catapult us forward, some will bash us back, some will be on the pinnacle and some in the valley below. But all of it is within the scope of a sovereign and good God and so we can trust the process.
I don’t have a sweet ending here, I’ve spent far too long trying to tie up my writing with threadbare ribbons and I’m done with it. God doesn’t need his words gift wrapped and I don’t think his people do either. In short, expect leaders to change, don’t fault them when they do, don’t cry “Hypocrite!” when they do. They’re just being more honest about their process of sanctification than we want them to be, and we should want that. We should beg for it. It protects them from believing too highly of themselves and us from idolizing what is certain to fail. “Beg your leaders to care more about the private care of their souls than the public care of yours.”