One of the discussion points in the comments sections of the posts below has to do with what it means to cultivate a culture of honesty in church. I would like to propose that honesty has to go deeper than confessing sins. Often we associate lying with covering up shameful behaviors. We attempt to cultivate a culture of honesty through accountability, through preaching about the need to be honest, through offering prayer and compassion to those who are struggling with sin.
Still, what if Christians went on a truth diet in general? (I use the term Christian loosely... I am mostly talking about my experiences in evangelicalism...) What if we were honest about more than our sins, but also the experiences we were having (or not having) in church?
Christians are trained to pretend, which leads to lying.
Think of how many times you have pretended what was not true and called it faith?
Here's an example. You are hurting. Someone offers to pray. You feel nothing, you have no new insight, you don't feel relief. But the person offering the prayers seems sincerely pleased with the prayer time. Do you say: "I felt nothing. I still feel crappy"? Or are you more likely to be grateful, wonder if there is something wrong with you, and then profess that you are confident that God heard the prayer?
Too many times Christians tweak their true experiences to fit a template of faith that supports a belief system.
I can't tell you how many times I watched words of knowledge handled in just this way- a person would express a word of knowledge, the recipient would then start working to make the thing fit. One Sunday evening service when John Wimber (founder of the Vineyard and pastor of the church I attended for eight years) gave a word of knowledge to the congregation saying that eight people had a certain condition. Six came forward. Did he then say, "Well, I must have got that number wrong. Six then."
He explained that the two who hadn't come forward were missing the opportunity for healing and he used shame tactics to try to get two more people to leave their seats. They never did. What interpretation were we to take from that event? That John Wimber is never wrong? That the two people were really there? That God made a mistake?
And what story would we craft from that experience about God and hearing God and healing?
Is there any chance someone would admit: I think John Wimber made the whole thing up?
These kinds of sticky wickets occur even in churches without a visible charismatic cast.
We learn to lie about how happy, healthy or successful we are, to give glory to God.
We learn to hide doubts in order to pretend faith.
Missionaries literally lie to governments to protect their missionary identities.... yet criticize their converts when those same converts lie to the missionaries to protect their jobs or families or embarrassments. (One is seen as justified lying while the other is seen as sin.)
We lie to protect the reputation of Christ by hiding failures, such as failure to pray or study the Bible. We are especially guilty of this kind of lying when talking with non-Christians and oversell the value of practices many of us don't actually do!
We lie about our anger calling it not trusting God.
We declare that God spoke to us... and then when that "spoken thing" doesn't occur, we just let that story disappear from our narrative and never admit that we got it wrong or that God didn't speak.
We lie about sickness calling it health to have faith that God has healed us.
We lie about faith, saying we have it when we don't.
We lie about belief, pretending we believe things we don't.
We say we've forgiven when we are still bitter.
We pray, get no answer, and then try to explain to ourselves and others that it's some failing in us, or some answer called "no" or some other story to keep the blame on me and away from God. This works for awhile, but if you've ever struggled in an ongoing way with weight loss or anger or depression or marriage, and you've sincerely tried to apply the principles of prayer, accountability, and self-discipline only to fail repeatedly, it is pretending to continually blame yourself.
One way to truth-check is to ask yourself: If a member of a cult told me that he had done all the steps his group had suggested for weight loss and none of it worked but he knew that he was just not doing it quite right, what would you say? Would you suggest he go back to those methods and try harder, or would you use that revelation as evidence that the methodology itself was insufficient?
The motivation to hide, pretend or lie is grounded in a desire to protect the reputation of Christianity among ourselves and to unbelievers. We want to create a Christian appearance that will draw others to Christ, we want to experience a victorious life in Christ. As long as witnessing and belonging is tied up in marketing God's power in our individual lives, we will be motivated to cover up weakness, unbelief, failure, inconsistency and depression... for the sake of the Gospel.
Our leaders, then, will be even more motivated.
Which is one reason so many have fallen.
And why there are many others still who have not yet been found out.
One pastor wrote to me yesterday and I loved his message:
Thanks for the excellent article in response to the most recent failure in Church leadership. It was thoughtful and helpful. I believe as you seem to that we promise too much on behalf of God and expect conversion to Christ to erase all sinful and addictive practices. I wish that it were so, but my experience of nearly 40 years in Christian leadership tells me that the Leader is still a sinner, and he/she has no way to be honest with his/her flock. Deception is the name of the game. Self-deception and group dishonesty.
Many of us entered the Christian community as sinners and have practiced the means of grace faithfully, only to find that we are still the same sinners we were when we entered the fellowship many years earlier....the only thing different is that we have learned how to not let it show too much to remain in fellowship.
My heart goes out to Pastor Haggard. He is as much a victim as he is a deceiver. I have a hunch that for the first time in years, he will begin to feel right about himself. He is in my prayers...along with his family, his masseus, his church and the 30 million Evangelicals that are faced with this dirty linen being washed in our secular press.
Your article put the right balance to the tale with a thoughtful nudge to reexamine our sales pitch for honesty in advertising.