Dr. Dale Ryan, a professor here at Fuller who was a pastor for a number of decades suggests that if you took all of the sermons preached on Sunday in American and put them in a giant pot, and boiled them down to distill them to their basic elements, and then looked at the bottom of the pot you would read one clear message:
I could not agree more.
Indeed I think this is the spirituality on offer to most Christians. This is the spirituality of a slave. Christians are obsessed with laws and commandments, from God and from the church, written and unwritten, and must work hard to earn their identity and hopefully feel accepted, by God and by other Christians.
Often this slave identity is fed by a fake humility. Many Christians intentionally disparage humanity, as if mocking God’s masterpiece somehow honors God. Humans are trash or dirt or rubbish or a vapor. While these all sound biblical and spiritual and are in one sense true, this is only part of the truth. This reinforces a very low view of Christians that suggests all Christians are only, “sinners saved by grace” or “beggars who were lucky enough to find food” or something else that sounds pious but is a deep misunderstanding of who the people of God are. This fake humility often reinforces or seeds self-hatred disguised as pious humility.
Compounding this situation is the fact that Christians are barraged by a list of things to do, a list of things to have and a list of things to be by the Church. The unspoken message is that one must be moral and ethical enough, known enough of the right theology, have enough of the right experiences, be involved in enough of the church’s programs, etc. to be good enough.
Christians are inevitably met with their failure to live up to all of these expectations and can become concerned about their acceptance before others and before God. They may begin to wonder if their failure is a sign that they are not a Christian or God is not helping them. They may begin to wonder if God does not like them, for if God liked them, He would help them more. Many Christians at this point embark upon a quest to obtain God’s acceptance and favor and help through religious performance, turning into human’s doing instead of human beings. Some Christians are truly burdened by this and take their religious performance to the extreme. Christians often call these people “pastors” or “missionaries.”
However, there is never enough religious performance in this world to make you feel secure in your identity and accepted by God. I know this because I have tried.
To make matters worse are the inherent contradictions within Christianity, a powerless civil religion. The ideals of Christianity are constantly laid out before Christians, but the only means by which followers of Jesus are to achieve these things, through the power of God and a relationship with the Holy Spirit, is absent. To use a quotation from C.S. Lewis this is like “castrating the gelding and bit it be fruitful.”
Christian spirituality sets people up for failure. Christians must try to achieve the ideals of Christianity on their own willpower instead of through a deep rootedness in God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit. Trying to live the Christian life without walking in fellowship with the Holy Spirit and starting with a deep rootedness in God’s love for you is like to trying to fly by flapping your own arms; it’s not just hard, it’s impossible.
The inevitable big and small failures that come sadly only reinforce the self-hatred disguised as pious humility and highlight how far Christians have yet to go. This often contributes to so much of the deception and mask wearing that goes on in church. Christians, embarrassed by their inability to perform to the expectations before them, hide their failures. They try to put their best foot forward in the Christian community instead of talking about their experience. I am convinced that the highest levels of self-deception in American happen on Sunday from 8:00am to 12:00pm. So many people pretend it creates a fake atmosphere of perfection and peace. People who are not experiencing this feel an unspoken pressure to not rock the boat, and feel like they are the only ones struggling. Their only hope is that they can get their life together by keeping secret and trying harder.
For some people this spirituality actually works and the variety of church programs and the never-satisfied need for volunteers provides ample opportunities for them to serve even if it is not fulfilling for them. For others, burn out is the inevitable end and their Christian life ends after they look back and feel used. I am convinced many examples where the careers of Christian leaders end in financial or sexual scandal, their spirituality is the primary culprit.