I’ll admit it. There are people in my life who I just want to shake some sense into because they are so heavenly minded that they serve no earthly good.
You know them.
You: Hey, how are you doing?
Them: I’m blessed and highly favored of the Lord, waiting on King Jesus to crack the sky and living in the presence of the Almighty.
You: (Dramatic pause) Well alrighty then.
Many times I’d like to follow up with, “How so?” In other words, “how blessed and highly favored are you? Where’s the evidence? Where is your fruit? And why are you waiting on Jesus to crack the sky if He’s already cracked your heart? Isn’t the truth really that King Jesus is waiting on YOU?”
But I don’t say any that because, frankly, most people wouldn’t be able to receive it and I don’t want to offend anyone.
See, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these folk’s responses, except when it becomes a rote part of a larger language used by believers to avoid being authentic and telling the truth. Instead of saying “I’m not doing so well today, keep me in prayer” or, “Today is a good day. I’m looking forward to going to (fill in the blank)” we silence the true nature of our faith journeys and paint pretty religious pictures for the world to see.
Another example: In many historically Black churches, it’s mandatory that anyone who steps to the mic begin their presentation with “First giving honor to God who is the head of my life…” An awesome declaration, for sure, but is He really the head of your life? Or, did you put Him on the back burner that week so you could selfishly indulge your own proclivities? Do you really give honor to God first? Or does that come after you’ve gossiped about the newest member and her man?
Given this, I wonder how much more accountable we would all be if we chose to forgo the religious “language” of church and spoke from our hearts? How many non-believers would be open to meeting Jesus if we ditched the fakery and had real talk time with them about our struggles and doubt, our victories and triumphs–and the grace that threads all these together?
Just like Christ, there’s a duality in us that we must reconcile in order to free ourselves from using religious language as masks. Can we be transparent like our Savior and say “Please take this cup from me, Lord” AND “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done”?
In a CNN Belief Blog article entitled, “Do You Speak Christian?”, Bill Leonard, a professor at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, discussed how Christian speech has infiltrated political circles as a way to send coded messages to evangelical constituents. He highlighted the Christian speech of former president George W. Bush who was the most recent example of Christian speech in the political sphere. Of this he said, “Ordinary Christians do what Bush did all the time,” said Leonard. They use coded Christian terms like verbal passports – flashing them gains you admittance to certain Christian communities.”
I submit that these “verbal passports” are more like VIP passes into a special club. Speaking the language affords you all the rights and privileges of being a part of some uber-religious “cool kids” table in the cafeteria of Christianity. And yet scripture says, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25 ESV).
I suspect that this way of masking ourselves actually came from a kind of genuine but skewed interpretation of scripture. We love to highlight scriptures that allow us to throw context out the window in favor of comfort. We’ll quote Job “‘I will forget my complaint, I will put off my sad face, and be of good cheer'” (Job 9:27 ESV) but forget about God “delighting in truth in the inward being” (Ps. 51:6) or how He “opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” And it’s definitely an issue of pride. The scripture that makes us most comfortable, or puffs us up the most, is usually the one we make our personal doctrine.
If I’m honest, I’ve been speaking Christian-ese for a long time. I first learned it when I was about eleven and my parents accepted Christ and began attending church in our town, Louisville, KY. Of course, I wasn’t aware that I was learning a new language. I just found myself so immersed in it that, just a like a baby learning his or her first words, I acquired what I heard around me.
Now, nearly thirty years later, I am fluent. I even know the various dialects. For example, in the Charismatic traditions, I know exactly what is meant by “name it and claim it” even though I wrestle with the notion that I can name and claim something regardless of whether or not it is in God’s will for me—or better yet, whether it is good for me period.
But these are the words we use. Words that are simply linguistical masks we wear to avoid sharing or hearing the truth.
Wearing the Mask & Soul-Blindness
This masking is the evidence of a kind of psychosis gone mostly undiagnosed in the Church. That might seem like a stretch, but consider this: When we choose to use such vague language to mask, we run the risk of blocking ourselves from the truth. The truth of our own lives and the truth about the conditions of the world around us. There’s a mental, emotional, and spiritual break with reality to the extent that we can actually no longer see what is in front of us. We create a parallel reality that allows us to be functional in the world but not really see both the extreme beauty and desperate tragedy in it. And this inevitably shows up in our language. It’s the reason why many people who profess Christ can seem oblivious to things like police brutality, hunger, and any number issues of our day.
It’s what I call soul blindness which, at its core, is a rather genius but insidious way the enemy of our souls can keep us unconsciously compassionless. And isn’t that his greatest intention; to harden our hearts in this way? If he can’t have our souls, he can keep us from “loving our neighbor” (see Matt. 22:39) or “laying down our lives for our friends” (see John 15:13).
“Racism doesn’t exist. He shouldn’t have stolen the cigarillo. They are just trying to take our jobs,” says the soul-blind believer in earnest. All despite any clear evidence to the contrary. Why do they say this? Because they can’t see it any other way. Because seeing it will convict their hearts and minds and challenge them to more Christ-likeness than they feel they can bear. So they choose a more comfortable, disingenuous position and their words follow suit.
I would venture to say that the silence of some in the church during a critical season in our country—in light of racial tensions, obvious injustices, police brutality against people of color—is evidence of what happens when we choose to exist as a masked entity and therefore, are not willing to have the uncomfortable conversations with each other. Dropping our religious language and subsequently veils from our eyes, requires us, as representatives of the Savior, to stand at the forefront of very divisive issues, ready and willing to “love our neighbors” (John 13:34), “love our enemies” (Matt. 5:44) and “stay awake” (Luke 21:36).
But soul blindness doesn’t just show up with big ticket, socio-political issues. Evidence of a soul-blind believer can be found in phrases like “”Men will be men. Don’t put your mouth on the man of God.” or “She doesn’t belong here.” or “Was it really abuse? What did she do wrong?”
Or, at a very basic level, “I’m alright.”
No, you’re not. You….we…are not alright.
Working Toward a Solution
If we keep using Christian language and masking as a way to shield ourselves from the realities of life and the truth of ourselves, we will eventually create an entirely false self—void of authenticity, integrity, or truth. When too many of us live in this false reality we run the risk of not just creating false selves but being a false church. A church that exists only on the surface of our communities. A church that refuses to go deep. To stand in our own proverbial Garden of Gethsemane and submit simultaneously to the pains of life and the power of God.
Some might argue that if we start being “too real” with people about the realities of living in faith–the sweet and the not-so-sweet parts–that we might turn them off from the Faith. However, the opposite is actually true. The hardships of life that people of faith experience are certainly not unique to us. Every man, woman, boy and girl experiences trails and tribulations of some sort. However, it is the person of faith who has a Savior to cast his or her cares upon. THAT is the distinguishing factor. THAT is the draw. Most of those who are seeking are clear about the inevitability of conflict and trouble but they deeply desire to know what keeps a believer standing; what keeps us faithful. But if we are constantly using language that makes it seem as though we have no problems then unbelievers 1) will not identify with us (identification–having something in common–being one of the first steps to building relationships) and 2) will never have the opportunity to know Who helps us keep it together when we are falling apart.
Another part of the “Don’t Drive Unbelievers Away” argument is this strange idea that we as believers somehow we have it harder because the devil is “after us.” Yet if we really think about it, that’s counterintuitive. While the enemy certainly wants to thwart our actions on behalf of the Father, if we’ve confessed our faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, then he has already lost our souls. His attempts are in vain. It is the unbeliever that he’s determined to keep bound. To keep them from the abundant eternal life Christ offers, he comes to “kill, steal, and destroy.” (see John 10:10). And he’s not beyond using our superficial language to do it.
Fortunately, there is a solution. I’m inclined to say it is simple though that may be wishful thinking. It’s simple in concept but definitely complicated in execution. First, we must be courageous. Scripture says, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9-10). Do we have the courage to go and be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually naked in front of one another? Can we truly “confess our faults with one another” (see James 5:16)? That truly is part of the edification process. I’m buoyed with expectation and hope when I know I’m not alone in my wrestlings. I can press on when I learn that I don’t have to isolate myself in silos of self-preservation and impression management.
Finally, we must embrace each other. God made us to respond to love. Our hearts quicken and our spirits activate in its presence. Once we all find the courage to share our hearts with one another, we must embrace what’s been shared. We must wrap those often ugly places in love. Many times, the church loves to sentence people who show us their hurt, pain, and sin. I propose we sentence that hurt, pain, and sin to love.
Tracey Michae’l is the author of seven books, including The Integrated Church: Authentic Multicultural Ministry (Beacon Hill Press) and The Next Thing is Joy (BGP). Most of her work as a writer and speaker probes the intersection of faith/spirituality with social issues such as race, class, and gender. Tracey’s writing has appeared in numerous publications online and in print. Visit her online at www.traceymlewis.com