Disillusioned with God’s people (part 1)

OK, show of hands. How many of you have ever found yourself disillusioned by the way you were treated by other Christians?

I recently posed this question to a group of seminary students. I had already heard some of their stories of “church hurt,” and thought it might be useful to take a quick poll. How many of them had been hurt by fellow believers in the church?

Almost everyone in the class put up their hands.

Without hesitation.

Not everyone, of course, has been hurt in the same way or to the same degree. There are the more extreme stories involving malice and the abuse of power. Youth being molested. People being forced out of ministry positions for reasons of jealousy and spite.

More common, though, are the stories of how we hurt one another through garden-variety self-centeredness. We make people feel like they don’t belong. We take each other’s ministries for granted. We fail to think about how our decisions will impact others. We avoid uncomfortable conversations and gossip instead. We point fingers easily, but avoid taking responsibility ourselves. In big ways and small, whether we consciously intend to or not, we seek to increase our sense of power, significance, or control, even if it means that someone else must decrease in the process.

We come to church to find a spiritual family, to find God. We come seeking to rub shoulders with people who are supposed to get it, who are supposed to know the real meaning of love and grace.

What happened?

“Disillusionment” is an interesting word. Normally, we think of illusions as bad things. People need to live in reality, and reality will keep asserting itself until they do. To think that you’re more successful or popular than you really are, to kid yourself into thinking you have more control than you really do — well, we all know the stories. Sooner or later comes the downfall.

But if illusions are bad, then why is it also bad to be dis-illusioned? What’s wrong with having our illusions taken away?

For starters, obviously, because it hurts. We’ve tied too many of our hopes and too much of our sense of self to our illusions, and it hurts to have them ripped away.

But there’s a deeper reason with which we need to grapple. If the truth be told, we like our illusions more than reality, and are loath to give them up.

So here’s the question: to what extent are we living with an illusion of what we expect the church to be?

I’m not saying it’s all smoke and mirrors. We’ve had our hearts leap when gathered together for worship; we have seen each other with eyes of compassion; we have loved in sacrificial ways, knowing that we were extending the arms of Jesus as we did so. These things are real, not illusory. These are ways in which we know that the Holy Spirit hasn’t abandoned us.

And yet…we cling to other illusions. Finally, this is the place; these are the people who won’t hurt me.

Sorry to say, but that’s not how it is, not even in the Bible.

We’ll keep exploring that in the next post.