Is it safe to struggle here?

Christian congregations routinely preach a message of grace. That’s as it should be. Sadly, however, in the very same congregations, people often do a poor job of embodying that grace toward one another. We know that everyone is a sinner in the eyes of a holy God, and that none can earn salvation on their own merits. But if the truth be told, the social life of many churches is a meritocracy. Formally or informally, some people are judged as more spiritual, more enlightened, more faithful, more…Christian than others.

And some are judged as less.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that “anything goes” in the Christian life. The Bible declares us holy as believers and demands that we conduct ourselves accordingly. Ultimately, we will one day have to give account to God for how we’ve lived.

But that means we are not God. Our way of judging others, whether we care to admit it or not, is too often a betrayal of the gospel of grace that we profess and preach. How can we know? Here’s one test: when we criticize others for the weakness of their faith or the shallowness of their spirituality, are we secretly (or even not so secretly!) proud that we’re more mature than they are? More educated? More devoted? More sheep than goat?

If so, we may also be more the self-satisfied Pharisee than the humble and repentant publican.

And we know which one Jesus declared justified in the eyes of God.

. . .

This is why I’ve wanted us to have a closer look at Psalm 27 in recent posts. I’m leery of calling that psalm a “triumphant song of confidence” as the New Revised Standard Version does. The label is too one-dimensional, lacking the nuance of the psalm itself. It’s like promotional copy for a book that biases how you read it. And that kind of bias can play right into the hands of a congregational culture that marginalizes people who dare to admit that their confidence in God is anything but 100%.

It’s not that the psalmist’s words lack confidence. The song beautifully expresses a strong trust in God and a longing to be in God’s presence. At first, it seems that nothing can make the psalmist afraid or rock his confidence — not even when he’s surrounded by people who want to kill him, make war against him, or tell scurrilous lies to bring him down.

But as we’ve seen, the middle verses of the psalm add a different dimension. In verses 1 to 6, the psalmist talks about God; in verse 7, he begins talking to God. Don’t hide your face, he pleads. Don’t turn me away; don’t cast me off; don’t forsake me; don’t give me up to my enemies. He prays as if God has turned a deaf ear or a blind eye to his plight.

The psalmist, of course, knows what he believes; he knows all the reasons for remaining confident in God. He knows what God has done to preserve his people, and probably, to preserve the psalmist personally. He’s not giving up: he encourages himself to continue seeking God’s face, to be strong and courageous, to wait upon God.

All of these expressions are part of the life of faith. We know what we believe, what we’re supposed to believe, what we want to believe. We sing the songs; we praise God; we want to be in his presence. And at the same time, in difficult circumstances, we may be unsure of God’s presence and care. We cry out like the desperate father of the boy tormented by an unclean spirit: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

. . .

“Help my unbelief.” Is that something we’d feel safe saying in our congregations? In some churches, people are expected to express only triumphant, confident faith. When someone struggles with doubt, it makes others anxious or uncomfortable, and they in turn feel compelled to “fix” the person who’s struggling. Have more faith, the person is told. Pray harder. Just believe. Soon, the person learns that beyond a certain point, it’s not acceptable to doubt, lament, or show weakness.

It’s not safe.

Think about what it would mean for Psalm 27 to be sung as a worship song, to be sung together as a community — an entire congregation singing, “Don’t hide your face, don’t cast me off, don’t forsake me.” What this suggests to me is that confidence in God is not an individual achievement, something to accomplish in order to belong to a triumphant community. Rather, the community embraces the ambiguities and struggles of the life of faith and presents them to God.

Confidence, in other words, may be something we find together in shared worship. And that requires a social environment in which it is safe to be honest and safe to struggle.