I recently shared a quote from Brennan Manning on social media. For those who are unaware, Manning was a Catholic priest and a recovering alcoholic who spoke eloquently about the unbounded grace and love of God, the God who came for the weak ones.

The quote I shared said the following: “Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together, and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.”

Jesus in light

For Jesus, joy was about knowing that He was carried in the arms of God regardless of what anyone or anything threw at Him, says Nils von Kalm. PICTURE: Mads Schmidt Rasmussen/Unsplash. 

The things I share which often get the most engagement are the ones which talk about us not having it all together.

I think the church has come a long way in the last 30 or so years. I use that timeframe because that’s about as long as I’ve been a committed Christian. 

"The things I share which often get the most engagement are the ones which talk about us not having it all together."

The church culture that I was in during the late 1980s was one in which a lot of masks were worn. If you walked into church on a Sunday and didn’t have a smile on your face, you weren’t “right with God”; or at least that was the assumption. We sang songs which talked about putting on the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. Those words are Scriptural, so I believe there is truth in them, however the unspoken assumption was that you don’t complain about how bad a week you’ve had because that would somehow diminish your witness to the joy of the Lord. As a result, much of church culture was ‘nice’ in the sense of being dishonest and inauthentic.

Of course, depending on the circles you mix in, much church culture is still like that, and maybe I’ve moved out of it enough to just not see it much anymore. But I’m thankful that in my Christian circles, there is generally an honesty and vulnerability that is true to the experience of life.

Acknowledging the reality of life is essential for the Christian. Saying that things are fine - “praise the Lord!” - because Jesus has given us eternal life, when they are not, is not Christian. That sort of attitude comes not so much out of faith but out of a fear that if we were honest and admitted that we were struggling, we would actually be admitting that our faith is not as strong as it ought to be, or, worse, that God is not big enough to deal with our struggles.

Such an attitude is also generally more the product of a misguided church culture than of what we see in the Bible. 

It doesn’t take much of a look over the story of the Bible to see that lament, struggle and heartache are common themes. Australian pastor Rowland Croucher has said that every one of the major leaders in the Bible went through a wilderness experience. Every one of them, including Jesus. Of course, Jesus Himself is foretold in Isaiah as a man of sorrows, familiar with grief.

When we look at the Psalms we see the same. The American-Korean author, Soong Chan-Rah, has said that 40 per cent of the Psalms are psalms of lament. At the same time, he says that more than 90 per cent of the most popular contemporary worship songs are songs of triumph and not lament. It seems that praise sells; no-one wants to listen to songs that make you feel miserable.

Much of the niceness we express and experience in our church culture is simply not Christlike. I’ve mentioned before that the only time in all of the Gospels that Jesus talks about His own joy is on the night before He died. This was the night He sweated drops of blood in the garden and actually asked God if there was any way He didn’t have to go through His impending death. It was also the night every one of His closest friends deserted Him, including one who sold Him out for a bag of money and another who publicly denied He even knew Him. In the middle of this, Jesus talks about His joy.

It seems that for Jesus, joy was not about having a smile on your face and saying it’s all good when it’s clearly not. No, Jesus was honest. Jesus experiences joy right in the middle of His suffering. The irony is, that is often the only place we can experience joy. It’s different to happiness, where our circumstances help us feel pleasant feelings. Joy, in Jesus’ experience, was about knowing that He was carried in the arms of God regardless of what anyone or anything threw at Him.

It is this attitude of Jesus that those of us who are in circles that acknowledge struggle often need to look at more. Humans tend to go from one extreme to the other. We either focus on being happy all the time or, having come to a level of honesty and realising that we can’t be happy all the time, we focus more on the struggle than anything else.

I believe the Christian life offers a third way. I see it in the Psalms, in the prophets of the Old Testament, and in the life of Jesus.

The third way is the way of hope. Those 40 per cent of the Psalms that speak of lament almost always end up with a praise of God despite the struggle. The prophets, those awkward, odd people who made Israel incredibly uncomfortable with their constant rants against the injustice that God’s people were committing and the resultant judgment to come, also spoke of the unshakeable hope that, despite the judgment, a day was coming when God would restore the people, and indeed the whole earth, to an existence where they would be God’s people and God would be their God.

"The Christian story is ultimately one of hope restored. It is a story that confidently proclaims the victory of God despite current struggles. One of the many aspects of the Bible that I love is the fact that it is brutally honest. It is not ‘nice’ in the way that much of church culture is, and it does not stay in the struggle itself as if that is the end of the story."

The Christian story is ultimately one of hope restored. It is a story that confidently proclaims the victory of God despite current struggles. One of the many aspects of the Bible that I love is the fact that it is brutally honest. It is not ‘nice’ in the way that much of church culture is, and it does not stay in the struggle itself as if that is the end of the story. 

The Christian hope proclaimed in the Bible declares that hope wins, that love wins. And the strange way that it wins is by actually experiencing and acknowledging the struggle. It is through, and not despite, suffering that salvation is gained and the world is transformed. This message was utter foolishness to many in the first century, and unfortunately it remains utter foolishness to many in the church today.

The message of a crucified God who suffers and dies was just ridiculous in a 1st century Roman culture that worshipped military might and celebrated status and honour. And the fact that that God had risen to life and conquered death through suffering was even more ridiculous. May the church today acknowledge the struggle and praise and thank God that this is how salvation is gained.