Anxious as hell.
That’s how a friend of mine recently described the pastors he knows. “They are anxious as hell, run ragged.” He is naming what is going on in the background—just beneath the surface of the all the preaching-teaching-tweeting.
He is naming a symptom of increasing pressure to produce and perform in a world where church doesn’t mean what it used to. The rules are changing. The questions are shifting. Well-worn techniques aren’t working. The money isn’t flowing, and the avenues for self-promotion are varied and crowded.
Searching for a Spiritual Equilibrium
I think my friend is right. And it’s not just pastors. The feel of dis-ease (lack of ease) goes all the way down. The way of life we once trusted as normal continues to fray at the edges, and we’re all scrambling to deal with it, to recover some type of spiritual equilibrium.
At this point in the fray, Christian leaders are both reacting to and reinforcing this spirit of dis-ease and anxiety at work in the communities they lead. It’s like a corporate scale expression of the axiom “hurt people hurt people.” Anxiety breeds anxiety. Under this pressure, most of us want relief. We want to return to normal. Like a bad case of spiritual bronchitis, we want to get over it. If I’m honest, I want relief too. I want to feel better and I want the people I lead to feel better.
However, I’m discovering that two not-so-intuitive gospel truths are challenging my assumptions and making space for leaning into God’s Kingdom amidst this modern, pastoral pressure:
- The problem goes deeper than we realize, and
- truly dealing with God is disturbing stuff.*
Spiritual Formation Blossoming in Brokenness
No one is saying it quite this directly, but it seems like the expected outcome of encountering God’s healing presence is relief from dis-ease. We know we have found spiritual healing when we feel better, that is, back to normal.
But what if opening our lives to God’s healing doesn’t necessarily relieve the tension? What if, when dealing with God, there is no going back to normal? What if normal is precisely what we need to get over?
We often unknowingly treat the problem of spiritual brokenness like we treat sickness. The attendant symptoms (i.e., the anxiety and dis-ease) are invasions into an otherwise normal mode of existence. Although we don’t often sell it like this, spiritual formation and discipleship become a kind of therapeutic process. We know it’s working when we get relief from the tension, feel better or return to normal functioning.
This posture toward brokenness is underwritten by a truncated biblical theology. The story goes something like this: Humanity was whole in Eden, but sin intruded, and we fell from the goodness of our original state. God’s saving intention, climaxing in Christ, is to get rid of sin and its effects so we can go back to how things were before, in Eden.
But maybe it’s worse than we thought. Maybe the problem is that, at our core, we don’t actually want to be healed by God. Yes, we’d like to feel better, but not be healed. We’d like relief from the symptoms, but not to be led through the pain of being touched and transformed by Holy Love at the point of our deepest wounds.
Another version of the story is that there is no going back to Eden. There is no going back before our wounds. In fact, “normal” was never the goal of human flourishing. God did not send Jesus to get us back to how things were before, but rather to bring all creation into a completely new, but always-promised, fullness. And that fullness is life in Christ, who even now bears the wounds of redemption.
God is not primarily healing us from brokenness. He is healing us for newness in Christ’s life, to grow in wisdom and love. In the truncated story, brokenness can only be problematic and arbitrary. Dis-ease is an unwanted and unhelpful obstacle that holds us back. Blessed are those who can get over it. But in the newness story, brokenness becomes a source of healing and dis-ease a sign of new creation. Teachers are those that point us toward wisdom and love amidst the brokenness. Blessed are the poor.
The Fraying of Normal as the Work of the Spirit
When the best thing that could happen is that we get relief from anxiety and dis-ease, God’s healing is primarily experienced as a dopamine release. Divine encounter becomes so closely associated with dopamine release, which effectively makes God into our dopamine dealer. Or, worse, God becomes indistinguishable from dopamine.
Either way, the Spirit of God is not a free agent of New Creation, but a tool in the belt of the modern project to reify the autonomous self. The implication is that dealing with God and encountering Christ as Grace and Truth will not always leave us feeling better. It won’t necessarily feel like relief. The tension might not go away in the short term or long term.
Chances are that God’s healing will mess up your life. That means it’s not unusual for dis-ease and tension to increase, not decrease, as we experience God’s healing.
The question is, can we begin to receive this as good news? Can we grow in wisdom and love even as the conditions in which God heals us for newness in Christ’s life look nothing like what we want them to look like?
As our “normal” continues to fray at the edges, and everyone is scrambling to recover equilibrium, can we lean into the dis-ease as the work of the Spirit, who is making a way forward into a new future that we do not control?
*I’m riffing off Charles Taylor’s language in A Secular Age [619ff], as well as James KA Smith’s read of Taylor, for this particular insight.
This article originally appeared here.