In one of Mark Twain’s books, there is a description of a worship service. There are two prominent large families in the church and a scattering of others, including Twain’s protagonist–I can’t remember if it was Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, although I lean towards it being Huck Finn.
The worship service is filled with tension because the two prominent families are feuding. They each have their own side of the sanctuary and had carefully stacked their guns along the back wall as they entered for worship. Twain describes the service progressing with the music, presumably the offering, and the sermon. But at some point, something happens and the feud becomes more important that the worship service.
The families run for their guns and begin shooting each other. Some die inside the sanctuary and others smash through windows and doors and carry on a running battle around the building, in the woods surrounding the building and among the headstones in the graveyard.
Twain probably had lots of things in mind with that scene but I am pretty sure one of his goals was to poke fun at the reality of the difference between what believers claim and what we actually do. While I don’t know believers who have actually started a shooting war during worship, I do know some whose feuding has split congregations and I have also met a few who choose violence to settle differences. All of us have read the reports of institutional abuse by churches and denominations. Over the centuries, the church and believers have given people outside the faith more than enough reason to distrust and disrespect us.
Now, on one level, I understand and appreciate and can even forgive the feuding families in Twain’s story and all the others whose behaviour is as such odds with their proclaimed faith. After all, we are not perfect–in Christ, we are forgiven, we are assured of being in the presence of God for all time–but we got there not by our behaviour but because we accepted God’s grace in faith. We didn’t come into the faith because we were perfect, we don’t become perfect because we are in the faith and we won’t die perfect because we are in the faith. So, we need to expect that believers can and will commit every sin in the book.
But at the same time I believe and teach this theological and practical reality, I struggle with it because it can too easily become a justification for avoiding another part of the Faith. It is true that we are not what we should be and it is equally true that we will not become what we should be this side of eternity–but it is also true that we are called to try to be something more than we are.
The theological term “sanctification” is used to describe the process of becoming more and more what we were meant to be. After we become believers, the Holy Spirit works with us, showing us those habits, characteristics, traits and so on that are incompatible with our faith. The same Holy Spirit shows us how to change these things and even provides the help we need to change them. The Holy Spirit functions as a divine GPS in our journey from what we are and shouldn’t be to what we can and should be.
With all that divine help, how come there are still such problems and issues? How come people like Mark Twain and many others can find so many terrible stories about the church and individual believers that they can use to blacken our church and our faith?
Maybe it is because we in the faith really don’t take the process of sanctification seriously enough. And we probably don’t take sanctification seriously enough because we don’t take our sin seriously enough. Now, I don’t think we need to go around thinking ourselves worms and all that–but I do think we would all benefit from some serious thinking on what it means to be a forgiven believer who still has a foot in the sin side of things.
I don’t think it is a good thing to spend all our time beating ourselves up because we aren’t perfect–but I also don’t think it is a good thing to ignore our imperfection. We are not what we could be or were meant to be–but part of our faith is the commitment to becoming more what we could and can be as a result of our faith. Our faith needs to make us different in a way that both we and those around us can see and appreciate.
May the peace of God be with you.