I am the pastor of small, rural congregations. All of our buildings are old–at least 100 years and one is getting close to 200. While all have been updated and upgraded to some extent with new-fangled things like electricity and somewhat efficient heating systems–a couple of them even have restrooms–they are still old buildings, designed and built in a era when personal comfort was something looked on with great suspicion. People who wanted to be comfortable when worshipping God were soft and probably in serious danger of committing sin.
While I sometimes joke with people that the seats in our old buildings were designed specifically to be uncomfortable, I think that is much more a reality than a joke. The Christian church has a long history of being at odds with comfort and ease. I think this comes out of a desire to take seriously the words of Jesus that we find in Matthew 16.24, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (NIV) In order to enable people to take up their cross, the church has perfected many ways of helping people deny themselves.
The seats in our older church buildings are a prime example, although seats themselves, no matter how uncomfortable, would have been seen as something of a temptation to an earlier generation of church leaders–many early buildings didn’t have seats at all. I mean, after all, Acts 20 tells the story of a young man named Eutychus, who was sitting down during worship and managed to fall asleep. Standing was a much better option for some church designers when it came to imposing self-denial.
Now, as pastor, I don’t normally have to sit in the pews in our church buildings, although the chair for the preacher which I get to sit in for short periods of time is not a particularly comfortable one. But I do have some thoughts on the whole self-denial thing, whether it is forced or voluntarily chosen. For me, we generally start the self-denial process in the wrong place, make some wrong assumptions and then, on the basis of this, end up doing some pretty pointless things.
When we begin the process with the denial stuff, I think we are bound for trouble. As a pastor and a counsellor, I have realized over many years of ministry that self-denial needs to begin with the self–meaning that we need to have a much better understanding of who and what we are before we begin denying ourselves or others than we normally do.
Often, we are taught that we are worthless, evil and sinful from the moment we are conceived. We are encouraged to see ourselves as beings with no redeeming features–our very best is still sinful and wrong and tainted and hopelessly evil. And while that may be a very common and popular conservative-leaning Christian theology, it is simply wrong.
Humans are made in the image of God. As the Psalmist tells us, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14). We come into the world with talents and abilities and possibilities and potentials that are divinely planned. Certainly, we and all that we are affected by sin, both ours and the rest of the world’s. But we don’t somehow become worthless as soon as we come into being. We become beings whose whole life and potential is affected negatively by the reality of sin–but that doesn’t mean that we lose all the good and all the potential and all that might be. It does mean that it will be harder to be who we were meant to be; that we probably won’t reach the heights that God planned for us; that our full potential will never be realized–but it doesn’t mean that we are worthless worms.
Before we begin denying self or giving in to the institutionally encouraged denials, we would probably be a lot further ahead emotionally and spiritually if we got to know who and what we are. We can and need to look at how we are affected by sin–but we also need to know what we are and what we can be. We need to be able to see what God has given us; to discover the fearful and wonderful way God has knit us together.
Before we even think about denying self, we should get to know ourselves. After all, the God who knows us better than we know ourselves loves us as we are.
May the peace of God be with you.