Bono’s conversation with Eugene Peterson in the recent short-documentary on the Psalms, produced by Fuller Studio, pinpoints what is generally absent in North American Christianity: honesty. Or what I call, the failure of Christians to admit that they are human.
“Why I’m suspicious of Christians is because of this lack of realism,” says Bono, “and I’d love to see more of that in art and in life and in music.”
I’m not an artist or a musician, so I can’t really comment on those realms. But what I can comment on is life and how this apparent lack of realism intersects with our theology.
Many Christians, Evangelicals in particular, operate in Church and in relationships out of a faith that seems polished and pristine, lacking vulnerability and realism in our relationships with each other and the outside world. No more is this lack of realism, this lack of humanity, more obvious than in the lives of pastors.
A recent article on HelloChristian asks “Why do so many pastors fall?” Well, one conclusion the article comes to is that many pastors who fall into moral failure “believe that pastors weren’t allowed to be weak. Nor were they allowed to be human, like everybody else.”
The reason pastors feel this way is partially due to the fact that they feel a pastor has to be superhuman, above sin, or that they have to be morally and ethically superior to every other human being in the Church and world. But I don’t think this mentality is exclusive to leaders in the Church, as sad as it is.
It’s also a pervasive attitude in the pews and in Christian music, as Bono prophetically voices. The truth be told, many Christians have forgotten what it’s like to be human. Like their revered superhuman and celebrity leaders, they’ve opted for repression rather than realism. We’ve held to a very morally simplistic view of the atonement, one that says the Christian message is all about being “less sinful” and “more spiritual and holy.” But to be honest, that’s a bit of (understandable) bullshit. Sorry for the language, I’m human after all.
Eugene Peterson says so himself, albeit in a slightly more appropriate way: “We don’t become more spiritual by becoming less human.”
And that’s the point. Christians have forgotten what it means to be human, what it means to be real. We’ve denied our human reality and the reality of God in Christ. And I think this has happened because we’ve simply taken our eyes off Jesus, the Son of God, who became human and experienced our reality. We’ve opted for the polished and veneered Christianity of North American cultural religionism, instead of the good news of Jesus the crucified God-man who suffered and overcome the paradoxical realities of human existence.
But is this the God of the Bible?
Not according to Jesus or a Jesus-centered theology. We find in the Old Testament first a Messiah God who is a “man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53: 3). In the New Testament this humble Savior Jesus empties Himself of superhuman power and pristine holiness, “becoming nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” and dying a criminal’s death on a Roman cross (Phil. 2:7).
“God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross,” says Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers from Prison. “He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us….Christ helps us, not by omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”
The same can be said of Christians. How can we help each other and people in the world if we always present ourselves as polished and pristine moral superiors? How can we talk about the saving grace of God if we always present ourselves as god-like figures of superhuman strength and perfection? The truth is that this is not what it means to be Christian, because it is not what it means to be human. We are called to be real, not to repress our humanity for the sake of appearance and religious standing.
It’s okay to be human
To be a human-Christian is okay, friends. It’s okay to suffer, to struggle, to be weak and to fail. It’s not a contradiction or “sin” to experience these realities as a Christian, because God Himself can relate with our struggles in Christ. Our God knows shame, fear, suffering, confusion, weakness and death. He even knows what it’s like to suffer the consequences of sin. For “He became sin who knew no sin,” says the Chris Tomlin song that reflects the truth of God’s Word in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Perhaps it is Bonhoeffer again who said it best in Meditations on the Cross:
There are so many experiences and disappointments that drive sensitive people toward nihilism and resignation. That is why it is good to learn early that suffering and God are not contradictions, but rather a necessary unity. For me, the idea that it is really God who suffers has always been one of the most persuasive teachings of Christianity. I believe that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and that finding God in this way brings peace and repose and a strong, courageous heart.
What is Christianity about?
Christianity is about the God-man Jesus colliding with the broken and paradoxical realities of human existence to suffer with us, to forgive us, to heal us, to love us, to place us on a path of salvation and on a course of resurrection hope. It is about “the big picture of cosmic redemption,” says N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope, that God and the Bible “invites us to make our own.”
God loves human beings, and His love and grace for us is costly, unfathomable, and extraordinary. The Christian message is about a God who became human to redeem and make humanity whole. In Jesus, “God goes incognito, as a beggar among beggars, as an outcast among outcasts, as despairing among the despairing, as dying among the dying,” says Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Christ the Center. And so we should remember (and take to heart) that God also calls us Christians to admit we are human and to be vulnerable with suffering humanity as Christ was on earth.
To be human is to be vulnerable, imperfect, weak and honest about our struggles with each other. To be human means to be okay with real life and the paradoxical realities we face, knowing that God became human and saved us from the destruction of becoming our own self-righteous and self-sufficient gods.
Yes, God calls humans to admit we are sinners, but He also calls us Christians to admit we are human. When Christians are real and honest, as Bono (and I think God) calls us to be, only then can people in our world see that God loves us all and calls us all to come to Jesus for affirmation and saving love.