Because I’m a college professor, I assign homework. Students are not into this.
A few years ago, one of my students was so not into this that she forgot to write down the page numbers of the reading assignment. Logging on to the forum for our class online, she promptly wrote an email that she sent in bulk to the class: “Can anyone send me the pg numbers for this stupid assignment we got. I hate these stupid readings and I probably won’t even do it but send it to me anyway lol”
To her horror, and to my amusement, she didn’t realize that I was a part of the class list to which she sent me the email.
She apologized profusely and frequently for the rest of the term once a few students emailed back to tell her what she hadn’t yet understood, and never looked quite comfortable in the class again after that. For my part, I found the moment fascinating. She was being honest. She really did think the readings were stupid. She was resentful at having to do them, as any normal student might be. I’m pretty sure over half my students have those exact same thoughts at some point throughout the term. What horrified her was that her honest self had been put on display – that I, the person she most wanted to lie to about her thoughts, intentions, and opinions, had seen her being completely authentic and real.
I think about this a lot when I think about Christianity. Believers often tend to hide themselves from others. We’ll all say that we’re sinners, and we confess to vague, amorphous sins like “pride” or “bad thoughts,” but very few of us will say something to other believers like, “I cursed out a driver in my head the other day when he cut me off on my way to work.” (And even as I write this, I find myself fretting, I hope they don’t think I chose that example from my own life, because I don’t do that. See how that works?) And it’s not always related to sin. I know believers who have struggled with problems and griefs that they can’t articulate with their congregation, out of fear or shame or sorrow. Uncertain how to handle something or not wanting to be stigmatized by it, they keep themselves quiet and try to handle it alone. The prevailing attitude sometimes goes something like this: we’re sinners who can say we’re sinners, but don’t want to look like sinners; we’re honest, but we don’t want to be too honest. Like my student, we often want other believers to see our “best” selves, rather than our sometimes not-so-great real selves. Even though we’re works in progress, we want other people to see us as always being on the right side of progress.
Because we’re afraid of what people will think, mostly. What people will say. Honesty can be ugly. And it can have consequences. When I read my student’s errant email, my instinct was irritation: “You think these readings are stupid? Grow up. Everyone else is managing just fine, and your lazy, careless attitude isn’t going to get you anywhere.” But I had to quiet the urge – not just because it was unprofessional, but because I’m a Christian, and because forgiveness matters. If God is going to deal gently with me, it’s my job to deal as gently with anyone else – including a recalcitrant freshman who got a little too real in a snarky email.
As Christians, it’s important that we don’t predicate God’s acceptance on perfection. Some of those God loved the most were also the most broken. When people confess to a sin or ask for forgiveness, or when believers are struggling with a shameful or painful problem in their lives, the answer is not to tether them to that sin or that problem forever. There will always be consequences for our actions – that’s just life – but our forgiveness and grace should be absolutely as deep as God’s forgiveness and grace: that is to say, it should cover all things, as many times as necessary, with impossibly deep love.
A pastor I once knew committed an act of infidelity that broke up his marriage and his family. Broken, he confessed the sin publicly and sought repentance. The response of believers was mixed. Some, who mentally tethered him to the sin of infidelity, never really got over the breach. While they remained cordial with the pastor, their love for him was restrained: a love of word and not acts, of politeness without real affection. Others decided to forgive him – an arduous process for him and for them – and, over time and as he suffered the consequences of his acts, slowly helped him to rebuild his life. In the end, that pastor regained a ministry that in some ways was stronger than what he had before thanks to the grace of God and other believers.
In the face of that sort of forgiveness, fear no longer exists. And where grace is, honesty grows. In your congregation, take care to ensure that there is space and love enough for honesty. Believers who are struggling will never be able to be honest if the thought of setting a foot wrong means they will lose the love or care of their church family. Believers who have sinned will have no path to full repentance if there aren’t hands willing to reach out and help them back up.
Oh, and make sure to check the “To:” section so you know your emails are getting to the right person. You can never be too sure.