The most awkward and upsetting Christian experience I have ever had happened during a footwashing service held by my college Christian group.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was a part of the leadership; we were trying, as best we could, to embrace the idea of radical servanthood. And how better to do that than wash each other’s feet? We planned the event and invited all the Christians we could find on campus.
They came. And somewhere around the beginning of the service, in a dimly-lit college utility room as mournful instrumental music played in the background, I began to wonder if we’d made the right decision. Stacks of towels and buckets of water waited, but our normally enthusiastic members stuck to the wall in uncertain clusters, occasionally sharing embarrassed smiles. It took coaxing to get the event started and to get people in seats, and once the washing begin, the atmosphere still seemed more tense than reverent.
I told myself this was normal. Peter had balked at having his own feet washed; how was I any different?
But then a friend of mine approached, and my attempts at nonchalance turned into outright discomfort. Not long before the event he’d experienced an interest in dating me. I had declined his advances, so when he knelt and grabbed my feet, it felt…strange. Especially since my then-boyfriend (now-husband) was in attendance. It felt even stranger when my friend started to pray – aloud – that God would forgive him for his struggle to “let me go” and permit him to serve me as “only a sister in Christ and nothing more.” My cheeks burned. The act felt manipulative and deliberate, and I wanted to yank my feet away. Nothing about that moment felt spiritual or godly or remotely Christlike.
When he finished the washing and let my feet go, I was relieved – and then he grabbed my boyfriend’s. My stomach twisted up. Again aloud, my friend asked God’s forgiveness for being envious of my boyfriend’s relationship with me and for thinking I was amazing, and expressed his desire to serve us better. My boyfriend shot me panicked, bewildered glances. He was uncomfortable, too.
Looking back on that incident, I wish I had expressed my discomfort. I wish I had quietly said, “Excuse me; this is inappropriate and not in keeping with the spirit of this event,” and withdrawn. But I didn’t have the words. I wasn’t even sure I was supposed to have them. The event was supposed to be godly, and was, for many people. I didn’t want to make a scene or cause a problem. And I didn’t want to look like I was making a big deal out of nothing.
To one degree or another, I suspect this happens a lot in churches. Maybe you don’t want to hug anyone during the fellowship time, but you do it because expressing discomfort would be…well, weird. Or you don’t want to participate in a certain activity or game, but you go through with it because…well, there’s no good excuse. Or you don’t feel comfortable with something being asked of you, but you participate because you feel like you ought to do so. Or you don’t like something that’s happening, but worry you’ll be the only one speaking out. We often suppress our church-related discomfort because we all too often feel that our discomfort, rather than the circumstance that caused it, is the problem.
On the most minor level, this unwillingness to express discomfort, or allow others to express discomfort, can result in forced interactions, embarrassment, awkwardness, and mild upset. (I say mild, but those sorts of things can really chip away at a believer’s sense of identity, of their place within a congregation, and their Christian walk.) On the most major level, it can result in all manner of abuse, in someone’s estrangement from church, and even in their estrangement from God.
Complicating this is the issue that at times our discomfort should be interrogated and, if necessary, set aside. I know plenty of people who felt uncomfortable starting a new ministry or a task from God, for example – much the same way Moses felt discomfort over the prospect of public speaking – only to realize that overcoming the discomfort was part of the growth process.
All of this tells me that we as believers need to make it possible for people to express, to discuss, and to interrogate their discomfort without punishing, ostracizing, or condemning them for doing so.
If someone is uncomfortable hugging during fellowship, a cheerful “oh, okay! No problem!” is preferable to a strange glance and a turning-away. If someone is uncomfortable participating in a game or an activity, if they’re uncomfortable with what’s being asked of them or what is happening in a given moment, then the answer is not to force them through it but to listen: to hear what is being said, and why. To not ostracize those who say I’m not comfortable or make the penalty for expressing discomfort so high that no one dares to do so regardless of the consequence.
Doing this makes it possible for churches to catch problems before they start, to create a safe and comfortable environment for congregants, and to hopefully avoid the sort of fractures and fissures that start developing when believers are afraid to avoid any sort of dissent or disagreement. This also permits a chance for us to interrogate discomfort; to take some time away from a situation and the public eye, examine a situation, and ask, “Is it possible that this discomfort, like Moses’ discomfort with speaking, is a spiritual obstacle that needs to be overcome? What do you think?”
I’ve seen many congregations and Christians struggle over voicing their discomfort, fearing that doing so would get them in trouble or branded as “a person who stirs up conflict in the community” (Proverbs 6:18). But if we make it okay for people to pipe up and say “I’m uncomfortable” without suffering for doing so – if we give people a space where it’s okay to say that and to think about it – then we’ll actually strengthen our churches as a place where honesty can be spoken in love.
It’s time to get comfortable with expressing that we’re uncomfortable.