Our sermon in church yesterday was about anger.
As the pastor discussed the problem of anger and how to deal with it, he pointed out that many people externalize anger: they yell, they shout, they direct that anger outward regardless of how nice and polite they must seem on the surface. Anybody, he emphasized, can be angry – but it’s up to us to handle our anger and deal with it in a godly way.
As he was continuing on during the sermon, the little eight-year-old boy in front of me sat up – he’d previously looked bored out of his mind and as though he was not paying the faintest attention to the sermon – and pointed at his mother. “It’s you!” he yelled. “That’s like you, mom! You get mad all the time but you’re nice on the phone!”
She looked absolutely mortified. “Stop that,” she whispered to him. “Put your hand down.”
But this child was possessed by the spirit of Nathan in 2 Samuel, only instead of “Thou art the man!” he just kept pointing and saying, loudly, “But it’s the truth, mama! I heard you yell before! You get mad at daddy! You get mad at me!”
She tried everything. She hissed at him again to “please stop that,” she ignored him, she offered that awkward-embarrassed smile to everyone sitting around her, she physically tried to put his arm down to keep him from pointing, and she eventually left church early with him at her side.
Watching that woman, I realized that it was possible her son was lying. I somehow doubted it, not just because children have a horrifying knack for shouting uncomfortable truths but also because her reaction had a strong whiff of “you will not embarrass me in church” about it: an innate defensiveness that said she did not want to be viewed as the sort of woman who would speak politely on the phone and then turn around and yell at her kid or her spouse, even though she totally was.
If that’s the case, she had my sympathy: I had just spent a half hour putting on makeup before getting in the car to come to church, and on the way had wondered, why do I do this? Why do I feel the need to impress people? I’m not sure that any time I have ever appeared in God’s house I have shown up with a naked face (I mean a really naked face, not the kind that “looks natural” thanks to eighty makeup products) and I was more than a little amazed by that.
Why do we care so much about how we’re perceived? Why do I?
Because people talk. Because gossip will fly. Because when that little kid pointed out “you get mad at daddy!” half the congregation laughed and the other half arched an eyebrow and said, “Wonder if they’re having problems.” Because someone will look at my bare face and say, “Oh, you look tired!” or “Are you sick?”
We’re afraid of being judged. We’re especially afraid of being judged by other believers. And so we come to church on Sunday papering over our flaws, our problems, our uncertainties, hoping that we present the right image. I’ve known couples with staggering marital problems show up to church with their children, smiling as though everything was amazing. People struggling with addictions don’t dare mention the issue in the pew. I’ve shown up to church in the absolute throes of teeth-grinding anxiety, cheerfully greeted everyone, and then sang my heart out before crying in the car on the way home.
Truth be told, I’m not sure what the answer is to this problem. A lot of people are “honest” in church, in the sense that they carefully perform honesty and share intimate things without ever risking true vulnerability, but few ever really lay it all out there. The potential consequences are simply too steep, and everyone’s afraid to go first. In the rare moment that someone does really spill their soul, I’ve noticed it doesn’t often lead to contagious authenticity.
But it does give me a lot of compassion. When you realize that most of the believers – the strong, mature believers! – are fighting silent battles, it’s easier to reach out to them in love and care. The “perfect” families around you aren’t. Those impossibly virtuous Christians that you marvel at? They’re struggling with a sin you know nothing about. Those put-together folks sitting in the pews with nary a hair out of place? They might be in dire straits.
We just don’t know what people are dealing with, or where they are. So often, in church, we hide all of those things. So when you go to church on Sunday, go with an open heart and an attitude of vulnerability, warmth, and openness. No, not everyone is willing to lay themselves bare before their brothers and sisters, but they don’t have to for us to realize that everyone around us needs time, attention, and affection.
I wondered what I would have said to that woman during the service if she’d been sitting next to me. I like to think I would’ve made a gentle joke but then reassured her that struggling with anger isn’t that unique. A lot of believers do. And being honest about that flaw or failing–well, that’s how you get past it. Sunshine, as they say, is the greatest disinfectant.
But most of all, I wish I’d said to her, “You don’t need to leave.” Because the church isn’t for perfect people who have it all figured out. It’s for all of us who don’t–but who hope in Christ to work through it all in time.
The vulnerability that rests beneath the surface of all our put-togetherness belongs in God’s church, too.