I ended my last post by describing a cross section of Christians who are sincere and devout in their faith, but often feel that something is missing. It is a group I have spent a large percentage of my life around, and as explored in the last post, one of the uniting characteristics I see in this group is that they are very committed to the Great Commandment – particularly the front half. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Jesus, in Matthew 22).
There is a significant emphasis on the right doctrines and beliefs in this group with the intent that this truth and knowledge should lead to an outgrowth of personal morality and personal righteousness.
One of the clear movements I have witnessed over the last decade or so is people in this group become increasingly frustrated with what they perceive as a substantial inconsistency in how the Christian faith is being understood and expressed. There is often a feeling of tremendous frustration that nearly all of the emphasis is placed on the front half of the Great Commandment, while seeming to neglect the second half. “And the second is like it” Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22) This group often wonders how Jesus could say that the second is just like the first, only to find that truth explained away or minimized by the teaching and modeling they received.
What this frustration did (and does) to many who were formed with this understanding of Christianity is to create a pendulum swing affect. The analysis of the problem usually appears simple: there are many Christians who are focused on loving God with all of their heart, soul, and mind, yet that love does not seem to naturally translate into care and concern for our neighbor. That analysis then leads to what also seems to be a clear prescription for those who are experiencing this pendulum swing: true and authentic expression of Christianity is manifested by being concerned for our neighbor. True Christianity is being concerned for the least of these (Jesus’ words in Matthew 25). True Christianity is being concerned for the orphan and for the widow (the words of James).
So many of them do. They experience a reorientation of their understanding of Christianity, and words like reconciliation, compassion, and justice became central components of their spiritual vocabulary. Sometimes this new passion plays itself out in volunteerism – working with the homeless, tutoring students, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, or becoming a big brother or big sister with a mentoring program. Sometimes this new passion plays itself out in vocational choices – they become inner city school teachers, social workers, or join the Peace Corps. Many who experience this pendulum swing end up pursuing career paths in the nonprofit sector, hoping to bridge their everyday work activities with endeavors that are connected to justice and compassion.
I gave this disclaimer in my last post, and I want to give it again here as well. I think it is fantastic when care and concern for Biblical values like justice and reconciliation are elevated in a person’s ethic and action. I actually think it should be normative for anyone that is following Jesus. So anything I have said up to this point is not minimizing the importance of the transformation that is beginning to happen in someone in this area. Instead, I am trying to point out and explore this phenomenon of ‘Something’s Missing’, even as they are experiencing this transformation. I have interacted with enough people in this group to know that many of them share this sentiment.
Often times I will be in a conversation with someone that is experiencing this pendulum swing from one side of the Great Commandment to the other, and they will convey this very idea that something is missing. Rarely do they have the words to describe what exactly is missing, or how they should go about fixing the problem or finding what it is that’s missing. But I consistently see two categories of symptoms that I think can be used to help diagnose it. Here is my best shot at putting words around them, and I would love to hear your reactions:
1.] Burn out – I’m not sure that is the perfect phrase, but I think it serves as a good starting point. It is not uncommon to see someone step into a new and intentional lifestyle of service, compassion, and concern for justice with excitement, passion, and ambition. Yet it is also not uncommon to see that quickly evaporate. Within months – sometimes even weeks – that joy and excitement often morph into exhaustion, fatigue, and even discouragement. The problems associated with this type of lifestyle are usually so much bigger than they first realized, and they often appear immoveable. The cousin of this ‘burn out’ phenomenon is similar but slightly different. It is a loss of optimism. At the beginning of this journey there is usually an irrepressible feeling that if Christians would just take the Great Commandment seriously (like they are) the world would be a different and better place. But close contact with the struggles of those on the margins often siphon that optimism quite quickly, and too often it is replaced with depression, cynicism, and even disillusionment.
2.] Escapism – Not sure this is the perfect word either, but it gets the conversation started. If someone is swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other, and begins to move towards a lifestyle of justice and compassion, they are going to inevitably face the challenges listed above. The question becomes what they will do with these challenges when they do indeed show up. For many, the only way they can functionally deal with the challenges is by finding activities that help them to ‘escape’ the persistent challenges they are facing.
Not all forms of escape are bad. Activities like a weekend away, unplugging in a movie theater, shopping or playing video games often help people get a temporary escape, and that can be helpful. But often times the forms of escape that justice-oriented folks find themselves engaging in are quite damaging – either to themselves or to others.
I can still remember the overwhelming feeling of disappointment I felt when I found out that one of the pastors I really admired had been exposed for having an ongoing affair with a woman he worked with (I am changing essential details to protect his identity). This pastor was a recognized leader in the realm of community development, and was an ongoing champion of the working poor. I learned a lot from him. But over time it came out that he struggled with a great deal of internal hopelessness and depression. His strategy for coping with this internal dilemma was to pour himself into ministries of compassion and service.
But the struggle of those he worked with only enhanced his own feeling of helplessness, and he began to feel trapped. Unsure of what to do this growing sense of despair, he began moving toward a female co-laborer in inappropriate ways, and over time that relationship evolved into an affair. He knew it was wrong, but eventually admitted that he consistently found ways to justify it to himself. When he was with her it seemed to temporarily ease the sense of despair he felt, and that in turn made him more effective at serving the people in his care. This justification enabled both of them to stay in this affair for a number of months, but once it came out it had a devastating affect on both of their families. He found himself wondering how he ever got into that situation in the first place.
I am not trying to suggest that this pastor’s journey is necessarily emblematic of the journey of the typical person in this group. In fact, I have probably painted an extreme picture of how discouragement and despair can translate into damaging escapist behaviors. But sometimes it is in the extreme examples where the problems can be most clearly seen.
I believe that the battles that marked this pastor’s inner life are not that different from what many Christians wrestle with – particularly those that were originally in an environment that focused on the front half of the Great Commandment and have now swung to the other side.
So with that, let me conclude my thoughts on this post, and pose some questions:
- Does this third depiction (swinging from one side of the Great Commandment to the other) accurately describe the spiritual journey that any of you are on?
- Do you have the sense from time to time that something is missing?
- What do you think it is that is missing?
- Do you agree that, whatever it is that is missing, that it often shows itself up in either burn out or the occasional desire to escape?