One of my favourite books from last year was Mark Meynell’s When Darkness seems my Closest Friend. It is a description of mental illness from a Christian pastor who has experienced it. One of the best features of the book is his ability to articulate the reality of mental illness for those who haven’t endured it. He uses vivid pictures- the brain blizzard or the cave where the only voice where you can hear is your own echoing around- that are hugely helpful in encouraging empathy in those who aren’t in the midst of the struggle. It is worth reading for that reason alone.
But it is often the case that books on a specific issue open up areas of discipleship for all of us. In passing, it is why I think Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem is worth reading simply as a guide to Christian living. And Mark’s book is similar in two areas particularly. He has a brilliant chapter on the issue of shame. As Christians we often speak into the issue of guilt- we have done that which is wrong and needs to be forgiven. But, for many, our problem runs deeper- the reality of sin leaves us ashamed of who we are as people and teaching on forgiveness doesn’t always touch that. Consequently, there is a darkness to our spirits that feels far removed from joy. It is worth reading the whole chapter for Mark’s assessment but I love his use of a quote from Tim Keller that addresses this: “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything.”
It was a chapter entitled “The Way” that struck me most though. Picking up one of the earliest descriptions of Christians as followers of the way the chapter talked about trusting Christ as a form of journey. This is a picture with rich Biblical heritage. Christian discipleship is patterned on the experience of Old Testament Israel- rescued from slavery and the judgement of God by the blood of a Lamb, having gone through the waters of baptism en route to the Promised Land we journey through the wilderness. Of course it is a rich theme in Christian writing- it is the picture that lies behind John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian leaves the City of Destruction to embark on a pilgrimage to the Celestial City via a heap of internal and external challenges. However, I think it is an image that has dropped out of evangelical thinking. In part, that is because of a misuse of the image. To be honest the phrase “We are all on a journey” has been used to justify an individualistic approach to truth as though simply making a journey into some form of spirituality is what matters irrespective of where you have come from, where you are going or what route you are taking. It is the sort of phrase that leads me to use what one of my friends calls my “virtual eye roll” (being too polite to do an actual eye roll.) But I think the phrase needs rehabilitating- the Christian is not where we once were and we are heading to a definite destination in a new heavens and a new earth but we are still travelling. We haven’t reached the destination yet. We are on pilgrimage.
On some aspects of that we are reasonably clear. We can spot the heresy behind a health and wealth message that expects all the blessings of the new creation now. We know that isn’t promised until we have fully arrived. But amongst other issues Mark flags, there are a couple that I am not sure we have spotted yet.
Now we know in part. One day we will know fully.
That’s pretty much a direct quote from 1 Corinthians 13:12. One of the realities that all of us need to admit is that our theology will not be perfect yet. I am pretty sure that when I reach the new creation I will discover stuff that I have got wrong. Now this is tricky. Taken to its extreme this fact could lead to you denying the possibility of any truth claims. It is clear the apostle doesn’t take that view for he makes truth claims and insists that we do know in part. The Spirit has given us Scriptures that truly reveal knowledge, we are to work hard at understanding them and it is clear there is such a thing as false teaching that has so clearly departed from the plain reading of Scripture that it must be dismissed. It is why I appealed to us recently from Mark 12 to ensure that we knew the Scriptures so that we would not be led into error. And yet there remain areas where Christians who share the same convictions about the Bible differ. When I worked with UCCF it was my job to hold loosely my opinions on various things such as baptism and church government. Once you are into church ministry you have to make decisions. You work hard to study the Scriptures and come to conclusions- I’m planning to do some more writing on these themes in the weeks ahead. But, though the Scriptures are perfect, I am not- and the wise person will add the caveat- “I might be wrong.” For we know in part rather than fully. Those of us tempted by personality to be dogmatic need to be able to recognise that though we know more than we once did, we don’t know with the perfection that we one day will. For the moment, we might be wrong. It is why, though we have opinions on most things as a church, we only make those things central to the Gospel to be a condition of membership. In other areas, we try not to be but we might be wrong.
We are not fully sorted yet. One day we will be.
Mark starts the chapter by writing about his experience of being interviewed at a pastors’ conference about his experience of mental illness. As it happens, I was there. His testimony was about being a pastor in the midst of mental illness rather than a glorious story of having come through it and people commenting that such a testimony was refreshing and truer to their experience than stories of great victory. I think that is right. At one level the Christian has been translated from death to life and darkness to light. At another level we still wander through the wilderness and, to use Romans 8 language, we still groan. A story of full and complete victory is premature.
I found that challenging. One of the somewhat unexpected parts of my life has been speaking to various Christian groups about my experience of same sex attraction. I strongly believe (and on this one really don’t think I am wrong!) that the Bible teaches that sexual relationships are for a man and woman in marriage. You can hear my latest crack at teaching that here. But I wonder whether the attempt to make that case sometimes leads me to deny the reality of pilgrimage. Rightly I want to teach that for the Christian our fundamental identity is in Christ rather than our sexuality and that this is more stable and more long lasting. That is true. And yet it is easy to say “My identity is in Christ” and imply that your experience is of perfect contentment in Christ and that anything else- like sexuality- has somehow become indifferent to you. And that is not really true. To be clear, the lack is not in Christ but rather the issue is a sinful nature that is defeated but not yet removed which wants to point you elsewhere. That is normal wilderness experience. Forgive me- I am not writing this because that feels particularly tough at the moment: actually I feel encouraged. But there is a danger in wanting to testify to the goodness of Jesus that we imply that perfection has arrived already. And that has the potential to discourage other Christians who are experiencing different battles in the wilderness and wondering if they are the only ones. Perhaps my language needs to be that my identity truly is in Christ and I fight and battle to make that my story because deep down I really do believe it is the best one out there.
When we gather as church we come together as pilgrims on a journey. Praise God- we have left the City of Destruction. Praise God- we are on our way to the Celestial City. For now- we are walking through the wilderness in the presence of God. And that means we will have the humility to say we don’t know everything yet. And, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, we will be real about the fact that we are in the midst of battles and scrapes. We are not at home yet. But one day we will be.