Becoming a dispassionate spectator of life often happens to us from one of the most unexpected sources.
Within the framework of Christianity, legalism is the belief that a Christian must always stay on the sunny side of the street, a requirement that hit me between the eyes two days after my mother died.
I was broken inside, as if I had fractured a soul bone or collapsed a lung. A lot of swelling had formed around the traumatic break in the inner me. I was numb to the core, and I thought church would be the right place to help bind up my burden. But given the kind of church I attended at that time, this decision was one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made.
After the service I was in a room with a young and energetic associate pastor. In a moment of what turned out to be both weakness and foolishness, I shared with him that my mother had just died and that I was in awful pain. He didn't even turn to look at me; his back was toward me while he rooted around for something—I think it was a patch cord for the worship band—and he said, "Consider it all joy, brother." He hadn't missed a beat, as if he were reading from a cue card.
This leader told me that when I thought about my mother's last hours, which brought a morbid rattle sound as she struggled to breathe, her lungs filling with fluid—that clogged-coffeemaker sound she made for hours through that dark night as she slowly drowned—I was to be consumed with joy?! To rejoice in the death of my troubled mother and her tormented ways, her unresolved soul, her fear-horrified and truncated adulthood, her unfulfilled little-girl desire to return to the land of her birth and beloved family, her strong but squandered mind, her wasted potential and complaining bitterness…I was to delight in the death of this courageous heroine who so egregiously lost her way, the woman so bitten by evil that she struck others with even more toxic venom… I was glibly to consider all this wreckage a wonderful matter.
The Lord knows and I know that this peddler of quick-fix religious pabulum didn't know what he was doing. I hold no ill will toward him today. He was parroting what he'd heard from others in the discombobulated world of legalistic religion. He was playing his role, too eager to do his part, to do his thing, to show his faith, to glorify his God with his "biblical" approach toward life and ministry. He was following the Official Script, saying what he thought God wanted him to say; after all, those words are found in Holy Writ.
Of course he tortured them by taking them out of context. The same Bible tells us to weep with those who weep, but his cocksure mind was liquored up on a tight-fisted theology in which God is safe and manageable and tame. Weeping with those who weep probably wasn't crossing his mind—maybe it never had crossed his mind. (Fact is, too often it doesn't cross my mind either, at least when it should.)
Here is the one pathetic, regretful word I said in reply: "Yeah."
I may as well have said, "Penguin."
What does one say while in spiritual shock, while coming face-to-face with a mentality that does not allow a man to be human, that bars a man from coughing up that grief in church, in God's house with God's people? I was like a man seeing actual concentration camp photos or footage for the first time. I was stunned, and as the stunned are prone to do, I spoke nonsense.
You can see how devastating is today's Happiness Mentality. It claims to be for the good of others, and it's intended to buoy sinking emotions; in reality it makes people callous to suffering, which leads to anger and resentment, which erodes a loving orientation toward others. It keeps life on a superficial plane, leading to shallow living, which renders indignation impossible. And I don't think this is a coincidence, either, since we desire comfort rather than thumos-born, love-born disruption.
And in order to grow thumos courage, we have to be able to feel emotions such as grief, sympathy, and compassion. They're raw material for your thumos mill, yet they're largely eradicated from our lives due to the spiritually abusive Happiness Mentality.
I used to attend a church whose leadership was trained not to enter into the suffering of others. They were to "point people to Jesus" and Jesus only. They were instructed to tell others to pour their heart out to God but to keep their distance from difficulty, as if the human-connection side of our lives didn't matter or even exist—another example of too much spirit, not enough soul.
Their denomination is extremely "anti-counseling," and I've noticed that the people who stay there begin to take on a plastic and homogenized nature. Deeper conversations and deeper expressions of faith just don't happen much. They're very pleasant (until you ask a weighty question) but certainly not ministerial when it comes to traversing life's weightier side.
And let's not pretend that today's prevalent mindset does not have a benefit for those who follow it. Much like the fake smile some people wear to hide overarching fear, the Happiness Mentality allows an effective hiding place for those who are terrified of brotherhood or sisterhood, which lends the appearance of spiritual maturity and wholeness. Woe to those unable to discern this kind of spiritual dissimulation; it can take decades, if ever, to unravel its corrupting influence in their life.
The Happiness Mentality has another related benefit: It helps ward off the disruptive nature of Christ. f everything we do serves the idol of happiness, and if we can pass off our "happiness" as peace and joy and spiritual growth, then we feel we're justified in not doing things that bring "non-happiness." We can avoid love-extension and keep life self-indulgent while retaining the appearance of purity and maturity.
We hate thumos disruption so much we'll do most anything to avoid it. The courageous Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky explained this tendency in his ingenious and haunting book, The Brothers Karamazov. The story takes place in
Jesus heals the sick and resurrects the dead. The Grand Inquisitor has him jailed, and then at night, visiting his cramped prison cell, he asks Jesus, "Why did you come to bother us?" (What is it about religious leaders visiting Jesus at night?)
Christ's love is both penetrating and troublemaking—love so amazing that it inspires us to lose our life so we can have a better one. Good thing his love is all-consuming, because the truth is we will be consumed by something—every one of us. We'll either be consumed by our will, or someone else's, or a combination of both.
God's love consumes us, owns us, and then—we often miss this part—he gives ownership of our life back to us, except now we're connected to his love, assistance, guidance, grace, light, truth, and correction. It's his unique owner-protection program, a kind of dual stewardship that's impossible to explain or grasp in complete detail. That he does not give ownership of us to someone else helps us to avoid many aspects of spiritual abuse and shields us from one of the worst stumbling blocks to carrying out good deeds.
Jesus, as Dostoevsky showed, is a disruptive bother to the yet-to-be redeemed soul and to the soul in the process of renewal. In order to ward off his disruption, we have come to emphasize pet Scriptures that, by avoiding the rest of the palette, paint reality almost exclusively in pastels, colors that are only part of the mosaic and that cannot illustrate or reflect the real weight or real image of real life for long.
Consider this: Whatever we may glibly say and sing about God and life in a pleasantly decorated church, from pulpits, risers, and stages, must also be true when said over a burning pile of babies. Pastel Christianity is not only incapable of properly explaining such a horrifying event but it's also insulting to legitimate human sensibilities. Pastel Christianity is repulsive to our God-designed souls.
I experienced a less dramatic example of this when I attended the funeral of a loved one.
The minister said we should not shed tears for the man who'd just died because he was with Jesus now. "This is not a day of mourning but of celebration!" he bellowed, with enthusiasm that appeared contrived.
Celebration? I thought. I loved him. I will miss him so very much. Today I won't celebrate his death. I must and will grieve over this loss.
True to the Happiness Mentality we slavishly idolize, that minster did not allow for the expression of the whole spectrum of human life, love, and longing; this spectrum is not considered "spiritual," which, in some circles, is code for "disruptive." He didn't allow for both mourning and celebration. True to his training, he axed the negative soul-stuff and gave us a plateful of over-sugared metaphysical dessert. And instead of leading everyone toward a loving and compassionate orientation toward life as it truly is, he encouraged a selfish approach. Why express your condolences to the twelve-year-old daughter who just lost her father when our spiritual leader just told us there's really nothing to cry about? So she remains untouched and unloved. "Happiness" in this model actually yields inconsideration, coldness, and even cruelty.
This plastic world of our own making, one that serves to make the Christian faith appear more and more irrelevant, erases the need for courage training; why would we need it if life is meant to be lived on the mountaintops of human experience? We're so ill-prepared for valley living, where thumos is required for ourselves and for love-extension toward others. One ordained minister (also the son of a pastor) said to me, when I asked for insights regarding how important courage is to our spiritual growth: "I don't understand the connection between courage and faith." Let that sink in for a few moments.
In legalism there is no room for the courageous prophets, the rebellious but godly philosophers, for the person who loves God but loves him differently. This religious orientation is hell-bent on homogenization and taming at any price. It makes its converts double sons of hell, because these then take the battle against mystery and against thumos-building creativity to new diabolical levels. These churches hardly lift a finger on behalf of social justice.
Here there's no room for the dogged soul who sees wonder and tries to explore it; he finds his hand (or his soul) slapped when he does. There's scarcely room for the courageous artist whose work contains fire that grabs the world by the neck and won't let go. There's no place for people who dance to another beat—never mind that it's still God's beat. This way of life says it's trying to conform us to the character of Christ, but mostly it pressures followers to be conformed to the charismatic nature of the one in the pulpit and the status-quo nature of the Official Script.
Spiritually abusive institutions drive out creativity, which sees options and avenues for love-extension that wouldn't be seen otherwise. Creativity is a pathway to hope, and hope opens gateways to courage. A ministry that does not fit within "traditional" confines gets viewed and portrayed with dark suspicion through legalistic eyes and lips; usually all that's accomplished therein is the diminishment of our ability to be light in a dark world.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous Faith, No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.