“May the Church Learn”

I recently finished reading Philip Yancey’s What Good Is God? (in search of a faith that matters). I highly recommend reading it. He has a different perspective — one that challenges the way you think.

His book consists of several journeys all over the world in which he experiences tragedy and struggle firsthand, but also finding strength through those struggles. Yancey says that just as he’s feeling sorry for himself, he meets a nurse who runs an AIDS program in a society far-removed from our Western comforts, and it reminds him of the purpose of his book — searching for a faith that matters.

The following is an excerpt from his chapter, “Why I Wish I Was an Alcoholic”:

Several times in my writing I’ve referred to my alcoholic friend George, who happens to be here tonight. He told me that when he first stumbled into an A.A. meeting on a bitterly cold night … a group of total strangers welcomed him with open arms and told him “keep coming back.” George had hit bottom, his life was a mess, and since nobody else was telling him that in those days, he accepted their invitation.

George sometimes gets a different response from his church friends, “Aren’t you done with that issue yet?” they ask. And this is what George says: “I realize that for the rest of my life, I can go to A.A. meetings and nobody will ask me, ‘Aren’t you finished with all this talk about alcoholism?’ They will just say, ‘Keep coming back — glad you could make it.'”

May the church learn.

Isn’t this a true depiction of how we can treat others in a church environment? I think many of us can relate to the statement that Yancey makes. While I do not believe this is true of every church or person, I firmly believe that this is an attitude many of us have portrayed — including myself at some point. Jesus tells us that we will be judged in the same way we judge others (Matthew 7:1-6). We should open our arms and embrace everyone. We should ask ourselves, as a church and an individual, are we displaying God’s grace like he intends us to do?

I feel compelled to share this not because I fully understand it or live by it, but to spread thoughts of loving one another and not shunning others because they “don’t have it all together” or because they have a different view on life (religiously, morally, etc.). Jesus said we are saved by grace and he routinely praised the poor and the “unholy” such as tax collectors. If we fail to show love for our neighbor, we are disobeying God.

Matthew 22: 37-40 says:

And He said to him, ” ‘ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.

We must be compassionate to our neighbors. Jesus says these are the “great and foremost” commandments. I’ll be honest — these words sting a little bit. As they should, I am sure. Reading this chapter was an eye opener for me. How much reality do we find on Sunday morning? Are we honest with ourselves before God? Do we think that we are cured of sin?

Yancey slices like a knife when he says “May the church learn.” He says at one point there are 38,000 different denominations of Christianity today. I don’t know how accurate that is, but his point is this: churches compete with each other proclaiming their truth is greater than that other churches’ truth. Yancey says “I only wish churches expended equal energy to dispense grace.”

When it comes down to it, Yancey explains, the church is not as honest with itself as it should be. Those who go to A.A. meetings begin each meeting by being completely open and honest with each other. “I’m [insert name] and I’m an alcoholic.” What brutal honesty and courage it must take to say that. Can’t the church learn and benefit from this? This is one of the reasons I enjoyed reading Yancey’s work so much. He isn’t afraid to pierce your conscience with honesty.

Yancey says that 12-step groups never insist on using past tense, rather they must use present tense. As sinners, we are never “cured” of sin. We never reach a point in our lives where we stop sinning. He references Paul’s writings in 1st Timothy.

It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. — 1st Timothy 1:15

My study bible expands on this. No matter what we’ve done in our past, God can save us. Like Paul, He can use us. Paul was clearly shameful of his past, before he was reborn through God’s grace. Paul’s own story is inspiring enough — he persecuted Christians before converting to Christianity on the Road to Damascus. We must never forget that we are sinners saved only by God’s grace.

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