It is hard to escape the conclusion that God does not do his work in us apart from the experience of suffering and pain….
If this is true, then churches will need to be places where such trials and tribulations can be openly admitted, dealt with and learnt from, rather than avoided and shoved under the carpet. Too often we expect church to be a place of harmony, peace and cooperation, and we are surprised when it is not. We also expect Christian life to be plain sailing and trouble free and think that God has abandoned us or doesn’t like us when we hit sickness, bereavement, failure or disappointment.
A church that is serious about becoming a centre of real spiritual fitness and health will not try to hide difficult experiences. Nor will it depict Christian life as always characterized by triumph and success. That only leads to struggling Christians feeling inadequate and far from the centre of God’s purposes in the world. I remember in my early years as a Christian leader talking to a woman in our church who had struggled with depression. I suggested that coming to church might help. “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that — it would be much too difficult,” she said. “When I get over it, then I’ll be able to face church.” I could understand her reluctance to face crowds of people, yet something about that didn’t sound right. Whatever “church” was in her mind, it was not somewhere you could take your difficulties. It was instead a place for people who coped with life.
Church needs to be the opposite: a place for people who cannot cope with life…. As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
“God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world … Only that fellowship which faces such disillusioment, with its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it … A communiity which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which isists on keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community.”
Graham Tomlin, Spiritual Fitness: Christian Character in a Consumer Culture (London / New York: Continuum, 2006), pp. 125-27.