A few days ago, my daughter and I were looking at the websites of colleges she'll apply to next year, noticing the buzzwords admissions committees use to highlight qualities they value. "High achievement." "Determination." "Initiative." After a few minutes, my daughter frowned and moved away from the computer. "They want battle scars," she said bitterly. "Not open wounds."
Her sentence stopped me cold. I don't know if it's an accurate assessment of college admissions in the U.S right now — I suspect it is. But what struck me about her remark is how painfully relevant it is to the Church. In my experience, Christians put a lot of stock in triumph and victory. We value the race won, the mountain scaled, the enemy defeated, the obstacle overcome. Sure, we welcome stories of sin and struggle, but only when those stories are shared in retrospect, long after the sordid worst is over. Sin that has surrendered to righteousness? That's a Christian story. But sin that clings? Challenges that won't ease up? A wound — physical, psychological, or relational — that festers? We squirm. We turn our eyes away. We worry. Battle scars, not open wounds.
I'd like to understand better why we do this. I'm sure there are several reasons, but here are a few I've been thinking about:
We view conversion as a one-time event. In the churches that raised me, this was literally true. Sunday services culminated in altar calls, and the pastors who invited people to accept Jesus into their hearts also encouraged them to mark the date and time of their confessions as dramatic, transformative, and pivotal. "Record this day in your Bibles," they'd tell the fledging Christians kneeling at the altar. "Today is the day of your salvation."
As one of my friends describes it, this is "point of sale" Christianity. Everything (the worship songs, the prayers, the sermon) moves towards the "sell," and once the "product" (salvation) is sold, the transaction is basically over. Sure, there is that pesky thing called "discipleship" afterwards, but that's a murky business too difficult to quantify. Best not to value it as highly as getting folks to sign on the dotted line in the first place.
The problem with point-of-sale conversion is that it ignores most of what we know about how change and growth occur in real life. I've rarely — if ever — experienced instant transformation; the changes that matter most have always come sideways and in fits and starts, often without my conscious understanding or effort. Anyone who has battled an addiction, or stuck it out in a challenging relationship, or lived with chronic suffering, or taken a risky step out of their comfort zone, will tell us that genuine conversion is lifelong; it's a slow, messy process, and God is hardly ever inclined to complete it fast. Maybe this is why the earliest Christians referred to their new faith as "The Way." A "way" is not a destination. It's a road to walk. It's an invitation to journey.
We handle God as if he's made of fine china. Though we profess faith in a robust God, we secretly fear for his delicate ego. Won't it shatter if our spiritual lives get too complicated? Won't we wound his honor if we confess to ongoing rage, doubt, terror, or despair? Isn't God happiest when our lives reflect his undimmed glory?
I sincerely hope not, because the human cost of tip-toeing around God is staggering. I've watched myself do this. I've watched so many of the people I love do this. We'll dare for just an instant to name an honest experience ("I'm so furious at God right now." "This tragedy should not have happened." "My faith is doing nothing for me in the midst of this pain.") and then immediately back away from our honesty as if lightning might strike at any moment ("But I should be grateful at all times." "God has given me the victory!" "His will is perfect and he's always in control, praise the Lord!")
What's at stake here is not whether these faith claims are true. What's at stake is our own authenticity. Our willingess to be vulnerable, our willingness to hold deep faith and scorching honesty in uncomfortable tension with each other. What does this God of ours want, anyway? Is he really so invested in pretense? In a flattening of our lived experience for the sake of his ego? How much nakedness can he handle without shattering? If the God we've staked our lives on is really too fragile to bear the truth of our lives, then why have we bothered with him in the first place?
We misunderstand the nature of witness. This might be the most dangerous reason why we value battle scars over open wounds. We don't want to air dirty laundry. We don't want our secret struggles to poison our testimony. After all, how will Christianity appeal to people if it's not presented as slickly and beautifully as possible?
What helps me here is Jesus. The tears he shed at the tomb of Lazarus. His blood-soaked despair in Gethsemane. The whip he wielded in the Temple. And — most importantly — the scars he sported out of his own desolate grave. Jesus' resurrected body retained its scars. Not old scars. Not neat, faded scars signaling a long-ago victory on a half-forgotten battlefield. But fresh wounds still raw enough to allow a doubting disciple to place his fingers into Jesus's side. Open wounds. I imagine Jesus winced when Thomas touched him, but that wincing, that pain, that openness, signaled real life. Real engagement. Real presence. It spoke the very words Thomas hungered for the most: "I am here. I am here with you. I don't float a few antiseptic feet above regular reality; I dwell in the hot, searing heart of things. Exactly where you dwell."
We live in a culture that's drowning in gloss. All around us, people are packaging themselves, marketing themselves, pummeling themselves into forms of prettiness that choke their souls. My guess is this: if Jesus's honest expressions of grief, anger, and fear only drew more people to himself, if even at the apex of his resurrection victory he won a doubter over with open wounds, then maybe we don't need to worry so much about glossy presentation. Maybe Christianity's best appeal is its courage in the face of what scars, rips, and ravages. No, our wounds aren't pretty, and no, they don't tell the whole story. But the stories they do tell are holy. If Jesus himself didn't fear the bloody and the broken, then perhaps those of us walking in his footsteps don't need to fear them so much, either.