from A Living Alternative Our Missional Pilgrimage by Jamie
For those who grew up in the church culture, the expression “wear your Sunday best” is quite familiar. It means, of course, dressing your very best, specifically as you would for church. Nice clothes, clean face and smiles all around. As the culture changes, I am sure this expression will lose traction, but for many of us, it reminds us of the value that, when we gather together to worship God, we show Him (and each other) honour by putting our best foot forward.
There is, however, a darker side to the idea of “wearing our Sunday best”. All too often, as we gather together with other believers, we work very hard to put forward this image of having it all together. “Look at us! Clearly we have no money problems. Our jobs are stable. Our marriage is strong. Our kids are respectful.” Often, however, the external image we present is far from an accurate reflection of the truth it covers up. The clothing is not really the problem, but they often serve as a means to make something that is not true appear as though it is. This is pretense.
Sadly, the community of faith is to be a place where such pretense is not only unnecessary, but also where it is confessed and abandoned. The church is to be a community where the nature of our brokenness is fundamentally assumed and acknowledged and where our mutual need of daily forgiveness and grace (from God and each other) is central. Yet all too often, the church is the last place where such vulnerability is invited, welcomed or even safe.
What makes matters worse is that often such pretense is not even recognized. There are, of course, times when all of us are guilty of blatant and/or intentional pretense. However, there are many more who have adopted pretense as a genuine pattern for living out their faith. That is, they work very hard to maintain the external expressions of faithfulness despite the reality of their lives and hearts. While there is merit in this insofar as developing discipline, when it is accompanied by an intention denial of and/or unawareness to ones own brokenness, it is deadly. Many are not aware that it is at all pretense and that it is not right, true or even sometime, true faithfulness at all.
The most damaging dynamic of pretense, however, comes from its implications to our participation in the mission of God. If our faithfulness within the church is primarily expressed through external adherence to certain behaviours and appearances, then it is only natural that such pretense will shape the way we live our witness before the world. When you ask non-Christians in our culture to describe Christians, all too often the terms “self-righteous” or “hypocrites” come up. People see Christians as articulating beliefs about love, peace, grace, humility, etc., yet do not see them living it. In fact, all too often our behaviour represents the opposite of what we espouse.
It would be too easy, though, to dismiss only examples of more extreme Christian arrogance and hypocrisy. The more deadly expressions of this missional pretense comes in a more subtle form because it is often borne out of a genuine and admirable desire to proclaim Jesus effectively. Remembering that many believe that the external appearances are expressions of genuine faithfulness, then it is understandable that such people believe that, in order to convince people that God is good and that Christianity is right/true, we must appear to others as having it all together. After all, if our lives are a mess, yet claim to have found the one and only truth, who would take us seriously.
What we fail to see in the midst of this is that the world already knows that our lives are a mess. Our pretense is only really serving to convince ourselves. What we do to gain credibility in our witness is the very thing that makes us appear hypocritical and self-righteous. Yet when the world calls us out on these failings, we too often respond with counter-attack, even pushing us to greater withdrawal from the world.
The paradoxical beauty of Christ is that, in fact, our credibility will grow exponentially from our authenticity- brokenness and all. The gospel we live and proclaim is not that having Jesus in your life makes your problems go away, but rather that life together in and through Christ offers daily hope, grace, forgiveness and love in the face of our brokenness. The acknowledgement of our sin does not undermine the gospel, but rather the provides the opportunity for the glory of God’s grace to be made manifest:
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” 1 Timothy 1:15-16
Is it any surprise that in our culture, when the church is represented in popular culture is most often done in a less than flattering way, yet when Alcoholics Anonymous is represented it is almost always presented a community of integrity? It is no coincidence that the latter example is largely defined by their explicit acknowledgment of their brokenness. We must regain this integrity in the church and that will happen only when we put pretense to death. In its place we must embrace the path of humility and contrition, of confession and repentance, of mutuality and celebration.
The hard truth is this: Overcoming pretense is hard work, painful work and an act of irrational vulnerability. It is the irrationality of Christ crucified. And it is also the (only) hope of resurrection.