I was given that compliment several days ago; it is literally one of the best I’ve ever received, for the weight of the struggles this person faces and the squeaky-clean nature of some churches in this area led this individual to believe that Christians are ‘robotic,’ problem-free, and subsequently unsafe. To be considered “not a Christian” in this context meant that the person had felt, if not understood, at least validated in the midst of deep pain.
I was honored to be invited into this person’s brokenness. It wasn’t at all difficult to offer grace in the situation–the triumvirate of the person’s natural ‘loveableness,’ as well as the weight of the struggles and the person’s clear need of gentle understanding made empathy the obvious choice in that interaction.
As much as this interaction initially made me want to rail against the Church, demanding that it be more available to hurting people, I had to admit that almost any Christian I know would have handled my friend I attempted to–gently and empathetically. So where, I wondered, is the disconnect between what the Church can offer to the genuinely hurting people of the world, and what those people see being offered?
And then the Holy Spirit slapped me upside the head with the following realization: “Sure, you offer grace for the really big things faced by obviously hurting people. But how do you handle the little struggles? The annoying things? The times when people don’t even realize that they need grace? Where is the grace for the small things?”
And while I felt that He was hitting kind of below the belt, I had to admit He had a great point.
I’m happy to offer grace to people who are deeply wounded and fighting deep struggles. But it’s much harder to offer grace to people in the day-to-day annoyances of life. I’d much rather hug a person with a sexual identity struggle than bite my tongue when tempted to make a sarcastic comment to someone who is getting on my nerves. I’d much rather hurt with someone with an addiction than be patient with someone who makes inane comments in class. I’d much rather speak into the life of someone struggling with whether or not God is even real than try to engage with and smooth the social interactions of someone who is socially awkward or abrasive. It’s easy to offer grace to people after they’re broken. But grace gets a lot harder when people don’t realize that they need to be broken, or, worse, when there’s no sin you can call them on–just idiosyncrasies that make you uncomfortable or rub your nerves raw.
I wonder if that’s part of the Church’s problem–perhaps people aren’t willing to be vulnerable in the big stuff because they see us handling daily annoyances exactly as everyone else does–with gossip, sarcasm, and impatience. I could be wrong–I certainly won’t deny that many churches and Christian leaders have made horrific public missteps that have negatively shaped people’s perceptions of the Church as a whole. And there are certain struggles that I think would still be unacceptable to the Church, which is heartbreaking and shameful.
But before I shake my head and sigh over the state of Church, I have to look at myself, for I am hesitant to lodge a complaint without exercising what power I may have to fix it. And I have to wonder how differently my life would be lived if I made the conscious choice to offer “big” grace to everyone across whom I came–regardless of whether they know they need it, regardless of whether I am acknowledged or appreciated for my effort. Gossip and certain forms of sarcasm would definitely be eliminated from my speech. I would probably seek to be around less. . .socially palatable people, such as the abrasive or obnoxious or clingy people I tend to avoid. (After all, they usually don’t even realize they need the grace I offer, and I therefore can’t even get an ego stroke out of offering it to them.) I might even try to laugh at the jokes of people whose only form of humor is the lowly pun. . .though it would just about kill me.
I know this is a realization ala Christianity 101; but it wasn’t until I contrasted the understanding I offered my friend with a ‘big’ problem with the understanding I so frequently don’t offer to people with ‘petty’ problems that I recognized the stark difference between the two. Perhaps a culture of grace is not merely built upon being gracious and understanding in life-altering situations, but is developed as we determinedly seek to offer grace to people in the midst of small annoyances and day-to-day struggles. Perhaps the Church only earns the right to treat the gapingly wounded when we’ve proven that we can gently and appropriately handle those with sniffles and scrapes.