I’ve always hated how some church leaders use themselves as examples of godliness, happiness and success. Jesus promised joy (John 16.22), but he rarely pointed to himself as an example of joyfulness. He used ecological examples (Matthew 6.25-30), or examples from the people in his area (Matthew 8.5-13). He maintained he was the pathway to joy (John 14.6), but—even though he was the one person who could have justifiably used himself as the ideal—he was never self-aggrandizing like…the Smilers.
I want identify with our people, to show them “it’s okay” and I’m “one of them.” That’s good—it’s a healthy impulse. The common people loved Jesus, and we must never lose our common touch. But when my mistrust of look-at-me Christianity leads me to downplay my successes and over-emphasize my failures, then I’ve committed the same sin in the opposite direction. Instead of being a Smiler, I wallow.
The tension here is our requirement to identify with common people yet maintain the uncommon grace of God. We shouldn’t pretend to have it all figured out, but neither should we pretend we’re ignorant and useless. We need to enter at the lowest common denominator—the hurt, the fear, the anxiety—and then help our people see the way forward. We need to remind them of God’s promise to restore their fortunes and bless the people they love.
For example, while Smilers are fond of posting happy-glad Instagram photos of pearly-white wives and sweatered tots; and Wallowers are fond of lamenting the difficulties of furious family during the hellish holidays; we would do well to remind our people that God can restore broken relationships, reconcile estranged families, and work through societal conventions to heal the world.
Similarly, Smilers like to proclaim that God will bless us both financially and physically; while Wallowers mope about God’s shoddy track record with actually delivering said blessings; yet we need to remind our people that, even though sickness can be debilitating, God is present in the midst of our suffering, and the Spirit restores our bodies and our souls.
The impulse to identify with hurting people is good, and the impulse to promise God’s restorative blessing is also good. But neither is wholly good in isolation. In short, we’ve got to start low—identify with those who hurt—and aim high—promise them God will make things better.
God wants to elevate us beyond wallowing, just as he wants to ensure our smiles are genuine. The only way these extremes are brought together is in the recognition that Christ alone is the source of our strength, our perseverance, and our joy.
Design elements for diagram taken from freepik.com.