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the Empathy List #91: Forgiveness Isn't Easy
A Highly Sensitive Soul vs. A Seared Conscience
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Hello friend, Liz here.
I am a person with a hyper-sensitive conscience.
If you were to flip through a stash of journals from my early teenage years, you would find pages and pages of apologies to God—usually related to my personal bible study truancy.
That is, I understood my one job as a Christian was to show up reliably at 6am for thirty minutes to complete the assigned Bible readings for the day (as assigned by my yearly Bible study plan in the back of my Adventures in Odyssey edition of the sacred text). I understood Bible reading and prayer to be essential, which is why I had prayer journals to accompany my reading.
I prayed for: salvation for my non-Christian field hockey teammates, for family members in a long recital (Mom, Dad, Paul, C—, Jeanne, Ron, Michael, Meema…) and for any upcoming exams.
…Although I usually prayed not that I’d do okay, but that friends would do well. I felt quite confident in my own abilities, thank you very much—Daddy God, I’ve studied, but I don’t think so-and-so has, so can you help them do okay on the next pop quiz?
Anyway, I performed these rituals because I believed God needed me to do it. Not that God needed my help—I do not know if I believed my prayers were especially efficacious. But I did believe God needed me to show God that to me, God was important. The need I felt was relational like it felt with my parents. My parents (and God) needed me to do and be something for them that I probably couldn’t be, but I’d try to be anyway.
I am anxiously attachment to God and enmeshment with my parents. Attachment is our style of developing closeness in relationships.In my case, I performed my spiritual rituals in order to prove to God that I was prioritizing our relationship. If I proved that, then maybe God would like me.
I had many of these religious shoulds hanging over me. I should be praying for unbelievers—especially the hypocrites in my youth group—and also tsunami victims in Thailand. I should be praying for greater patience with my siblings, should be donating more of my babysitting money to anti-abortion causes, should be memorizing stacks of bible verses that I’d carefully scrawled on 3x5 cards. And I definitely should be able to make it through the Bible cover to cover in 12 months even though I always got interrupted in February by a viciously boring book (Leviticus, you’re a b—.)
Whenever I did make myself obey my alarm at 6 in the morning, the fun kicked off with a lengthy repetition of I’m so sorry, daddy god. I did it again. Why don’t I do better? Help me to be better. Romans 7 became a refrain, too—why do I do what I don’t want and don’t do what I want to do? What’s wrong with me? I’m not sure I imbibed Romans 8 until college; I was too busy self-flagellating.
Self-disgust, in fact, stained much of my early devotion. I feared that lacking the motivation to perform the tasks privately was a sign of serious spiritual illness. Surely everyone else had this down, right?
Actually, no. One thing I’ve realized over time is that the majority of Christians are not crushed by self-doubt and self-loathing the way I was. Even those who should feel guilt due to harmful actions often find a way to silence their guilt.
This brings me to the idea of a “seared conscience.”
I’ve never know what to make of this phrase, which seems harsh and confusing. But I’ve found myself returning to this idea more than once amid our current wild context (in which we believe that Jesus needs a $100 million dollar PR campaign, rather than that the American Christian church needs reform).
Here’s where the idea comes from: “…the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron…” (1 Timothy 4:1-2, NASB translation).
I do not understand how it happens, but apparently, lying over and over to others shifts your own relationship to the truth in general. You lie to others and then lie to yourself, too. What once seemed urgent and wrong dims in importance. Your beliefs shift toward more convenient truths, perhaps to relieve the cognitive dissonance between the teachings of Christ that you say you believe and the actual way you live your life.
Lately, my husband Jeremy and I have been watching “the Righteous Gemstones,” which is like watching an absurdist true crime Schitt’s Creek (though less warm and likeable). It features both devout and godless Christians, focusing on a megachurch founder’s family. The writing is hilarious and crude and deeply painful, especially because it feels not too far off from the failings of many of our IRL American church leaders. By Timothy’s line of reasoning, these fictional characters all have “seared consciences.”
Yet what continues to nag me about the show is not the bad behavior of the characters, but how you as a viewer begin to change in your feelings toward the characters. You start out appalled; by the first season’s end, you’re rooting for them. You don’t want them to get caught in their sins—even though they’re embezzling funds from the church, hunting down blackmailers to keep "brand damaging” footage from getting out, vandalizing and diminishing the folks around them with hilarious cruelty.
Honestly, the show reminds me of our fundamental human illness which is the same illness that plagues the evangelical church.
Evangelicalism is sick, friends. Us evangelicals—both leaders and followers—are sick with envy for the patterns of power and money and influence that the rest of the planet adores. We’re sick of sacrifice. We’re sick of bending to our own consciences so we ignore them until they leave us alone.
Also this week, the news broke that Matt Chandler is stepping back into his role at his mega Acts 29 church in Dallas, TX only a few months after being asked to “step aside” due to an “inappropriate online relationship” (whatever that means).
I don’t dislike the man. I imagine Chandler’s a vanilla kind of guy—nice with plentiful dad jokes. Perhaps he’s even a generous son-in-law. But I don’t trust him.
And I’m astonished at the number of us evangelicals who, even from afar, are quick to welcome him back into the spotlight. I do not believe that a brief stint off the stage even counts as a consequence for someone who leads a 10,000-member church. Honestly, that sounds more like a free three-month vacation.
I want to believe that repentance is possible—for me and Matt both. But does repentance happen on stage?
And if not, how does the church (not just The Village, but the big C church, too) measure repentance off-stage? How long should it take and what steps matter most? And is it possible that a person unwilling to admit any fault publicly and unwilling to concede that his actions might have longer term consequences (like leaving the church he founded) could have repented?
The answer is no.
Jesus calls all of us to a type of honesty that cuts to the bone. While Jesus adores sinners, prioritizing them during his ministry, he was clear about why: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
The sick know they’re sick. I know this from my own experience with chronic illness. Us sick are desperate and needy and it’s obvious to ourselves and others that we need help. For those who know they’re sick, who admit loudly that they’re sick and in need of healing, to them alone Jesus offers forgiveness whole-heartedly.
However, the sinners Jesus favored were those on the margins, not center stage. Do we recognize the difference?
Repentance for a man in Matt Chandler’s position would look like rejecting power, money, and any other idolatrous ties that offer him acclaim apart from the methods and means of Christ. That could look like surrendering his phone and deleting his instagram account altogether. Or stepping down to join the Village community as a member, rather than as a leader. Or releasing those damning DMs so that his followers can judge whether he’s trustworthy or not anymore for themselves, in order that Christ might be proven trustworthy through the transparent devotion of Christ’s followers.
What I am saying is that Matt Chandler is worthy of forgiveness, but that the narrow path to forgiveness offers no shortcuts. I do not believe you or I can truly accept the forgiveness of God until we give up on our way UTTERLY, no longer attached to the delusion that we’re good enough to squeak by. Repentance is a rock-bottom arrangement.
What I’m saying is that forgiveness isn’t hard to come by because we have to earn it from God but because we don’t WANT the forgiveness offered by God.
Overcoming our own resistance to our vulnerability and weakness is the barrier.
Just as the availability of a COVID vaccine means nothing unless we recognize how dangerous the disease is to begin with, so too forgiveness means nothing without repentance.
Hear this not as criticism against a single leader, but as a true believer begging for reformation in Christ’s church. This church is ours if we love Christ, so it’s worth walking the same halls over and over demanding change until the renovation begins in earnest. Disrupt the church that is for the sake of the church to come.
I pray and work to bring my kids into a healthier church than I have inherited. This is the only way.
Thanks for reading.
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
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How I made peace with writing for the internet—by yours truly. (Published last week and featured on the excellent newsletter Memoir Monday! :-D)
“I almost never see my words in actual ink. I’m an elder-Millennial a decade into a writing career. Most of the essays I have published have never made it to paper, existing only on the intangible wires of the Internet. This is the experience of most of my literary generation. We translate our sentences into a digital language we do not understand in order to reach across voids, where our words exist as brief blots of light in the minds of our readers. It’s miraculous and also fleeting in a way writers of other generations never experienced.”—Brevity Blog
Candidates who claimed Democrats stole the last election are pivoting after they win, hoping to appeal to a broader pool of voters. Will the electorate buy the sudden change of heart? (A better question might be: what won’t we buy? 😱) —The New York Times
Twitter, why you so silly?
Breaking down the “coffee garden lady” non-controversy. (This one cracked me up and reminded me of exactly why I’m NOT on twitter…) —Rolling Stone
Michaela Coel is the first black woman to win an Emmy and her writing has literally changed sexual assault laws. She makes the chant real: Wakanda forever! —Vogue
Journalist Julie Roys talked to Rebecca Davis about “sin leveling” and abuse at church a while back, and I’m still thinking about it. Give it a listen. —The Roys Report
Can’t Look Away
Yes, this actually happened.
The $110 million dollar painting by Claude Monet is okay, but the planet sure isn’t and the activists were, of course, arrested. Read more about a series of escalating climate activism at the Guardian.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point you (again?) to Krispin Mayfield’s phenomenal book, Attached to God. I literally bought three copies—one to mark up and two to give away.
Okay, I do not mean to say that sin isn’t a real thing or that I’m not a sinner. FAR FROM IT. I hope that’s obvious. I am petty and selfish and pharisaical and rebellious and gluttonous. However, the guilt I felt here went beyond any conviction to do what was right and edged into psychological distress in a way that had me rejecting the grace offered to me through Christ. So now I see this as an extension of the psychological pain and rejection I was experiencing within my family-of-origin, rather than a true judgment of God. God was offering love and forgiveness, but I was too busy flogging myself to receive it. I needed the co-regulation of a caring person to say, you are loved, anyway, Liz. Now I have that, but I didn’t back then. (On co-regulation, I recommend KJ Ramsey’s writing, which you can read a brief summary of in this article: https://www.incourage.me/2022/10/the-energy-you-can-bring-into-every-room-for-the-rest-of-your-life.html)