From 1508 to 1512, Michelangelo painted his masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Scenes from the Old Testament stunned the first viewers of these frescoes with their detail, imaginative rendering, and flash of vibrant colors across the spectrum. And then over time the paintings were dimmed, dulled, and diminished by centuries of varnish, dirt and dust, smoke and soot, and eventually by exhaust and pollution. The Sistine Chapel’s glory became obscured, once vibrant colors and recognizable scenes hidden underneath a darker surface.
This remained true until the 1980s when the Vatican undertook a decade-long cleaning and restoration process completed in 1989, 467 years after Michelangelo put down his paintbrush. Once again the world could see afresh not just the glory of the painting, but the glory of the story the painting told, beginning with God reaching out to a man and humanity stretching towards God. The restoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel remains among the most impressive art recovery projects ever undertaken, and the result is breath-taking, awe-inspiring, and praise-inducing. It makes a faithful heart want to worship.
It is a particularly frustrating loss when that which is most beautiful becomes most obscured. Something in us revolts, “That’s not right! That’s gorgeous, and it should be seen for what it is, enjoyed, and praised!”
This is particularly true when we’re talking about something as beautiful as the Christian gospel and the Kingdom of God, and some One as beautiful as God and Jesus himself. Over years and decades, many dynamics hide God’s beauty and the actual power of the Christian story and message from us and others. I want to identify five of these in the following reflection.
To address this unintended and unwanted obscuring of God’s greatness and its impact on us, we’re launching “Essential Christianity” on September 23, a 9-week, online course meant to bring us back in touch with the expansive beauty of the Christian Story, recover a compelling vision of what God has done through Christ for the world, and locate our part in what God has done and is doing. If you find yourself weary, confused, disappointed in God, disillusioned with the church, or just curious about what Christianity is actually, I hope you’ll join us.
Many things can and do conspire to make God feel far from us, leaving us singing with Keith Green, “My eyes are dry, My faith is old, My heart is hard, My prayers are cold.” Many things can and do conspire to obscure the beauty of God for us, leaving us singing with the old hymn and feeling “tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt, fighting and fears within without.”
After decades now as a pastor, priest, spiritual director, fallible disciple, and fellow pilgrim, I’ve identified at least five things that threaten to diminish our vision of God, dull our conviction, leave us weary, and frankly that can derail our faith. Some of us have experienced all five!
Identifying which or which combination of these dynamics might be blurring our view can help us work with them so that we can regain or maintain a strong faith, even if currently feeling buffeted or beaten down.
I. Disappointment with God in things that really matter
When we think that God will (or should) answer all of our prayers the way that we think he should, it can be very disorienting when God doesn’t seem to come through in the things that matter most to us. This can include enduring the death of a child, enduring a rejection of our worldview by a child, remaining stuck in an unsatisfying job or not being able to find one, waiting through unwanted singleness, suffering through divorce, bearing chronic health issues, and many others. When we go through these things and God is not ‘answering’ our prayer or our circumstances aren’t changing, it can make God feel distant at best and sometimes even cruel. We might begin to wonder if he cares at all, or even if he exists. Over time, these doubts about God can obscure our vision of him.
II. Real questions we struggle to find answers for
Many years ago, I cheekily told God that I’d live with up to five big questions without satisfying answers and if it went above that number I might have to ditch the whole Christian thing. Over the years a couple have stayed on the list, others I’ve wrestled to satisfying answers and they dropped off, and some new questions have been added to the list, and it’s not yet gone above five. One that remains is, “While I have my answer to why there is so much suffering, why has so much suffering had to persist for so long after Jesus’ first visit? Wouldn’t it have been better if Jesus came back in the 2nd century or at least surely before the 20th?” There are others.
Each of us has questions about God and life that can gnaw quietly in the back of our brain. Left unexplored, they can eat away at our faith and dim our vision of God.
This is particularly difficult when we may have questions about fundamental aspects of the Christian faith or our particular Christian tradition and don’t have a safe context or community where these can be truly explored.
III. Legitimate disappointment and disillusionment with the Church and (some) Christian leaders
One of my “Questions for God” that has been on my list since the beginning– sometimes quietly, and sometimes with an urgent roar (as it is presently)– is “If the Church is to be a primary way that God continues to be revealed in the world, why does it so often do such a terrible job of it?” (Side note: I realize this same question could be leveled at me individually!)
It’s thankfully true that in so many ways the Church and churches have over time and oftentimes beautifully and faithfully revealed the character and reality of God in the world.
It’s also true that being wounded by the Church or a church either personally or by observation or both is as common as it is painful. This can happen in a number of ways, including:
- Outrage and righteous incredulity over things like the Catholic sex abuse scandal and Protestant equivalents, the overidentification of Christianity with certain political party platforms or leaders, various ecclesial forms of complicity in overt racism and/or tacit white supremacy, literal fighting and violence between Christians of differing traditions throughout history, and many more examples.
- Experiencing a congregational split or denominational split, or witnessing the many forms of division in the Church.
- Being personally wounded by a particular church experience or church leader, rejection from other Christians, or simply from observing Christians not loving each other well. A friend of mine the other day mentioned his faith has been battered by his many years participating voluntarily in church governance at both the congregational and denominational level.
- Disappointment with fallen Christian leaders, particularly when they have been those whose platform is large and/or whose ministry we respected. The list of these just in recent years is too long to even attempt to list, though I did write about one of them here.
Very little obscures the reality of God and the beauty of Christianity more than Christ’s own Church, Christians, and Christian leaders behaving badly and distorting the very message of Christianity itself.
IV. Sin and the ‘Third Soil’
Another thing that over time can dim our vision of God and God’s vision for us is our own sin, in particular, falling in love with the things of the world such that we fall increasingly out of love with God.
This is Jesus’ insight in the parable of the soils, specifically the third soil. Jesus said, “Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain…These seeds are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” (Mark 4.7,18-19)
The older we get and the longer we live, the more time there is for seeds that are not of God to take root and grow thorny vines that seek to choke our relationship with God and obscure our vision of God. Sometimes people have lost a vision for God because they no longer want to see him, desiring instead to orient around things that are less costly, make less demands, or are more comfortable or pleasurable than what God seems to offer. I’ve known people over the years who have ditched the Christian faith precisely because they wanted something they knew Christian teaching wouldn’t allow.
V. Outgrowing former ways of connecting with God
It’s not uncommon for spiritual disciplines that have been familiar and fruitful for us in our younger lives to begin to feel stale and offer fewer felt encounters with God. When this happens, and we try harder in those same disciplines, and they fail to lead us to God in the way we’re hoping, this disorientation in our relationship with God can lead us to doubting the existence of God at all. Many have been led to do certain spiritual practices in certain sorts of ways, and have done for a long time, yet when those same forms diminish in their efficacy or desired result, it can lead to doubts not only about one’s own self but of God himself.
When we’re not feeling connected to God, God’s beauty and the compelling vision of Christianity can feel hidden from our eyes.
No doubt there are other dynamics that shroud the beauty of the real good news of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ like clouds can hide the sun, but these five are among the most common. I imagine if you’ve read this far, you’ll have found your head nodding in familiarity with one or two of them, if not all five!
The purpose of this reflection is not to directly address responses or solutions to any of them. However, if you find yourself struggling with any of these dynamics, meeting with a spiritual director can be really helpful.
I wrote “Essential Christianity” last December in part because I was frustrated by how obscured the beauty of Jesus was for me and how a passionate vision of God had become harder to see because of the news and noise all around at that time. I needed to go deep again into what I believe Christianity clearly teaches and is most deeply about, and dive deep again into the beauty that is Jesus and the glory that is God. Christianity for me was feeling too much like the Sistine Chapel before it had been restored.
I wrote “Essential Christianity” first for myself– it was a devotional act, a personal piece of worship– but then we realized it may be particularly helpful for several groups of people who we have a special affection for:
- The weary Christian, those asking “I’ve done all that I’m supposed to do, is there more?”
- The hungry Christian, those saying “I want the deep stuff and to keep going deeper wherever it leads.”
- The curious or thoughtful non-Christian, those saying “I think there may be something to this Jesus thing, but I have no idea where to find out what it’s actually all about.”
- And those Christians and non-Christians who are really disappointed with the Church in this season and are finding their own faith under great duress because of others claiming to represent Christianity but hardly acting like Christ.
God is so great, Jesus is so amazing, and Christianity is so compelling that it’s a real shame when anything obscures it, and a lot can. So “Essential Christianity” is an attempt to carefully consider all of it again and see if we can recapture the ‘glow of God’ and the ‘wonder of Christ’ and the ‘the good news of the Kingdom of God.’ (Luke 4.43)
If you find yourself in this season needing a recovered or perhaps newly discovered inspirational vision of Christianity that leads to new encounters with God and rejuvenated faith, I hope you’ll join us in September.
Regardless of how bruised or weary or dry our faith can feel at times, still we can sing with The Call, “But I still believe, Through the pain and through the grief, Through the lies, through the storms, Through the cries and through the wars, Oh, I still believe!” We can still sing with Bruce Cockburn, “Tried and tested, and I’m still here.”