Why Christian Idealism Is Killing Spirituality
Researchers tell us that the more we’re exposed to perfect bodies in the media, the more we’re dissatisfied with our own. That dissatisfaction goes for any area where we’re regularly and confronted with the idea that everyone else is more successful, richer, smarter, or better than we are. It would be one thing if the celebrity images that wreaked havoc on our self images were real, but they’re not. They’re airbrushed and photoshopped—the flaws are hidden and the strengths are accented. We let illusion dictate reality.
The church’s airbrush
I fear that the church does the same thing. It’s not that we establish a physical standard that’s unachievable. No. With the best of intentions, we set up a standard of perfection across the board:
- You need to have a bulletproof marriage
- You need to be incredible parents
- You need to be ideal children
- Your devotional life needs to be in order
- And on, and on it goes . . .
We’ve been Fireproofed, Growing Kids God’s Way, and Focus on the Family’d to death. We’re on a treadmill that never ends and is perpetually disheartening.
Why it doesn’t work
We have more tools than ever to help us attain this high Christian standard, but I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s really working. Here are a couple reasons why I think this Stepford Christianity is killing us:
1. It capitalizes on our sincere desire to be good Christians
We want to be to be good. We want to please God. And these expectations goad us into a never-ending cycle of DVD classes, conferences, and Christian self-help books. The Christian life is reduced to constant resolution and disappointment. “Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest,” is reduced to “Come on—try harder. You’re almost there. You’re doing alright in your marriage, but your failing with your kids.” Learning to be connected to the vine (a more holistic picture of spiritual growth and maturity, and one that is as varied as we are) is turned into a shame-based striving.
2. It diminishes our transparency
We might not be able to have it all together, but we can pretend that we do. We don’t do it because we’re liars—we do it because:
- We don’t want to feel like we don’t fit in
- We’re afraid we’re not going to be accepted when you see how messed up we are
- We think we can fake it until we make it
An important aspect of spiritual growth is just accepting where we are and striving to get closer to Jesus. Christianity’s not about being dissatisfied with ourselves and striving to become something else. Sadly, it can easily become that. If I’m afraid that you’re going to shun me when you know who I really am, I’ll do anything I can to hide it from you—and myself.
3. It doesn’t take Scripture into account
I love Scripture’s painfully awkward humanity. We Christians often act like the Bible’s made up entirely of gospels and epistles. But truthfully the Bible’s awash in screwed up people doing terrible things, and God directing the outcome of these horrible missteps into something that glorifies him. God’s used some shady, immoral individuals, and he didn’t wait until they were fixed. In fact, for many of them, God’s willingness to use them in spite of their worst was part of the spiritual formation that shaped them. We’re often so focused on being good Christians that we neglect to just be available.
4. It makes us focus on the wrong criteria
As we discussed earlier, when we elevate the perfect Christian behavior across the spectrum of our roles, we encourage pretense. When we establish criteria that allows people to pretend they’re good Christians, we have no idea who is, and who is not, really spiritual. Because of that, we miss out on people who are truly close to Christ but refuse to play the game. They don’t look spiritual and they don’t act spiritual (at least in the way that we’re encouraged to judge those things), yet they have spiritual potency to extend to us.
Before you freak out . . .
I am not saying that we don’t try or that it doesn’t matter how we parent, marry, or any of those things. The issue is one of balance. We need to start with a message of acceptance—and not deficit. Christ in us is our hope of glory, not the striving to live up to whatever Christian ideals we are currently promoting. I imagine that when Christ gets a hold of us, we’re going to have as many versions of healthy spirituality as there are people.