In his book “Insurrection”, Peter Rollins shares the following little parable:
Every Sunday the pastor would stand at the front of his Church and with a booming voice finish his rousing sermon with a plea:
“Each week I go to a nearby town and serve the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden; what do you do? How do you show your compassion to those in need?”
People would applaud the minister’s closing remarks and everyone would wave him off at the end of the service as he hurried away in his little car.
The truth, however, was that each week he would go to a golf course and play a leisurely eighteen holes away from his congregation, family, and friends.
This deception had been going on for years, but eventually it came to the attention of some angels. They were furious at his lies and reported the situation directly to God.
After a little consideration, God said to the angels, “I will visit with this minister on Sunday and teach him a lesson he’ll never forget.”
Sure enough, next Sunday, God showed up at the Church. Yet again, the minister informed his congregation that he was going to go serve the poor before leaving for the golf course.
This time however, God intervened. When the minister took his first shot, the ball took off, flew through the air, bounced onto the green, and dropped into the hole.
The minister was amazed. At the second hole the same thing happened. And the third. And the fourth. Right through to the last hole.
With his last stroke, the minister sliced the ball badly, but still it curved around and, like all the others, found the hole in one.
All the while the angels in heaven watched what took place in utter disbelief. By the time God returned they shouted, “I thought you were going to punish the minister for all his lies, but instead you gave him the perfect round of golf!”
“That may be true,” replied God with a smile, “but ask yourself this: Who is he going to tell?”
First I have to confess, I am not going to make the same point with this story that Peter Rollins goes on to make. In fact, he would probably hate my point. But he probably hates most people’s points so I’m not too worried. He’s much too brilliant to make the kind of straightforward points that someone like me would make, and that’s why I love him! I just wanted to get that out of the way. You’ll have to pick up the book and read the first chapter if you want to know what his point is.
The Human Condition
I think this parable really captures the human condition. We want to be known for our laudable character and our wonderful moral sacrifice, but unfortunately, we don’t have any of those things when it comes right down to it. So we have to take whatever tattered shreds of laudableness we can piece together, and put on a show of good character and moral success. We do all this because we are desperate for approval, desperate to be seen and known, desperate to be significant and justified. We do not want to live hidden and unknown lives – we want witnesses to our awesomeness. But we’re not awesome, so we lie. We don’t think of it as a lie. We think of it as “privacy”. We think of any pressure to tell the truth as “legalism”. We look at our fake life as some kind of dignity that we have a right to maintain. We think of “grace” as our continued ability to hide all of this and to forget that it is all a facade.
The problem is, we have put on this giant performance, pretending to be wonderful. But all of our genuine enjoyment is in our sin. We really long to be lazy, and greedy, and lustful, and gluttonous, and selfish, and materialistic, and gossipy. We have to make sure that no one knows about the things that bring us true comfort. And we have to keep it all hidden in the darkness lest everyone find out what we’re really like and stop lauding us. And all of that mess is called “fellowship.” Of course the Apostle John nails this:
6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and [yet] walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; 7 but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. – 1Jo 1:6-8 NASB
Much of Christendom is completely eaten up with the notion of progressive sanctification. The idea is that as Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are getting better and better every day. The problem is, no one could ever know if anyone is really getting progressively better because our fellowship is based almost exclusively on lies. I think the only reason most congregations can continue to exist is because they limit the chances for human contact to a brief visit in the entrance of the church on the way in and the way out. The few people who attend home groups are able to cope with the unpleasant possibility of true fellowship by pretending to agree with the heavy imperative-laden content and by sharing carefully censored prayer requests that avoid spilling any kind of real truth.
So in the unlikely event that any real “sanctification” happens, it would be impossible for anyone to know! Can you imagine a porn addict going to a church meeting to share his triumph that he had gone three whole days without looking at porn?! It’s just not going to happen. He’s been pretending to be sanctified with this group of people for years. If God actually did something in someone’s life that really mattered, our real heart-level experience of life is so encrusted with lies and coverups and pretense that no one would ever know.
Real Fellowship – Being Known
The situations where people are forced to have real ongoing human contact are usually a complete mess. We hate our jobs, and need marriage counseling, and complain about our children, because as much as we try to keep these relationships happening on the surface of our pretense, our real selves leak through. And naturally there is nothing for it besides harsh judgment and rejection. We don’t have the tools to deal with real fellowship, because by and large we do not believe in the gospel. We have no basis for the kind of mercy which does not massacre our sense of personal justice. Go to any random church, and go to any random congregant, and ask them what they think the core message of their church is. I can pretty well guarantee you it isn’t going to be that there is rich mercy because Jesus Christ has died for our sins. It is going to be some version of progressive sanctification. One way or the other, through false confessions of humility, they are going to claim to be fulfilling those terms. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there.
The problem with all of this is that if God is going to touch us, if He is going to bless us in any meaningful way, it can only happen to us in isolation. The only real life we have is our isolation. And so if there is any real progress, who are we going to tell? The Apostle is so right in saying that those who pretend at godliness walk in the darkness! Our thought is, if I can just clean this up so that my life isn’t a lie, then I can step into ministry and have real laudable success and have people love me. But that never happens. There is only one path – confession. We can only have real fellowship when we share our sin and our failure and our brokenness. We can only celebrate our successes if the people around us know our failures. And we can only share these scary things if we are in a community of people who believe that the blood of Jesus has the power to wash all of our sins. If we do not believe in the true power of justification, if we cannot stop marginalizing mercy, we can do nothing but judge one another. And this sends us into an isolated death spiral of pretense and lies. But mere faith in the simple gospel of forgiveness in Christ produces true fellowship.
If we want to be known, we must be known in our failure, in our sin, in our brokenness. We cannot be known, our story cannot be witnessed, God’s work in our lives cannot be celebrated, unless we confess our true selves. And we cannot confess our true selves without faith in the simple gospel of salvation. But praise be to God, Jesus has died for our sins. It worked! We have been truly justified, forgiven, and saved to the uttermost. Together we have the basis for real fellowship.