In emotionally healthy churches, people live and lead out of brokenness and vulnerability. They understand that leadership in the kingdom of God is from the bottom up, not a grasping, controlling, or lording over others. It is leading out of failure and pain, questions and struggles — a serving that lets go. It is a noticeably different way of life from what is commonly modeled in the world and, unfortunately, in many churches.
Storm-Proofing Your Life
Over Labor Day weekend in 1900, many residents on Galveston Island, Texas, sought relief from the unusually hot September weather by wading in the cool waters of the Gulf of Mexico. None suspected that almost half the 37,000-resident population was about to die or become instantly homeless, pummeled by the most deadly hurricane on record.
Yet later that fateful Saturday night, a hurricane with sustained winds of more than 125 miles an hour and gusts up to 200 miles an hour slammed directly into Galveston. In the language of today’s National Weather Service, what struck them would be called an extreme hurricane or X-storm.
The official forecast in the Galveston News had said, “Rain Saturday, with high northerly winds; Sunday rain, followed by clearing.” Yet suddenly the tempest appeared. By 1:00 p.m. the rains became a storm, by 5:00 p.m. winds reached hurricane velocity, and by 8:30 p.m., water levels stood as high as twenty feet above normal. During that short time frame, most of the island’s homes became submerged, barely visible, or blown away.
Reports of a distant tropical storm had reached Galveston’s weather bureau earlier that week, but they caused no great alarm. “The usual signs which herald the approach of hurricanes were not present in this case,” wrote Isaac M. Cline, Galveston’s veteran and senior weather bureau official. Isaac himself lived three blocks from the beach, but, tellingly, didn’t see any need to evacuate his pregnant wife (who was drowned), his brother, or either family’s children.
Why? Isaac Cline himself had predicted that no hurricane could seriously damage the city. “An absurd delusion” is how he had characterized the fear that any hurricane posed a serious danger to the burgeoning city of Galveston.
Based partly on Cline’s expert opinion, Galveston had dismissed a proposal to erect a seawall, claiming it a needless, wasteful expense. As a result, many people in that beautiful city grew in confidence that they could withstand any storm. They never anticipated gusts of two hundred miles an hour that would be like thirty tons slamming against a house wall, crumbling it as if the timber were match sticks. They never anticipated waves fifty feet long and ten feet high with a static weight of eighty thousand pounds. These were waves with destructive power beyond measure. Moving at thirty miles an hour, they generated a forward momentum of two million pounds, powerful enough to dislodge strong artillery emplacements.
So many people were drowned that bodies washed back on shore for months. Isaac Cline, the weatherman, never anticipated a storm of this intensity.
In the same way that Isaac thought he had built a stable, well-anchored house that could withstand storms, so I too went to great lengths to prepare myself for leadership as best I could. I accumulated knowledge, skills, and experience from a vast array of Christian arenas. My hope was that no person, trial, difficulty, or circumstance would break me, regardless of the force of the hurricane. I sought to live in the reality that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead was now in me (Ephesians 1:19-23). I reminded myself that greater is He who is in me than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). I prayed like David, “With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall” (2 Samuel 22:30).
I was determined to remain stable, firm, consistent, and faithful. God had given me zeal, talents, and a lot of experience. I was going to be a warrior, a soldier, and a servant for God and His church.
My preparation, however, both formal and informal, left out one of the most important biblical pathways to grow in spiritual authority and leadership — brokenness and weakness. As a result, when the really big storms hit, I wasn’t ready.
Developing a Theology of Weakness
After Adam and Eve sin in the garden of Eden, God lovingly pursues them and makes a way for them to come back to Him and to one another. He goes out looking for them, “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8). He provides them with clothes to cover their shame (Genesis 3:21). He promises that one day He will overcome the serpent whose lies they believed (Genesis 3:15).
Because of the fall, God also builds the curse of “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:18) into the fabric of life as we know it even today. God explains how all of life, from that point forward, will be painful, difficult, and frustrating. He breaks the curse down into two primary areas: our relationships (Genesis 3:16) and our work (Genesis 3:17-19).
Relationships, God says, will now be marked by pain and misunderstandings. We will be disappointed with people in our marriages, families, churches, and workplaces. Intimacy will be replaced with manipulation, power struggles, put-downs, seductions, defensiveness, and the withholding of relationship. Loneliness will reign.
We may have been built to engage the earth and to work, but now frustration and failure will be our lot. In essence, the ground will be hard. Thorns and thistles will mark our work. We may reach our goals and accomplish things, but we will never feel completely satisfied. A sense of restlessness and incompleteness will always accompany our work on earth. In this life all symphonies remain unfinished.
Why does God do this?
He releases the curse in order to drive us to our knees and to seek Him, to recognize our need for a Savior (Galatians 3:21-25). The problem is instead of being broken by the thorns and thistles of life and thus coming to Christ, we either flee, fight, or hide.
- Flee. Some of us flee by burying our pain in some form of addictive behavior, avoiding life by focusing on only a small part of it. Many Christians suffer pain, but they run away from it or anesthetize it. How many pastors numb the pains of life by becoming addicted to building their church? How many people zealously put their energy into a church ministry as a way of avoiding certain unpleasant relationships at home? How many females will bury themselves in caring for the children as a way of not looking honestly at other broken areas of their lives? How many men pour their life energy into succeeding at their professions while failing miserably at home?
- Fight. Others of us become angry, bitter, and/or violent because life is not going our way. How many Christians need to deal with an anger that is close to their soul but instead put on the veneer of a spirituality — “a righteous indignation like Jesus,” as they wrongly describe it? They take out their anger on misguided politicians and doctrinally imperfect Christians. Rather than be broken by the difficulties of life, I meet many in our churches who are angry at God for not answering their prayers or ruling the world in a way that seems wise.
- Hide. Still others of us build our lives in ways that cover up how damaged, cracked, fractured, frail, limited, and imperfect we are. That’s what I did for years. The most poignant example occurred several years ago when, for a brief time, I traveled to different parts of the country and spoke at church-growth conferences. I spoke about our church’s successes, focusing on what I did right. I conveyed a sense of mastery and control of how to lead a church and build an infrastructure of small groups. I was the center of attention, sharing my expertise freely over breaks and meals.
However, I glossed over disappointments and setbacks, both personally and in the church. I also found myself exaggerating more than I like to admit. On the surface it appeared that I was succeeding. Some of the exploits were true. But, as I would later understand, focusing on my success was my tool to avoid looking honestly at how damaged, cracked, imperfect, and limited I really was. It also gave me a false sense of worth and value that left me empty.
I remember getting an invitation to speak at a church-growth conference in Tennessee because a plenary speaker had gotten sick and they needed someone to fill in. The honorarium was significant. But I knew I could no longer go. Something in my soul was dying at those conferences when I spoke. I had an uncomfortable feeling that I was not telling the whole truth. God had done a number of great things, but there was another side to the story and to me.
Everyone is broken, damaged, cracked, and imperfect. It is a common thread of all humanity — even for those who deny its reality in their life.
Excerpted with permission from The Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter Scazzero and Warren Bird, copyright Zondervan.
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