By Vicki Brown
Many Christians today view the church as being God’s hands and feet to the world in ministry to others, but don’t allow God to minister to them through the hands and feet of others.
“Unfortunately, our culture has historically defined ‘strength’ as handling things ourselves,” said Paula Batts, director of the Christian Counseling Center in Dalton, Ga. “I often tell clients that it takes more strength to walk through the doors of our counseling center and allow someone else into our personal lives than to keep our struggles zipped up and pretend all is well.”
Experts say Christians often find it difficult to admit when a problem arises and tend to present a false front, especially to fellow believers.
“Regrettably, many churches are communities consisting of ‘familiar strangers’ more than ‘brothers and sisters in Christ,’” said David Hughes, who recently retired as pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., to become executive director of the Transforming Center in Wheaton, Ill.
“A high premium is placed upon presenting a life far more solid and put together than it actually is,” Hughes said. “This deception is a function of what Thomas Merton and others have labeled the ‘false self,’ or that part of us devoted to gaining the approval of others at all cost.”
Hughes said the desire for approval often masks needs that others might be able to help address.
“Week after week, Christians file into churches, acting as though all is well, when in fact they may be dying on the inside because of marriage and family conflict, financial challenges, job stress, health issues, addictive behaviors and/or spiritual doubt,” he said. “The false self insists on putting up a brave front, a facade that insists that life is perfectly fine.”
Meanwhile, they don’t get help to deal with the need they are hiding.
“I have noticed that people will wait until they are financially bereft before asking for help from our benevolence fund,” Hughes said. “And spouses will delay marriage counseling until so much damage has been done that their marriage is beyond repair.”
Batts said removing the mask of the appearance of total self-reliance allows Christians to develop deeper relationships with one another.
“Most of us are far better at giving than receiving,” she said. “We want to support each other with food, financial help, a listening ear. It makes our relationships so much more balanced when we are able to receive ministry from others.”
Some go so far as to regard the rejection of such help as sin.
Hughes said the reluctance to allow others to minister fails to follow Jesus’ example and could be construed as disobedience. He pointed out Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a drink, recruited disciples to help him accomplish his ministry and called on them to pray for him as he struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Robert Creech, director of pastoral ministries studies at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, sees problems of pride and ingratitude.
“It probably is a poor witness to refuse ministry at the hands of Christ’s servants,” Creech said. “It is in a way a denial of ministry from Christ himself and a kind of ingratitude toward God.”
“At best, it is prideful,” Creech continued. “At worst, it is a kind of theology that refuses to recognize the presence of Christ in one’s brother or sister. It can be manifested by a refusal to admit one’s needs, a lack of transparency about one’s life and a prideful dismissal of offers to help.”
Batts wouldn’t go that far. “Perhaps those who don’t accept ministry are excellent at giving to others, so it is difficult to say they are a poor witness,” she said.
Hughes said Christians should look to the example of Jesus. “The Light of the World did not hide his needs or fears from those round him, and yet he changed the world,” Hughes said. “Why should those of us who follow him think our witness will be more powerful and effective if all that people around us see is our ‘holy face?’”