My grandmother often used a word to describe herself or other people. It was the word “ill”. She did not use it to describe someone who was sick with a cold or the flu. She used it to describe an attitude, a demeanor, or a spirit. For example, if someone were rude or stern with her, she would describe them as being “ill”. If someone were sour or negative and brought a wet blanket to every gathering, she described them as “always being ill”.
While not meaning that they were physically sick, she was accurately describing another kind of sickness. This sickness is spiritual and emotional. It is the dreaded disease characterized by grouchiness, sullenness, and negativity. Unfortunately, it is a disease that is present in pandemic proportions in local congregations today.
The “ill spirit” that pervades many local churches is born of personal frustration, anxiety, unmet expectations and general unhappiness. It is often brought into the life of the church from the workplace, the media, the economic realities we live in, our dysfunctional families, or our own personal emotional struggles.
We show up at church “ill”, and at the first opportunity, we share our “illness” with all those within reach. I recently was in a congregational meeting that was punctuated with mean-spirited comments and actions. The entire evening had an unpleasant feel to it. The trust level among those present was so low that nothing was taken at face value. Everything was subject to skepticism. In the end, the gathering was embarrassing. I walked away saddened and embarrassed that a people who call themselves Christian could treat one another in such brutal and unhealthy ways.
As I left that night, I wondered, how is it that some are able to attend church for a lifetime, call themselves Christians, and yet so easily revert to being un-Christ-like in the way they treat others? How are we able to produce so many righteously mean Christians? How have we managed to create a theology that allows such a disconnect between the One we claim to follow and the way we live our lives?
Dallas Willard, theologian par excellence, suggests that we have made secondary the inner transformation that Jesus made primary. When we neglect the spiritual disciplines, our surface spirituality melts away quickly when emotions get heated or issues become intense.
Far too often, our inner self has been shaped and formed by the culture we live in rather than the Christ we follow. Willard suggests: “The greatest need you and I have is the renovation of our heart. That spiritual place within us from which outlook, choices, and actions come has often been formed by a world away from God. Now it must be transformed.”
I recently spent a very pleasant weekend with a group of Baptist deacons who wanted to talk about transformation. We began by admitting that most of us are a bit frightened by the idea of transformation. We are more interested in slight modifications or subtle adjustments that genuine transformation. After all, we are bright, intelligent, self-made men and women who tend to become self-absorbed and somewhat proud of our lives. The very last thing most of us want to be accused of is being a zealot or a religious fanatic. Transformation sounds like more than we signed on for.
I am convinced that the tidal wave of “ill” people surging through our churches is a direct result of our failure to take seriously spiritual transformation into Christlikeness as the exclusive primary goal of a healthy local church. Such a priority would permeate our efforts at worship, evangelism, education, age-group ministries, small groups, etc. Such a focus would fundamentally change many of us.
Transformation is not optional for a Christ-follower. It is why we are here and what we are to be about. Re-forming our lives from the inside out will surely change us and re-shape us in profound ways. It might even make a difference in the way we conduct ourselves in a church business meeting when emotions are high and tensions are up. If not, then we may need to admit that we have managed to hear dozens, even hundreds, of sermons, Bible studies, Sunday school lessons and the like and have managed not to take internally those teachings.
Rather, what if we sought diligently to personally cultivate a loving spirit that became a defining characteristic of our congregation? (John 13:35) What if we took seriously the idea that our transformation is why Jesus came and lived among us? (John 10:10) What if the fruit of the Spirit, rather than being called “ill” became the defining trait of each one of us? (Galatians 5:22)
Such would be a church that would honor and not embarrass our Savior.