The funny thing about church is that you can know a lot of people but still not be known. I mean really known. Yes, you can smile and hug and exchange Happy Sabbaths at an event... but what happens between events? The lie I most frequently told is that I was “fine.” Most Sabbaths that would not have been true. But how do you answer that honestly when you don’t want to burden the other person with your issues? In fact, how many times do we ask that question and wait for a real response? I’ve been guilty of asking that question in passing, barely stopping to hear the answer before asking the next person. It’s ironic that I would do so given that there have been plenty of times that I wish someone had interrogated my “fine” instead of taking it at face value. Funnily enough, my favourite English teacher used to tell us how much she hated it when she’d ask her husband for his opinion on an outfit and he’d just say “fine.” She much preferred him to use a more creative adjective than something so plain and non-descript. In church, why are we ok with that one- word response? Is it because delving deeper would take too much time? Or is it that we just don’t care about what that answer is masking? At the very least, if someone really is always just “fine,” it begs the question why that’s the case... it seems incongruous with the abundant life that Jesus intended for us (John 10:10). You might be wondering why I seem to be so fixated on this word: it prevents deep and meaningful relationships. Our church ‘family’ can’t be that if we are confined to such a superficial response. We need to foster an environment where talking about how we really feel is standard; an environment where vulnerability is the norm and openness is the culture.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)
Earlier I mentioned that I didn’t want to burden other people with my problems. That’s a shame given that Christ wanted the church community to be a place where people felt supported. In context, this verse is referring to burdens that are sinful, but the principle applies to a burden of any nature. Saying you are “fine” might aid your self-preservation, but what it also does is stifle the other person’s desire to be honest. You see, in those times where I was struggling with something and I asked someone else how they were, I didn’t feel comfortable making things awkward by not ‘matching’ their response i.e. if they were fine, I was fine. If they had qualified, or even modified their answer, then perhaps I would have been more confident to speak up. Am I trying to pin the blame on all the people that have given me a stock answer? No, not at all. However, you never know how much someone might be in dire need of transparency. You don’t want everyone to know your business. I get that. Some things are indeed private, and you wouldn’t necessarily elaborate on your answer in the same way depending on who was asking. Nevertheless, for me to allow you to bear my burden, I need to know that I can trust you. How can I trust you if you won’t even tell me how you are?
The instruction to bear one another’s burden would have been redundant if Paul didn’t anticipate the need for burdens to be borne. The most damaging thing about our favourite fake reply, is that some people genuinely think it’s true. They start to question why others don’t seem to struggle like they do, how everyone that comes to church is seemingly ok, and when “fine” will be a true reflection of their reality like it appears to be for others. Today, there are a few people in my circle who I would feel comfortable asking to bear my burdens. However, that wasn’t the case in the past. Whilst I looked happy, too often there was nothing ‘happy’ about my Sabbath; I had simply grown accustomed to the obligatory greeting. I worry for those who don’t have anyone to speak to... properly. Those who have the same conversation with everyone, merely recycling phrases with the changing faces. This is not what church was created to be. I am still here, but so many are not.
“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35
To bear another’s burden requires care and attention. You cannot truly love others without exercising both things. Moreover, love happens to be the hallmark of a true disciple and the fulfilment of the ‘law’ spoken of in the latter half of Galatians 6:2. The standard of love required is Christ-like love (John 13:34). It is interesting that as a church we seek to win more souls to Christ, yet we fail to follow one of His most basic instructions. If we choose not to love those that are already in church, why are we inviting others into a cold environment? Of course, this does not apply to every church; however, love appears to be lacking in many local churches. Recently, I shared a survey seeking to understand reasons why some individuals had left the Adventist church. The results for question 7 are below:
Which of these did you feel like you could openly share your struggles without fear of judgement? ▪ Pastor = 14% ▪ Elders = 3% ▪ Church Members = 17%
▪ All of the above = 10% ▪ None of the above = 62%
I am saddened that the most popular choice was ‘none of the above.’ Clearly more needs to be done to ensure that church feels like a safe space for everyone. It isn’t possible to conclude that those who left did so because they felt they could not share a particular struggle. However, a lack of genuine love and care was an overwhelming theme in question 10 as seen in the extracts below:
Why did you leave church? If you could say one thing to your church members/pastor, what would it be?
Lack of love and support.
Do not judge people without knowing their circumstances.
I was expected to be perfect all the time and no one took time to care about me and my actual struggles, so I suffered in silence.
Start caring about people, not just marking the register. Actually, CARE about people and be interested.
I felt that I could just not take the church seriously. With that I mean service, preaching and the people.
Be real about your life and your mistakes. When young people ask questions about God or about life, we always hear the basic church response which is neither real nor believable. We need true to life responses and to know that there is no condemnation or judgement from members if we mess up.
I used to preach to people saying you do not go to church for people, but the reality is if you go to church and people make you feel uncomfortable and unwelcome why attend? Thank God for quarantine – I’m able to worship God without thinking about the judgement of others.
If the person sat next to you in church (or tuned into a Zoom call) was struggling, wouldn’t you want to know about it before it was too late? I would. Will them talking to you about it resolve the situation? Perhaps not. However, it will help them to feel like they are not alone. I speak from experience when I say that admitting when I was not fine is what has helped real and authentic friendships to develop. It’s wonderful to hear the relief in someone’s voice when they exclaim “oh, I thought it was just me that went through that” or the gratitude for me simply being there (even though I wasn’t able to help in any spectacular way). There’s no manual on how to bear burdens, but it is a part of your Christian experience that you should not neglect. I almost called it a ‘duty’ but that didn’t sit right; loving others shouldn’t feel like something you have to do (though it is), but rather something you want to do. From a practical perspective, please consider the follow points:
Be honest – are you really fine or are you saying that to truncate the conversation? Your honesty could help the other person open up.
Be inquisitive – don’t take fine at face value. Ask the person if they mind qualifying their answer, or share your experience while you wait for them to respond. Some people are shy and may benefit from your openness. Take time to talk about their week/interests in detail (i.e. do not just skip to the next person if they say “fine” and “yes, I’m definitely fine”).
Be inclusive – church can be cliquey, but what about those who don’t belong to a group? Start a conversation with someone you wouldn’t normally speak to and get to know them. See if there are ways you can help them feel more included. It’s easy to bear the burdens of those whom we know and have taken the time to love, but what about those that haven’t been given that opportunity?
Be genuine – don’t take a sudden interest in people for the sake of it.
Be realistic – your assistance doesn’t always mean that that person’s problem will go away. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’ve done all you can to help. In addition, if a person opens up to you about a burden you can’t help with, then it’s best to be upfront about it. Ideally, think of some alternative people/services and ask them if they’re happy for you to make contact.
Be patient – not all burdens can be resolved ‘quickly.’ Continue being present and dependable.
Paul advised us to bear burdens. Not be burdens or ignore burdens. There are so many people crumbling under the pressure of burdens that you can help to relieve if you enquire how they really are.