How are you doing today?
How am I doing? Oh, I’m fine, too.
How many times have you had such a conversation in your life? How many times have you really, fully, honestly meant it, and were really and completely fine? How many times did you walk away really thinking the other person really, fully, honestly meant it, and were really and completely fine?
Are we fine?
I am not fine; neither are you.
The “How are you? I’m fine” routine involves play-acting, a manifestation of our public personae. We tell people we are fine even though we are not because we understand the “rules of the game,” and we project an air of calmness and strength no matter what may be going on inside. We want to be seen as “having our act together.” We intuitively understand the question is generally an attempt to make the basic acknowledgement of the presence and existence of one another, and we should not press the matter any farther.
Yet I am not fine; neither are you.
So why do we persist with this charade?
We understand it is a convention we maintain. We want to appear to have concern for the welfare of others. We want to acknowledge the people in our lives. In turn we want others to have concern for our welfare and to acknowledge our presence in their lives.
And yet we also do not want to be a bother. We have been taught, in a thousand different ways, that we ought to be able to manage the trials of life on our own. We are supposed to put on our “big boy” or “big girl” pants and “deal with it.” For us to need support and strength from others would be an admission of insufficiency and weakness. We might lose face, become ashamed, and suffer humiliation.
We are also deeply concerned about awkwardness and rejection. Why don’t we tell other people how we feel? Is it not because if we started telling others how we were really feeling, we fear they would no longer want to ask, no longer want to acknowledge our presence in their lives, and thus reject us? Are we not concerned that we would be further hurt in rejection? Or perhaps we have little confidence in the person to be able to provide the support we would need. Maybe we are a bit too anxious about that; sadly, we also have many good reasons to believe it to be true. If we are honest with ourselves, we would not want to be thus burdened by everyone. We are afraid that if we empathize with everyone and bear everyone’s burdens, we will be spent and wasted and have nothing left. In this situation we all confess our love for humanity; but specific people we find difficult to truly love and support. We are comfortable in generalities; we prove anxious and fearful in specifics.
I am not fine; neither are you.
Richard Beck has summarized the situation well: “A church where everyone is ‘fine’ is a group of humans refusing to be human beings and pretending to be gods” (italics original; The Slavery of Death, 111). When a church environment has become like the American culture surrounding it, everyone feels as if they must prove invulnerable, put on the holy appearance, presume as if they have their act together. There does not seem to be a needy person among us, but only because we deeply fear humiliation, rejection, and shame if we proved to be needy. This fear need not be purely abstract: how many have experienced that patronizing “less holy” and insufficient attitude from fellow Christians when expressing a need for support, strength, or resources? How many Christians prove perfectly willing to look down upon their fellow servants of Jesus in order to justify and prop up their own projections of competence and strength? Whenever Christians put on this air of invulnerability and sufficiency they are hypocrites in the true sense of the term: they are putting on an act. They are trying, however consciously, to reflect what they imagine the impassibility of God requires: a Stoic sense of suffering without expressing any of it, the delusion that as long as we project strength and positivity, we will cultivate strength and positivity, and the persistent Greek pretense that vulnerability and the expression of feeling is weakness and thus contemptible. What is going on inside proves less important than maintaining the façade of competence and strength. Such is literally the definition of an idol.
I am not fine; neither are you.
Beck follows Arthur McGill in suggesting that the love of God in Christ cannot be manifest among the people of God until Christians reflect a “community of neediness” (ibid. 110). In the early church there were no needy among them not because none ever had need, but because Christians provided for one another’s needs (Acts 4:34-35). In Christ the projection of strength is not true strength; in embracing weakness we are made strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). We have come to understand much regarding the character of God through the Lord Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3): Jesus took on flesh, greatly humbling Himself, developed strong relationships with His twelve disciples, expended Himself in serving others, and displayed anguish, distress, and pain regarding His own condition as well as that of others (e.g. Matthew 26:36-46, John 11:35-36, 13:1-15). The Apostle Paul spoke forthrightly of his anguish and distress (e.g. 2 Corinthians 1:3-11). We do not find in the Gospel or from the writings of the Apostles any expectation that we must come together and act as if we have everything figured out and project strength and competence. Instead, the Gospel teaches us we are weak, utterly dependent on God, insufficient in and of ourselves, and strengthened and sustained only through the power of God in Christ by the Spirit (Ephesians 2:1-3:22).
Thus, according to what God has made known in Christ, I am not fine; neither are you.
Any church environment in which the members project invulnerability and strength is a dead environment. Those outside all too often perceive the group at worst as cold and distant and at best as beyond their ability to join. If some of those with whom we have shared the Gospel have come to the conclusion they must get their lives sorted out before they get baptized, from whence have they obtained that impression? They have perceived a group of people who seem to have their lives sorted out, and think they must sort out their lives before they can join. Such a group is as Laodicea: they presume to need nothing, but prove in need of everything (Revelation 3:12-21).
It is only when we decide to drop the pretense and begin to prove honestly vulnerable and in need among one another that we can grow in love and faith toward relational unity with God and with one another (1 John 3:16-4:21). Many will find this to be a relief; they were being crushed by the expectation that everything is fine when it is not fine. Others may prove more reticent, and might well find themselves on the margins, unable or unwilling to break through the anxiety and the fear to more accurately embody Christ toward one another. There will be rejection, humiliation, shame, and pain; yet, in truth, we have signed up for such things when we committed ourselves to the Christ who bore the cross, rejection, humiliation, and shame (1 Peter 2:18-25).
But guess what happens when we grow in that relational unity with one another? When we ask how each other is doing, we do not have to pretend. We can be honest.
I am not fine; neither are you. When we learn to accept that, and learn to need one another, support one another, and depend on one another in Christ, we will be able to grow in the grace, knowledge, and strength of the Lord Jesus together!
Ethan R. Longhenry