Hank, as we’ll call him, was a cranky guy. He did not smile easily, and when he did, the smile often had a cruel edge to it, coming at someone’s expense. He had a knack for discovering islands of bad news in oceans of happiness. He would always find a cloud where others saw a silver lining.
Hank rarely affirmed anyone. He operated on the assumption that if you compliment someone, it might lead to a swelled head, so he worked to make sure everyone stayed humble. His was a ministry of cranial downsizing.
His native tongue was complaint. He carried judgment and disapproval the way a prisoner carries a ball and chain. Although he went to church his whole life, he was never unshackled.
A deacon in the church asked him one day, “Hank, are you happy?”
Hank paused to reflect, then replied without smiling, “Yeah.”
“Well, tell your face,” the deacon said. But so far as anybody knows, Hank’s face never did find out about it.
Occasionally, Hank’s joylessness produced unintended joy for others.
There was a period of time when his primary complaints centered around the music in the church. “It’s too loud!” Hank protested—to the staff, the deacons, the ushers, and eventually the innocent visitors to the church.
We finally had to take Hank aside and explain that complaining to complete strangers was not appropriate and he would have to restrict his laments to a circle of intimate friends. And that was the end of it. So we thought.
A few weeks later, a secretary buzzed me on the intercom to say that an agent from OSHA—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—was here to see me. “I’m here to check out a complaint,” he said. As I tried to figure out who on the staff would have called OSHA over a church problem, he began to talk about decibel levels at airports and rock concerts.
“Excuse me,” I said, “are you sure this was someone on the church staff that called?”
“No,” he explained. “If anyone calls—whether or not they work here—we’re obligated to investigate.”
Suddenly the light dawned: Hank had called OSHA and said, “The music at my church is too loud.” And they sent a federal agent to check it out.
By this time the rest of the staff had gathered in my office to see the man from OSHA.
“We don’t mean to make light of this,” I told him, “but nothing like this has ever happened around here before.”
“Don’t apologize,” he said. “Do you have any idea how much ridicule I’ve faced around my office since everyone discovered I was going out to bust a church?”
Sometimes Hank’s joylessness ended in comedy, but more often it produced sadness. His children did not know him. His son had a wonderful story about how he met his wife at a dance, but he never told his father because Hank did not approve of dancing.
Hank could not effectively love his wife or his children or people outside his family. He was easily irritated. He had little use for the poor, and a casual contempt for those whose accents or skin pigment differed from his own. Whatever capacity he once might have had for joy or wonder or gratitude atrophied. He critiqued and judged and complained, and his soul got a little smaller each year.
Do We Expect Transformation?
Hank was not changing. He was once a cranky young guy, and he grew up to be a cranky old man. But even more troubling than his lack of change was the fact that nobody was surprised by it. It was as if everyone simply expected that his soul would remain withered and sour year after year, decade after decade. No one seemed bothered by the condition. It was not an anomaly that caused head-scratching bewilderment. No church consultants were called in. No emergency meetings were held to probe the strange case of this person who followed the church’s general guidelines for spiritual life and yet was nontransformed.
The church staff did have some expectations. We expected that Hank would affirm certain religious beliefs. We expected that he would attend services, read the Bible, support the church financially, pray regularly, and avoid certain sins. But here’s what we didn’t expect: We didn’t expect that he would progressively become the way Jesus would be if he were in Hank’s place. We didn’t assume that each year would find him a more compassionate, joyful, gracious, winsome personality. We didn’t anticipate that he was on the way to becoming a source of delight and courtesy who overflowed with “rivers of living water.” So we were not shocked when it didn’t happen. We would have been surprised if it did!
Most of us want to be changed, to become more like Christ. But is it happening? According to a Gallup poll, nine of ten Americans say they pray daily, and 84 million Americans—almost a third of the population—say they have made a personal commitment to Christ as Savior. But as William Iverson writes, “A pound of meat would surely be affected by a quarter pound of salt. If this is real Christianity, the ‘salt of the earth,’ where is the effect of which Jesus spoke?”
Because by and large we do not expect people to experience ongoing transformation, we are not led to question whether perhaps the standard prescriptions for spiritual growth being given in the church are truly adequate to lead people into a transformed way of life.
I believe we need to say that this state of affairs is simply not acceptable. It is not God’s plan for his community. As C. S. Lewis said in another context, we are “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
In fact, Hank’s problem is not just that he is failing to change. His problem—and the problem of all of us who become “far too easily pleased”—is that we may end up changing in ways that leave us worse off than before.
Ortberg, John. 2009. The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
If this story sounds of-too-familiar, check out the new Bible Study, The Life You’ve Always Wanted. It is available on Amazon, as well as part of the Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. (Like Netflix for Bible lessons.)