Church as Self-mortification?

I've been thinking recently about church being a spiritual discipline, even a form of self-mortification.

This train of thought began with a statement I made recently while teaching a class at church about church. In talking about what it means to live with a faith community I said: "I know this might sound strange to some of you, but I go to church to intentionally be around people who irritate me."

A few weeks later I was visiting with friends at our church retreat. Our conversation turned to the difficult discipline of church. During that conversation I said: "Church is a form of self-mortification, like fasting. A big part of church is learning to say No to yourself."

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20 thoughts on “Church as Self-mortification?”

  1. As a mirror to your observations here, Richard, we could perhaps also consider the world as affording an opportunity for worship and spiritual progress.

    In the story of Thomas Wingfold, we hear of a formerly avarcious draper who comes to see his shop as a kind of chapel.  One evening, he stays open late and sorts through his entire stock in search of a certain fabric, which he sells at cost price to a poverty-stricken soldier's wife.

    "I begin to suspect," said the curate, after a pause, "That the common transactions of life are the most sacred channels for the spread of the heavenly leaven.  There was ten times more of the divine in selling her that gown as you did, in the name of God, than in taking her into your pew and singing out of the same hymn-book with her."

  2. Relationships are complex, to be sure.  Even the best ones will have their "moments" (irritation, boredom, etc.).  Add to that a group dynamic (i.e., church), and the potential conflict is multiplied exponentially.

    Not unlike marriage, each person really needs to know that the other is in it, 100%.
    Expect the relationship to involve real work (time, effort, etc.)
    Don't expect to be fulfilled, completed, or made happy by and through the other person.  In other words, one's whole identity and purpose shouldn't be wrapped up in the other.
    Establish ground rules for how conflict will be negotiated and resolved.  And then respect them.
    Understand that change is a given.  People change, circumstances change...roll with it; grow through it.

    Church, as far as the social/communal aspect of it, can be approached a lot like marriage.  This comment is my "Note to self" more than it is meant for anyone else, by the way.  Although I'm "in" church now, there is a part of me that is skeptical and nervous that it will all turn to you-know-what, eventually.  Historically, church has been a mostly negative experience for me.  I can't erase those memories and just start over with a blank slate.  It's difficult for me to leave my U-Haul load of "baggage" at home when I go to church, and in that sense, I'm sure that I am by far the most irritating jerk in the church!  Poor them.  :-/

    UM's are a generally inclusive group, so they seem to take my irritating eccentricities in stride.  I'm glad that my husband and kids are also comfortable at our church.  If that were not the case, it would put me in an impossible bind, to say the least.  ~Peace~

  3. This reminded me of a song written by the president elect here in the Uniting Church in Australia Andrew Dutney, 'Jesus Wasn't Very Picky':

    Jesus wasn’t
    very picky, just went you and you and you.

    They denied
    him and betrayed him, just as you’d expect them to.

    Jesus wasn’t
    very picky, but it still seems rather odd.

    That this
    disappointing people, should be called the church of God.

    Jesus wasn’t
    very picky, just goes you and you and you.

    So it
    shouldn’t shock or hurt me, when we do the things we do.


    We are one, tares and wheat,

    We are holy, goats and sheep,

    We are catholic, apostolic,

    We are the church of God.


    You don’t
    get to choose your family, after planning and research.

    Neither do
    you get consulted, on the members of the church.

    So this
    isn’t picture perfect, this is not a perfect day.

    These are
    hardly perfect people, they’re just pilgrims on the way.


    Jesus wasn’t
    very picky…

  4. If it's certain and unavoidable irritation you're after, may I suggest also any of the following?

    1.  Driving your car anywhere.  2.  Shopping in any grocery store.  3.  Using any Post Office.  4.  Dealing with any bank.  5.  A call to Customer or Technical Support (anyone's).  6.  Answering your phone every time it rings without looking first looking at the CID.  7.  Investing in the stock market.  8.  Watching any television channel which is not commercial-free.  9.  Attending any movie theater.  10.  Reading anything about Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, or Barney Frank.

    You could get half of them done today if you start right now!   You'll be nothing but raw nerves by the end of the day.   ;-)

  5. And from "The Elect Lady" :

    "Is it not the presence of Christ that makes an assembly a church?"
    "I suppose that is true," said George hesitantly.
    "Does he not say that where two or three are met in his name, there he is in the midst of them?"
    "Then thus far will I justify myself to you, that, if I do not go to what you call church, I yet often make one of such a company met in his name."
    "He does not limit the company to two or three."
    "Assuredly not. But if I find that I get more help and strength with a certain few, why should I go to a gathering of a multitude to get less? Will you draw another line of definition than the Master's? Why should it be more sacred to worship with five hundred or five thousand than with three? If he is in the midst of them, they cannot be wrongly gathered. ...

    "Your way fosters division in the church."
    "Did the Lord come to send peace on the earth? My way, as you call it, would indeed make division, but division between those who call themselves his and those who are his. It would bring together those that love him. Company would merge with company that they might look on the Lord together. I don't believe that Jesus cares much for what is called the visible church. But he cares with his very Godhead for those who do as he tells them. They are his Father's friends. They are his elect by whom he will save the world. It is by those who obey, and by their obedience, that he will save those who do not obey, that is, will bring them to obey. It is one by one the world will pass to his side. There is no saving of the masses. If a thousand be converted at once, it is still every single lonely man that is converted."
    "You would make a slow process of it."
    "It is slow, yet faster than any other. All God's processes are slow. The works of God take time and cannot be rushed."
    ~George MacDonald

  6. :-)

    When I made the first comment in class I did get a lot of funny looks. "Is he talking about me? Am I one of the ones who irritates him?"

    But here's the deal. Everybody irritates everybody. Even the people we love. Perhaps especially the people we love. The point being that a huge part of being community is learning to master your irritation.

  7. Hi Patricia

    Thank-you for your quotation. The Matthew 18:20 reference brings us nicely back to Richard's original point, I think. I spent years wondering what was so special about "two or three" and then, when it hit me, it seemed so obvious I was embarrassed but the simplicity of it all. Two or three is what you need for relationship, for the mediation of meaning, for otherness, for love in all it's messy, painful, frustrating, hurtful glory.

  8. Ah I just love every grain that I pick from MacDonald's literary field! I continually find him to be the best antidote to modern man's auspicious bent towards the grandiose and external. GMac pushes me ever smaller, to look upon the simplicity and inherent importance of being a son, a brother, a friend, a neighbor, and most essentially, a child of God. I must look to those things that are daily in front of me, stepping forward in obedience to the Father's will.

    This is so refreshing for a soul lamenting modern scheme's and theories. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Remaining with people despite themselves, to me, seems one of the most virtuous activities a person can do each day. Talk about self-mortification! I feel truly blessed when I get to a point with a friend that remains a friend despite the annoying and arrogant things I do!

  10. Hi Andrew

    That makes a lot of sense -- I hadn't put it together like that, so thank you. I think, too, a few in fellowship is easier for introverts and Winter Christians to manage, because the heavy load of trying to find a place to belong in a large group often leads to despair and angst, if you're just not cut out for it.

  11. I'm imagining that it's being irritated by people in their own particularity that Richard is looking for. There's a certain common thread I see in the excerpts Richard provides for us--there is merit in caring for individuals who annoy us. The examples you give almost all anonymise the people who annoy you, and so don't do quite the same thing. Examples more like church might include attending extended family gatherings, attending neighbourhood watch meetings, or joining a club and staying at it regularly.
    However, there might be a discipline in caring about anonymous people who irritate you, too, and it would be valuable. It wouldn't be about maintaining relationships, though, so it would be a different thing than church.

  12. Is this why services are usually held in the morning? To make sure everyone is still tired and therefore have less patience than usual?

  13. I go to church with a soul who gave two-thirds of my job responsibilities to two new, younger employees and cut my hours in half. I didn't get a reason. I got four days' advance notice if the change.

    He's in a lot of pain recovering from surgery. I'm called to love him, pray for him, forgive him if I think he's done wrong.

    I don't know if that's what you mean by self-mortification or not, but that's where I am. And I'm doing my best to give glory to God. I wish I could say I'm doing great and frim a full and free heart. I hope to get there.

    We learn by doing.

  14. I went to church one day last month; the preacher he preached real good.
    He talked about true commitment and New Testament brotherhood.
    He talked about watching the things we say, the gossip that can wound and slay.
    I sure wish Joe had been there that day, 'cos he really needed to hear it.

    Ev'rybody Else But Me - Don Francisco (remember him?!)

  15. I hear Richard's comment and love it - think that discipline is much needed.  

    While perhaps not what he was speaking to, his comment stirs in me the same question Patricia seemed to be considering with the MacDonald what point does suffering the irritation become discipline for discipline sake, at the cost of perhaps more bountiful harvests outside the church?  

    I find myself torn between service in a church, despite all the things that institutional churches inherently seem to misconstrue of the Gospel in addition to all the particularities a given congregation may add to the mix, and a desire to forego a particular church in favor of the few of which MacDonald speaks.  

    I ask myself, am I wanting to avoid "church" because it doesn't fit the model I think it should (more cynically - because it doesn't meet my needs)?  

    I certainly hope not, and feel I can honestly say that is not the reason.  Though I find myself continually second guessing or questioning that.  Am I just putting a "holy" spin on selfishness (what I want, how I want) or laziness (overcoming the challenges)?  

    Again, I hope not.  I truly feel that sometimes it is a lost cause, the titanic can't turn enough and is going down, and my energy is better used elsewhere.  Alas, I then find that "elsewhere," the gathering of the two's and three's or which MacDonald speaks, has some pretty substantial complications itself.  

  16. Funny, I visit certain websites for the same reasons.  It is those irritations which can help us look at ourselves better and love more fully.  
    But pews --- really?  Why go that far with self-mortification? :-)

  17. Richard,
    I agree there is a discipline involved in belonging to church.  I think "irritation" misses the mark because it betrays a lack of relational depth, which is exactly why I find "church" so unrewarding.  I tend to believe that in the face of superficiality (which, let's face it large congregation inevitably breed), the character deformation may outweigh any formation that could be taking place from suffering annoying people. 

    When you introduce intimacy and depth of relationship to church, added to true diversity (which churches largely do not have), then I agree with your observation about character and mortification.  When "John" the struggling crack addict, on and off the wagon, is someone you commit to praying with, eating with, having in your home, etc... there is indeed a cruciform mortification.  Or when you serve at the soup kitchen with "right-wing Bob" and meet up for conversation and breakfast at other times, attempting to build a real friendship with someone whose ideas are... well, he's a nutjob to you... there is, perhaps, once again salvific mortification taken place.  By in our typical church set up, it just easy to avoid any depth with "right-wing Bob", and suffer the annoyance.  I don't know how formative that is. 

    Having said all that, maybe suffering the superficiality of church (rather than the irritation per se) is my own opportunity for mortification.  I'm just not convinced.  I'm also aware I'm largely just standing by the edge of the pool trying to decide if I'm ready to jump back into the hard work of building deep emotional connections with people who are very different from me....  For now, it still is a bit easier just to kick on the church... :)

  18.  Go Catholic; we have Saturday evening services ;-) Actually, Going to church is fine with me occasionally if the music is good and the homily actually relates to the scriptures of the day and daily life. So many times those are missing. In a large congregation if you are not an "old" member, you can forget being able to serve in the congregation unless you get lucky and someone reaches out to you. I'm not a good pew warmer, so if you don't let me in to serve some other function, you aren't going to see much of me or my money.

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