The reality gap

So, good brothers and sisters in our Lord, we’re Christians saved by grace, Amen? We’ve been filled with God’s Spirit to develop in Christ’s character, love each other with Christ’s love, lead victorious lives of prayer and righteousness and good works, share the good news of Christ with all, and generally be shining lights in a dark world, our hearts full of joy and peace! Hallelujah and Amen?

What? – are you saying your life doesn’t look like that?! That actually you struggle to love other people and to keep yourself from falling back into seemingly endless cycles of unhelpful behaviour? That you often find it hard to pray as much as a couple of minutes a day, and that you rarely feel any great divine joy or peace? That you spend more time checking Facebook or watching Neighbours than engaging in Bible study?

Welcome to the reality gap. It’s the unwelcome, gaping distance between where (or who) we feel we ought to be and where (or who) we actually are. It’s the gap between what we’ve been told we should be doing or feeling and our actual experience. It’s the gap between what we’re expected to think or believe and our genuine (if unexpressed) doubts. It’s the gap between where all of us really live and where we want people to think we live.

The reality gap is marked out by those nasty words ‘should’ and ‘ought’. You ‘should’ (we’re told) have a daily quiet time, read the Bible, intercede for the world, lead people to Christ, believe correct doctrines, practise spiritual disciplines, rejoice always, give willingly, speak in tongues, etc etc. But you don’t, for the most part; or if you do, you do only falteringly and sporadically, like a half-blocked tap or an appliance running out of battery.

Or again, you ‘should’ be filled with Christ’s peace, joy and love, confidently able to stand firm against all trials and temptations. But if you’re honest, this isn’t your experience most of the time.

As a result you feel inadequate and guilty, perhaps uncertain that you are in fact a real Christian at all. You feel a failure, a bit useless, even worthless; certainly not worth a great deal.

Responses to the reality gap

There are some obvious ways you can respond to the reality gap.

You can try even harder to be good, struggling to bridge the gap by your own efforts, at least until you burn out or give up. On the other hand you can go easy on yourself, accepting that you’re never going to achieve perfection and deciding just not to bother – it’s all grace anyway, right? Or you can take a middle way and pretend, smile brightly, put up a nice ‘good Christian’ front and say all the right things when you’re in church.

Or of course you can give up the unequal struggle and jack it all in – Christianity clearly wasn’t for you. Leave it to the really good people – or to all those pew-filling hypocrites who’re just pretending to be good.

Before exploring what might be a more helpful response, let’s look at another aspect of the reality gap.

How things should be and how they are

More generally, there’s also the gap between the way we want things to be (or believe they should be) and the way they actually are. This can range from the specific circumstances of our own lives all the way out to the way the universe should work.

So for example, perhaps we believe that if only so-and-so would love us, or if only we could get such-and-such a job, or win the lottery, or pass a particular exam, or be healed of a specific condition, then we could be happy and all would be well.

But often the difficult reality is that these things just aren’t going to happen. I’m not discounting the possibility of miracles, but by definition miracles are rare and unusual events. Not all of our life’s problems are going to be solved miraculously.

Or on the wider scale, maybe we believe that the world should be a nice place with happy endings for decent people. Perhaps we believe that everyone should be healed if they pray with enough faith; that Christian relationships shouldn’t ever break down, and believers shouldn’t ever lose their faith. But again, the painful reality is that these non-ideal things happen all the time, and often there is no obvious happy ending or silver lining.

Repentance and reality

I don’t like the word ‘repentance’ – like ‘sin’, it just conjures up scary images of weirdoes with sandwich boards bellowing ‘repent or perish in the fires of hell!’ But of course, as I’m sure all readers of this blog are well aware, the biblical word for repentance simply means to change direction; a change of heart or mind.

It strikes me that another way of looking at repentance is simply the genuine acceptance of reality – or perhaps of Reality with a capital R, in the sense of God’s greater, wider reality. In this sense, repentance is accommodating ourselves to reality rather than striving to change reality to suit us, which never works. It’s acceptance of what really is rather than chasing after what can’t be.

Sadly a lot of the time reality just isn’t the way we want it to be or think it should be. At least it’s certainly not the way I want it to be. There are so many things I’ve longed and strived and prayed for that I suspect just aren’t compatible with reality; with how things are and how they’re actually going to be.

I’ve spent (and still spend) a lot of effort and energy trying to re-shape things to fit my view of how they should be. But reality doesn’t change just because I want it to. Things don’t become true to suit me. It’s like the old joke about someone coming out of an exam and praying ‘Dear God, please let Paris be the capital of Italy’.

‘Please God, let such and such a person like me. Please God, make me good at sports. Please God, may my manager/parents/wife/kids change. Please God, change my sexuality.’ Or, on the wider stage, ‘Please send revival and make everyone Christian. Please end all wars and poverty. Please may Andy Murray win Wimbledon.’ (Okay, maybe God did answer that one ;))

Unfortunately, for the most part, reality stays solidly and stubbornly as it is; we can’t change it. As the serenity prayer has it – ‘grant me serenity (or I prefer ‘grace’) to accept the things I can’t change’.

But if repentance is in any sense about accommodating ourselves to reality rather than vice versa, how do we actually do that? It’s often not much easier to change our own selves than it is to change external reality. I may see quite clearly what reality is, but I still struggle like heck to align myself with it.

I’d suggest that this is one of the things that Christian worship may be about. In worship we lay ourselves bare and open to encounter the greatest Reality, the reality of God (well, that’s the idea, and can sometimes be the reality). We set aside false images and impressions of God – idols – and let him come to us as he is. We come face to face with a reality that is greater than ourselves, and we also come face to face with our own realities. And as we do so, our own reality can start to be re-shaped by the Reality we meet. In this way we may start to experience transformation – repentance if you like.

The grace of the gaps

So to go back a little, I’d suggest that for much of the time we’re longing for things to be different to how they are, and for ourselves to be different to how we are. And we often seek to use Christianity as a means to this desired end, trying to get God to work miracles to change us and the world.

The irony though is that the reality gap is often where God’s grace is most to be found.

It’s not in our pretence-attempts to appear as something better than we really are that God is truly at work. It’s in our day-to-day struggles, our on-going anxieties and addictions and repeated failures; the areas of shame and sorrow, the parts of ourselves we don’t want others to know about – this is where God most wants to meet us; where he can do his greatest work in and through us.

Similarly, it’s not in seeking the ideal ways we want things to be – the things we believe will lead to happiness and fulfilment – that God is most actively present. Rather it’s in our coming to terms with life as it is in all its non-idealness that I believe God is most found.

That doesn’t mean we can never have what we hope for or that there are never any miracles, but these aren’t to be our main focus. If we don’t get them it’s not that our faith isn’t ‘working’ or that God isn’t real or doesn’t care.

I do believe in miracles and in answered prayer. I believe in the coming Kingdom where all wrongs will be righted, harms healed and relationships restored; and I even believe that at times we can get glimpses and foretastes of this here and now. But I just don’t think this is the norm, even for the most devoted and faith-filled Christians.

In the meantime I think we’re better off seeking to learn contentment in the genuine circumstances of our lives and the world rather than being perpetually dissatisfied with our lot. That doesn’t mean we don’t persevere in addressing the faults in our characters or injustices in the wider world. It certainly doesn’t mean we become either complacent or cynical.

All will be well; and in the meantime, God is at work here and now in the non-ideal. It’s the grace of the gaps.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Emerging, Evangelicalism, Grace, Psychology, The faith journey and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The reality gap

  1. dsholland says:

    I would argue the reality gap is THE place where God’s grace is found. If the gap is the distance between where we sit on the throne and the real world where God sits on the throne.

    As long as we are on the throne we will be frustrated and powerless because we are in fact not God. However to get off the throne and walk the bridge to close the gap requires faith that the one we are surrendering the throne to exists and can do a better job than we can.

    It also requires obedience, which is not passivity (just another form of rebellion).

    This is by definition not the norm, but certainly worth the struggle.

    David

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    • I think I agree, to a large extent!

      Your definition of the reality gap is slightly different from mine of course, which is fine. For you it’s the gap between God’s fully-realised Kingdom and the mess we make of our lives by not making him fully king. I was thinking more of the gap between what we imagine (perhaps wrongly) should be the ideal and our actual experience as Christians.

      So yes, going by your definition I totally agree that God’s grace is found in the gap between where we are now and where we will be on that day when Christ is all-in-all, when all is made new and right and good. That wasn’t quite what I was getting at, but it’s true and valid nonetheless.

      So yes, I agree that we need to surrender on-goingly to the One who’s really on the throne, and I’ll go with the obedience bit too (though I might want to express it differently). And part of that may be surrendering our theologies and beliefs about the imagined perfect Christian life where God performs miracles to fix our problems and sends revival to sort out the world.

      All the best,
      Harvey

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  2. John Marsden says:

    I once heard Adrian Plass say that on an occasion when he met David Pawson, the latter told him that the verse in John 8 v 32: ‘You will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ can be translated: ‘You will know REALITY and REALITY will set you free’ ….

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    • Yes, I really like that interpretation and it’s one that I’ve found very helpful. ‘Truth’ has too often just become something to bash each other over the head with. ‘Reality’ on the other hand goes deeper than our particular understandings and expressions of truth, and indeed is something that can only be experienced not expressed.

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  3. lotharson says:

    Thanks for this long post. It looks like you’re really passionate about the topic.

    Fundies are making fool of themselves by saying it is the work of the devil, and they are ridiculing the whole Christendom in the mind of many people.

    Like

    • Thanks! I’m afraid all my posts are long – mostly at least 3 times longer than the recommended length of a readable blog post. I’m working on it but there always just seems to be so much to say 🙂

      I do sometimes wish I didn’t have to share Christianity with fundies… but then I guess they wish they didn’t have to share it with me. And I’m probably as wrong as they are about all sorts of things that I haven’t realised!

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  4. doncher1 says:

    The possible responses to ‘the reality gap’ that you describe here strike me as similar to the stages involved in grieving. In a way, that seems to make sense, since it seems (to me, anyway) that learning to live our lives in ‘the reality gap’ involves a long process which is similar to grieving, ending (hopefully) in ‘acceptance’ which I suppose is what you describe in your paragraph about coming face to face with reality and the Reality of God and laying aside our false images, in a worshipful way.

    Along the way, however, we perhaps pass through some or all of (the stages of grieving):
    ‘denial’ (putting on the good Christian ‘front’ as pretence, or holding fast to beliefs that don’t line up with reality, such as everyone should be healed, Christian relationships shouldn’t break down, etc),
    ‘anger’ (getting angry with God and deciding Christianity is a bunch of lies and full of hypocrites),
    ‘bargaining’ (prayers like the ones you describe – ‘please make such and such like me/ make me good at…..’, and then I’ll be happy)
    ‘depression’ (feeling dreadful and hopeless in the face of the reality of life and ourselves)

    In terms of the grieving process (as you probably know), people don’t necessarily go through all of these stages, or go through them in this order, and they might spend a very long time in one of the stages, or revisit different stages at different periods in their life, as things change. Viewed in this way, it helps me to understand a bit more why I thought I was moving towards ‘acceptance of reality as it is’ and now seem to find myself back in the ‘depression’ phase – yuck!

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    • Thanks, that’s a very helpful insight and one that my own experience bears out.

      I’m very much drawn to models of faith as a lifelong journey with different phases or stages, and I think that journey can look very different to different people. I’ve looked at various versions of the ‘Stages of Faith’ idea on this blog, such as the idea of the butterfly’s life-cycle, the idea of human development from child to adult via rebellious adolescence, and also the comparison between the relationship of faith and that of human marriage.

      But one I haven’t looked at is that of the stages of bereavement and grieving – and I think that’s a very important and helpful one, particularly for those of us who do feel like we’ve maybe ‘lost’ our faith or at least our certainty.

      And I sympathise and can relate to your experience of going back into the ‘depression’ phase of the journey – I think that one can recur all too often unfortunately. I’ve been feeling a bit that way myself the last few days for various reasons, though prior to that I’d been quite upbeat. I really wish you all the best in this tough time.

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  5. doncher1 says:

    Yes, I’ve read some of your stuff on stages of faith, which is very interesting. Just speaking from a personal point of view, I think maybe because I’ve embarked on this a bit later into my life (and because of my personality), I only spent a very short time in the more black-and-white stages, as I think I’d experienced enough of life up to that point to know there couldn’t really be any easy fix answers, and I didn’t really have a joyous beginning stage on becoming a new Christian, either -in fact, just the opposite really, I near enough fell apart, which was a bit disconcerting – I’m still waiting for the joyous phase 🙂

    Last year, however, I did a counselling skills course. One of the things we were asked to write about was an experience of loss or grief, relating it to the grief stages. I realised then that what I was experiencing was grief at the loss of all sorts of illusions I’d held about life and about myself, and that my ‘depression’ phase is really what had led me to a faith, but that it would have to be a faith that could withstand the stuff I’d already learned about life – if that makes any sense at all!

    I hope your sojourn back into a ‘depression’ phase is brief, as I hope for my own

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    • Thanks! I suspect that a lot of our experience of conversion etc comes down to our personalities and personal circumstances. So there’s that famous C.S. Lewis quote about him being “probably the most dejected convert in all of Britain”. Whereas my parents (who’d been churchgoers all their lives) had an experience of being ‘filled with the Spirit’ in their 60s/70s and for a few weeks they were like kids!

      My own experience was that I came (back) to faith in the midst of a time of major mental health issues, so initially my experience was quite dark and difficult. The joy and excitement came later for me, but has always been quite partial and occasional, and generally mixed with anxiety and other stuff.

      And yes, that absolutely makes sense about needing a faith that could withstand the stuff you’d already learnt about life.

      Liked by 1 person

      • doncher1 says:

        Sorry, I should have said thank you for wishing me well.

        And….I was being a bit flippant about the comments about the joyous phase. I’m sure I’ve had my fair share. In fact, it occurs to me that I’m not sure I really understand what ‘joy’ is and I should probably find out (and spend less time reading blogs) and I’ll look forward to the prospect of giddiness and excitement when I’m 60 or 70, like your parents 🙂

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        • Meant to reply several days ago but work kept getting in the way!

          Flippant is always good by me – might just have to shout ‘JOKING!’ as I can be slow on the uptake 😉

          Next post is almost entirely flippant and will therefore probably offend/annoy lots of good people…

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  6. dtxscad says:

    If so we all decide on one day, say to change our own reality, say like make a space between our own reality a different believers then all we done is create a lie, a fantasy, or a cult, so as unchanging and tiring as it is, its how its going to be

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    • Hi dtxscad, thanks very much for commenting. I’m really sorry, I’m not quite sure I’ve fully understood your point – I’d be really grateful if you could explain a bit more. Are you saying that we can’t just make up reality to suit ourselves?

      If so, I completely agree. I’m not trying to say that we should try to create our own version of reality, or make a space between our reality and other people’s realities. Rather I’m just saying that there is often a gap between what we experience as reality and what we (or others) think reality should be like. It’s the gap between the ideal and the actual, the theory and the practice – or sometimes just the future and the present.

      But I think I may have misunderstood you?

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      • dtxscad says:

        Sorry for not replying, as I don’t check my wordpress as much and didn’t get any emails. But I think I was trying hypothesis, since it was so long ago, that I think I was relating to problem, that I prefer on a more public health concern, both macro and micro scale. In my own experience, it is because I did not communicate, it is a concern to me. Also I’d like it if I could private message you, the writer.

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