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.