Let’s be honest for a second. At some point you’ve probably heard Christianity described as “messy” and thought to yourself, “What does that mean? And if it’s so messy, why don’t we do something to clean it up?” It’s one of those buzzwords that gets thrown around a lot in Christian subculture, often without any explanation or legitimate context. And while it’s totally accurate description of our faith, sometimes words can do with a little clarification to preserve their significance.
With that in mind, it may help to think about what the opposite of a messy faith would look like. Recently in one of my literature classes, we had a discussion on the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thorough. You’ve probably read them or heard them quoted at some point or another, but needless to say they were not huge fans of organized religion. In a nutshell, they both believed that man is inherently good and capable of experiencing the divine intuitively without revelation from a deity of any sort. As a result, one major theme in their writing is a near-obsession with purity. They focused on how a person might obtain the rawest spirituality possible, totally unadulterated by any outside influences — a decidedly un-messy approach to spirituality.
The key here is what spoils things for the two authors. In their view, other people are the problem. A person is the most pure when he has removed himself from the influence of institutions and those around him. Thorough even went so far as to live in a cabin by himself for two years in pursuit of this purity. Both writers argue that the more untainted by others a person becomes, the closer he is to the divine or supernatural. It’s a very lonely sort of spirituality. In essence, their idea of spirituality serves to cut them off from people rather than break down walls.
Christianity, on the other hand, does the opposite. We don’t partake in the clean-cut, tidy faith of Emerson and Thorough which views others as a threat to our spirituality. When we engage with others, they aren’t pulling us away from the divine—in fact, engaging with others gives us the opportunity to experience the divine in ways we could not otherwise. And it’s there that we find a lot of potential for things to get messy. You have to admit — some days it’d be much simpler to live in the woods alone than deal with other people. People bring with them all sorts of baggage and conflict and issues that tend to make things . . . well, messy. You end up with a Savior who hangs around prostitutes, and a church full of broken and messed up people.
But that’s okay. A clean and orderly faith is not what we’re getting at here. When you cut other people out of the equation as Emerson and Thorough did, there’s no real world application for your spirituality beyond yourself. A truly effective and powerful spirituality extends beyond simple changes in yourself, but extends outward to change the world around you as well.
And yes, there may be times where we need to get away and connect with God in the quiet place. But our faith is nothing without love, and to love you need other people. We may not be of the world, but we are still very much in it. That can complicate things a lot of the time. But it also leaves room for a beautiful and amazing thing to happen, where God steps in and connects the broken pieces in a way we would have never thought of. That’s a huge part of what makes Christianity what it is — mess and all.