In 2004, Pixar introduced The Incredibles, a family of superheroes posing as a “normal” suburban family. After a series of unfortunate incidents followed by equally unfortunate lawsuits, superheroes are forced into “the Superhero Relocation Program,” in which they are forced to pose as normal citizens in order to evade any further legal action. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl become Bob and Helen Parr, insurance agent and stay-at-home Mom, complete with three children. As a result of their hidden superpowers, Bob and Helen’s children are caught in a net of confusion. They know they are different but every voice they hear seems to say, "different is not good." Things come to a head when at dinner one night when their daughter, Violet, complains to her Mom, Helen: “We act normal, Mom! I want to be normal!” Their son, Dash, wrestles with similar issues. After being told he can’t try out for the track team because he’s too fast, Dash says: “But Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of, our powers make us special.” His Mom responds by telling him that “everyone’s special, Dash,” to which he retorts: “Which is another way of saying no one is.”
Though born different (with super powers), society no longer values their differences. Instead, they want the “supers,” as they’re known, to simply blend in and be like everyone else. Soon, Syndrome, a super villain, emerges wreaking havoc and giving the Supers no choice but to come out of retirement and use their powers to save the very people who want them to just be normal. They’re not normal. It’s only when they’re are able to truly be themselves that they can rise to their full potential and fight the evil that threatens their world.
The movie raises interesting questions about perception versus identity. When urging the children to use their special powers, Helen gives them masks, saying: “Your identity is your most valuable possession. Protect it.” At a climactic moment, Syndrome reveals plans to sell super weapons to everyone, noting that, “When everyone’s super, no one will be.” When we all fit the expectations, there’s nothing left to differentiate us.
Christian stereotypes prevent real, lasting, effective Christian community.
Sadly, this is exactly what much of what passes for Christian community does. We forget that each one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made. We expect everyone to look and act the same. Our community is weakened because we try to smooth out people’s rough edges. We forget that our community is strongest when we encourage individuality, not at the expense of, but for the sake of community. Christians, of all people, should get this.
Near the middle of my time in seminary, John Piper preached in chapel. I don’t remember most of the sermon, but I do remember that, at one point, he took an aside, mentioning that he was preaching to a room full of men who were training to do the same. He noted that when we graduated, most of us would try to emulate our favorite preachers, but we wouldn’t be any good at it. Instead, he offered, "we should strive to become sanctified versions of ourselves rather than watered-down versions of someone else.” That phrase has haunted me, in a good way, like no other during my subsequent years of following Jesus.
I have spent a good deal of my life in “ministry” being compared to and contrasted to celebrities and stereotypes. Everyone has their idea of what a pastor should be. Everyone has an idea of who their pastor should be. But it goes deeper. Everyone has their own idea of what a Christian should be. And when everyone has their own idea of what a Christian should look like, we race towards the middle: the blandest version possible (so as to not offend anyone, of course). The very people who should be the most distinct, expressing the most individuality for the sake of community, end up being watered down versions of a stereotyped celebrity that doesn’t even exist: An idealized Christian who no one really likes and no one can actually be but everyone seems to think is the standard.
American Christians have produced some of the most anemic community known to man. We have perpetuated closed-off, private, judgmental, and stereotypical environments where everyone feels an unspoken (or sometimes spoken) expectation that everyone should look and act the same. The result, of course is that what passes for community in many churches is nothing of the sort. People are afraid to let their idiosyncrasies show and many are afraid to be honest about their shortcomings and struggles because all the other Christians have it together (even though, of course, they really don’t).
Who We Really Are
Christians ought to be the most comfortable with who they are and the most welcoming and celebratory of uniqueness. We know we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God himself (Psalm 139:14). Though we were by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3) and enemies of God (Romans 5:10), he has adopted us into his family (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5, etc.). We, who were once far from God, have been brought near to him (Ephesians 2:13). We have become his children, his heirs (Romans 8:17, Galatians 3:29, etc.). What is true of the Savior is becoming true of his people. He stands on our behalf even now interceding with his righteousness (Romans 8:34). The Holy Spirit who raised Christ from the dead dwells in us (Romans 8:11)!
There is a direct correlation between individuality and community. Community is strongest when people are most encouraged to explore their individuality; to just be themselves and walk in honesty. If we are free of needing people’s approval, we are free to serve sacrificially.
Why doesn’t this happen?
Why do we allow stereotypes to typecast us into a blandardized versions of likable but not real characters? Everyone knows the answer but no one likes it. We judge each other and hogtie real community because, deep down, we believe that it matters how you look before others and before God because that’s how he loves us more! So, I become tied to your approval of a fake version of myself which means that I can never actually give myself up to truly serve you because I’ve created a weird co-dependency thing that you may or may not be aware of.
In short, we choose to believe lies. Jesus told us that the “Truth will set us free” (John 8:32). If Truth sets us free, then it would seem that lies hold us captive. Deep down, we don’t believe that God’s acceptance of us is enough. We may not even be sure if it’s sincere. So we are never free to truly be ourselves because it’s always tied to a search for acceptance. But what if this is not the way God meant it to be?
How Does God See You?
If you were to picture God looking down on you and your life, how do you picture his facial expression? What do you think he might say over your life? Would he say: "Dangit, I’ve given Brent so many chances, why can’t he just get it together? Or, Oh man, I’ve just had it with Brent’s failures! This has gotten ridiculous!"
What do you really think he would say of you and your life?
Do you remember when Jesus went out to his crazy cousin John to be baptized in the Jordan? Mark 1:10-11 tells us that when Jesus came up out of the water, the Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” What might change in our communities if individuals believed that what the Father says of the Son, he says about us? That, because Jesus stands on our behalf, the Father loves us, he is pleased with us, and we do not have to work for his approval or anyone else’s.
I wonder why our first thought is so rarely that God is pleased with us for who we are and not what we do? I have seven sons and one daughter (four biological sons, three foster sons and a foster daughter) and I love them each for who they are. They are each very different from each other. It would be foolish of me to expect them all to have the same interests, play the same sports, read the same books, listen to the same music, etc. It would be even more foolish if I based my acceptance of them on how well they all tried to act the same. And yet that’s exactly what we often do to one another.
The Fruit of Disbelief
We don’t believe that God truly loves us for who we are so we don’t believe that anyone else will love us for who we are. We pretend and there’s no real community because no one is really themselves because everyone has adopted a false caricature of what what we should all look like. Since our relationships are bound up in seeking approval, we never have the freedom to truly serve one another.
But the Truth sets us free. What if I no longer need your approval because I have God’s approval through Jesus? Now, I am free to be myself which enables me to serve you sacrificially because I no longer need your approval. It doesn’t matter what you think of me. I can and will find ways to show you God’s love. Because I can, not because I should.
When Jesus sets us free to truly be ourselves, community flourishes. And as community flourishes, I am even more comfortable showing you just how screwed up I am. And community flourishes as we accept one another as a “beautiful circus of crazies and freaks” to quote my friend Aaron Spiro. But we won’t ever have real community until we accept one another for who we are because we’ve accepted ourselves for who God has made us to be. And only the Gospel can do that.
Brent Thomas (MDiv) and his wife Kristi live in Glendale, AZ with four biological sons and one foster child. Brent pastored in KY and TX before moving back to AZ to plant Church of the Cross which exists to make, mature, and multiply disciples through gospel, community, and mission. He sometimes writes at Holiday At The Sea and hosts house shows with The Habañero Collective.
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