About six years ago I helped start a Recovery ministry at our church. We were overwhelmed with the amount of hurting people we had and didn’t have much of a process to help them at the time, so we decided to get them all in a room for a couple months at a time, open the Bible, talk about how the gospel is good news for any and every issue, and encourage people to share their struggles with one another with an aggressive honesty.
I told people from the beginning that we had no magic pills and no quick fixes, but that we had the gospel and community and we thought that was enough. I still remember the nerves I had in that first cycle, wondering what business I had as a young twenty-something leading something that felt that weighty. I wondered if it would ever really work or help anyone with anything, or if we were just wasting our time in a somewhat sanctified way.
To be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing in a lot of ways. Every week someone would confess something that I’d never had to deal with before. I felt over my head in every way. So, over and over, I said…
Gospel and community…
Gospel and community.
I’d tell them to stay deeply connected to other believers. To keep confessing and repenting and trusting that Jesus is the good life. To cry out to God in all their uncertainty and doubt and say “I believe–help my unbelief!” I’d tell them that no matter how well or how terribly they had performed spiritually that week, they were still viewed exactly the same in God’s eyes because they were covered with the perfect righteousness of Jesus.
And little by little, the onion layers started to peel off. Several weeks in we’d have someone say, “Okay–enough of the BS-ing–here’s why I really came to Recovery.” And they would share the thing that they were most ashamed of in their entire life. The thing that kept them up at night, thinking that surely it would make even Mercy Himself change His mind about saving them and cause others to run away proclaiming them a monster if they ever found out.
And the response, every time someone braved the depths of their shame?
Grace, not judgment.
Compassionate smiles, not outraged scowls.
Acceptance, not rejection.
“Thank you for trusting us with that. You are not alone.”
“When God looks at you, He doesn’t see that. He sees the perfect record of His Son. You are His child now.”
And a whole lot of “Me too”s.
I can’t recount the number of times I’ve heard someone go through that process and say something to the effect of, “Wow–I thought you guys were going to run out of the room screaming when I told you that. That was almost anti-climactic.”
In that first cycle so many years ago, we decided that the last night should be all of the breakout groups joined together to tell stories of how Jesus has been at work in our lives. We invited people to recount where they were when they came into the group and how the Lord was growing and changing and giving hope where once there was not hope.
I thought, “Well, this is it. Time to see if this ragtag thing we’ve put together is worth the sweat and tears we’ve put into it.” And when the night was over, the stories shared, I walked away thinking…
The church, you guys. Gospel and community. To say that “it works” would be selling it short, because it does so much more than that.
Fast forward about a dozen cycles of Recovery, and last night I’m sitting there at the end of another cycle, surrounded by a circle of 60 chairs, listening to stories being shared and smiling from ear to ear.
The microphone passes around, and the consistency of the things that are said over the years would amaze me if I didn’t already know that we are, all of us, broken-hearted sinners with the same heart issues.
“I’m learning that Jesus actually loves me–the real me.”
“I came in feeling like a slave to my addictions, and while they are still a thing, I feel more free than I ever have.”
“I am learning that God’s feelings towards me don’t rise and fall based on my performance.”
“The ability to be fully transparent about what’s going on in my heart has changed my life. I’m going back to my LifeGroup now and trying to lead them in this aggressive vulnerability.”
“Jesus has dealt with my shame, and that changes everything.”
“I smile more now.”
“No one has ever told me that what happened to me was not my fault.”
“I’ve felt like I was drowning for so long, and now I’m starting to feel like I can breathe.”
Last night as I sat there, in awe of the work of the Lord in so many stories and issues and lives, I thought about the irony of a name like Recovery. Because those people came in thinking that they were looking for recovery from their addiction or wound or scar, and to be sure, they were.
But what a lot of them found instead was a recovery of what the church is intended to be, in all of its mess and glory. They sat in a church building–the last place that many of them would think they could be ruthlessly honest about what they really struggle with–and considered the preposterous idea that God could really love them (and even like them) as they are and not as a future, cleaned-up version of themselves.
They are not “fixed,” per say, never to struggle again. But they have the good news of the gospel, and they’ve seen an example of a community that puts that gospel on in the flesh.
And to hear them talk, that is enough.