Some time ago a Christian friend came to me in distress. He and his wife had a pretty loud blow out – you know, one of those shouting matches for the ages – the type that all the neighbours heard. They’d known their neighbours for years. As far as he was concerned, he’d just blown several years of witnessing to them.
We have a prayer ministry offered every Sunday at the end of the service. We find that often people don’t take advantage of it because as one individual said, “I’d never use it. I’d hate for other people to assume that I had a problem.”
Both these incidents reveal an underlying condition in many of our churches. I’m not sure we really believe in grace. We do, in the sense that we teach it and assent to it in our orthodoxy… in our outward confession. But I’m beginning to think we don’t actually believe it based on how we express it (or don’t) in our orthopraxy.
I wonder if it’s because of our mistaken attempt at Christian chivalry. What I mean by that is what we think it means to live for Christ. We think that we’re protecting Jesus’ honour by how we live as in: If I look good, then Jesus looks good. So, we hate the thought of not looking good and when we don’t look like shiny specimens of Christendom, we look bad for Jesus and so failed (at least we think that). The problem with that mindset however, is that our life becomes all about performance.
And so, we put on our best Christian masks before heading out into our community of faith. Soon life experiences such as parenting becomes about trying to perform well in front of the kids, working hard at making sure they only see the highest standard of Christian behaviour.
But this is a disastrous way to live or think because it always leads to hypocrisy. The simple fact is, we’re not good, and we can only keep up the façade for a little while before the mask slips off of our growing noses. It’s our kids who see it right away. They know what we’re really like and can immediately tell when we try to put a polished Christian spin to it.
And then we wonder why they don’t want to join us any more in our Christian fellowships. They certainly know that you, or they, are not exactly perfect and have made a mess of this Christian chivalry thing, maybe even feel that they (or you) have let Jesus down. The natural progression in this kind of thinking is that good church folks see this as failure.
We don’t support making Jesus look bad of course and so we must root out the bad apples in the bunch. After all, one bad apple will ruin the whole barrel. We might not say it, but the average Christian doesn’t feel supported in a community of faith when they do fail, so of course the last place they’d want to go to is a church.
Think about it. If we know we can’t begin to pretend things are together and church is the one place we’re supposed to look squeaky clean, then it’s probably just easier simply not to go because after all, it’s easier to keep the mess away from the holy gathering than it is to be as holy as we’re expected to be.
All this is a sign that while we may be professing grace, we’re not actually inhabiting a culture of grace. Truth is, we’re not meant to be Jesus’s image protectors, he can handle his own image. Instead we need to remember that we are broken people, and he is our Saviour. In other words, I don’t need to look good so Jesus can look good; rather, the truth is that I need to be honest about my massive spiritual need so that he can be seen and celebrated as all-sufficient. I don’t increase so he can increase; I decrease so he can increase(John 3:30).
Imagine the difference this would make to our witness. Rather than thinking I have to constantly be looking less sinful than every non-Christian I know, I am instead liberated to be myself so that I can show that my confidence is not in me.
Please don’t hear me say that that we are free to sin with abandon. Paul dealt with that pendulum swing in Romans, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” – Romans 6:1-2.
So, no I’m not saying that we are freed up to sin, however we also need to realize that God is working in us, sanctifying us and we are a work in progress. It is what we do with those moments and how we receive others in spite of their shortcomings that make all the difference.
As an example. My friend and his wife who had that blow-up shouting match now have an amazing opportunity to be authentic witnesses for Christ – not by pretending they don’t have any sin, but by demonstrating what they do with it. If it’s about performance, then my friend really has blown it and will be too embarrassed to see his neighbours. But if it’s about forgiveness, then he gets to model repentance, to show brokenness about sin and sheer relief in a Saviour.
Imagine also the difference this would make to those looking in, and for that matter those already ‘in’ who continually feel that they don’t measure up to our particular standard. The assumption stops being “We have to be good to come here,”and instead becomes “This place is for the messy – like each of us.”
Which do you think sounds more inviting? Which is going to foster deeper confession and public repentance? Instead of feeling embarrassed about going forward to receive prayer, we can experience the joy and relief of knowing we’re all ultimately in the same boat. It fosters a sincere attitude where we repent often, forgive freely and extend grace continuously.
I love what John Newton said, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world – but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”
Living with this understanding, grace becomes not just an orthodoxy we know about in theory, but a deeply felt reality – a true orthopraxy that is expressed in the very being of who we are. Our testimonies are no longer, “I was a mess, then Jesus showed up, and now my life is perfect.” Rather the testimonies become, “I was a mess – and I still am – but I’m a mess who belongs to Jesus, a mess he is committed to cleaning up. And in spite of the mess, Jesus came to me, stuck with me, and continues to be my everything.”