Wednesday, February 01, 2006

“I’m kind of good at this Christian thing.”

4 Epiphany
3 Hilary
Abbess Brigid of Ireland

No, really. Bear with me.

There is an attitude in popular evangelicalism that insists faithful Christians should consider themselves very bad and unfaithful disciples. I think this is a real problem. I have some good friends who believe they aren’t faithful Christians, though I believe – and this with a certain ferocity – that they are indeed good and faithful followers of Jesus. So what’s up?

I’m not entirely sure what this springs from, but it seems to be built on the notion that being a Christian is about being morally perfect, and perfect in general. If that’s what being a good Christian is, I think most of us aren’t.

Now, from the standpoint of the health and healing of souls, I must say that it’s a bad idea for people to go about thinking they’re terrible, and that Jesus somehow ratifies this judgment. So let me tell you a little about what I think it means to be a “good Christian,” or better yet, a faithful apprentice to Jesus.

For a start, it doesn’t have much to do with moral perfection. Indeed, if being a faithful Christian means being morally perfect, nobody can be a good Christian, ever, this side of the eschatological consummation (or you can call it “heaven,” if you like. Yes, that will do for the moment).
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
I think I read that in a really funky book once (go check out Josh Hearne's translation work).

When we’re baptized into the Christlife, we’re given the responsibility to live in the fellowship of God’s church, and to welcome the ongoing transformation of our life into the image of Jesus. Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapter 6) characterizes Jesus as the “second Adam”: as we have been morally malformed and spiritually deadened through rebellion of our first parents, we are being transformed and made alive through the obedience of Jesus, God’s Christ. The great redemption project is about the restoration of us, and the restoration of all creation - the “catching up” of all life, and particularly all of human life and experience into the life of the Trinitarian God.

We cooperate in this by being together. We repent continually as we are brought to awareness of the rebellions in our lives, both large and small. We receive his healing as we become aware of, confess, and invite Jesus and his Church into the broken, lonely places of our lives. The natural and sacramental life of the community finds us caught up in the life of the Holy Trinity. Do we become moral? I don’t really care. I don’t know what that word means to you, but I do know that this makes us like Jesus. I think I can settle for that, too.

Jesus does call us to be “perfect.” Well, in the gospel of Matthew, the reading is “perfect;” when Luke tells the same story, Jesus tells us to “be compassionate.” In both stories, perfect/compassionate like “your Father in Heaven.” Do you know what that says to me? Be open. Be loving. Be continually transformed by the Gospel.

What can this look like? I was worshipping with friends at the beginning of Michaelmas, and we were discussing the praise of God. Someone asked (I’m not good at determining which questions are rhetorical), “Are we good at praising God?” Now, I know what the good, pious answer to such a question. I’m not new to evangelical Christianity. The good proper answer that one expects to hear in churches across the land is, “oh, we’re rubbish. We don’t praise God like we should.” So of course, without hesitation, I announced, “Yeah, I think I do alright.”

No, really. I have a little spiritual discipline. I tend to grumble and complain a bit to myself. Sometimes, I’ll even complain to the people around me (Ahem). But I have this little spiritual discipline. When I hear myself complaining in my internal monologue (and I do have one, I swear), I choose to give thanks for some blessing that I’ve overlooked in the midst of whatever has displeased me.

I’ve started to praise and thank God a lot.

I think I’m a “good Christian.” Not morally perfect. Not super-spiritual. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t big areas of my life in which I struggle to be obedient and to understand in the context of prayer. I’m not worried about being perfect. The Gospel’s not about that. I’m concerned with being a learner. I’m concerned with following Jesus more closely, and obeying his command to love, and learning to be holy. And I think that makes me a good Christian.

What do you think? Is the problem as big as I think? Is it a problem? Why do so many of us think this way? What does it mean to be a good Christian?


naak said...

Well, I guess I stand in opposition of you on this one. I am a Christian. But I do not see myself as good, for only One is good. To me there is no such thing as great in the context of being a Christian. I see a standard, which is perfect, which we are called to, which we none live up to. Yet that is the standard. To me the one who reaches that standard would be good, as God is good. Now we none get there. So I am less then good. I like to think of myself as Paul thought of himself, that I am chief of all sinners. For me to call myself good would strongly be in opposition to what I live like, though in the eyes of some and compared to mere men I might not look all that bad. But let us not judge ourselves according to the sinful creatures around us. So to me I'm just a Christian; a redeemed sinner; one in the process of salvation and sanctification; though not good. Some say that this promotes low self-esteem. Well, I guess it does and I have very low self-esteem. I am a horrible sinner who falls into wickedness all the time. “O wretched man am I, who will deliver me from this body of death.” But I don’t mind having low self-esteem. It is when I am weak that I am strong. It is when I realize that I am nothing and He is everything that I am most productive. I must decrease and He must increase. So when my self-esteem is lowest, and I truly see the depravity of my nature that I am most useful to Christ and His work because I am not saying I am good, but rather I am saying He is.

This does not however promote Christian depression from the fact that we are so wretched, but promotes joy abounding in the fact that God loves us enough to use us in his ministry, though we are not worthy, and promises us that one day we will be like Him, holy and righteous.

Kyle said...

Naak, I think Jesus was being a bit cheeky when he said that in the Gospel account, so I'm not sure that takes us anywhere.

My whole point is that it's pointless to sit around and talk about being perfectly "moral" or not. So Jesus is perfectly moral, and we're not. That's not a category in which I take interest, so I'm laying that aside. I was trying to make clear in my first two paragraphs that I'm not talking about what you're talking about in your comment.

Sin and holiness isn't about moral standards. It's about a relationship to God.

I'm talking about the fact that some Christians sit around say to themselves, "I am a bad disciple." "I am an unfaithful Christian." I'm saying that's a problem. That kind of language ignores the process of redemption and it is indeed untrue and damaging. It also has nothing to do with exalting the holiness of God in contrast to human imperfection.

Not that I think Hebrew "holiness" is equivalent to Greek "moral perfection," which many Christians assume.

I also don't think God's so concerned with "using" us in his ministry; rather, we are the beginning result of his ministry on the Cross.

katie said...

So I don't think anyone fits that nicely into the "good christian" or "bad christian" categories. Although I'm a huge fan of introspection and figuring out our own strengths and weaknesses, something just seems weird about deciding which kind of Christian I am. Maybe I'm just too shallow to do it without being completely self-centered. That said, I do totally get the frustration with people who are constantly down about their own imperfection. Thanks for the thought provoking conversation :)

Anonymous said...

GREAT post.

I believe Paul called himself the "chief of sinners" to make a point about God's redemptive power in his life. He used to be the chief of sinners, but God even saved, and is saving him. Elsewhere, Paul boasts about his ministry and the job that he has done (admittedly often toung-in-cheek.) I'm not sure he, or the prophets, who were concerned with the wickedness of their entire nation that sent them into exile, are good paradigmatic examples of how we ought to feel today.

I'm uncomfortable with the use of the word "moral." I believe that Jesus does call us to an ethical standard of excellence which is entirely impossible to attain before the completion of our restoration. In that sense, I think Jesus wants us to be moral and to repent of messed up things in our lives and move away from damaging, inappropriate, and just plain sinful behavior into a "new way to be human." I don't think anyone will disagree with me on this point.

As such, I'd like to draw a distiction (that you may or may not like Kyle) to help make your point if I'm understanding it correctly.

Conviction and guilt are different things.

Jesus convicts my heart when I am unrepentent about my sin. Through his Spirit he calls me to confess that to the community and reform my way of behaving.

Jesus DOES NOT compel me to feel awful that I'm not fully restored yet. He DOES NOT make me feel like a bad disciple and he DOES NOT want me to feel this way. After all, I'd be a pretty crappy disciple if I felt crappy all the time.

Guilt does not empower. Conviction does. I think we should quit feeling guilty about our shortcomings and focus on who we are in Christ. After all, we are not in exile! We have renewed life in Christ!

Anonymous said...

If God is good, aren't we to reflect his character? Imago Dei, anyone?

I am tired of people complaining of how bad they are. I realize that one must accept and see his/her own spiritual depravity, but that doesn't mean they/we have to live in a constant state of spiritual depression! We don't win brownie points with God when we remind the world of how we are sinners, of whom I am the chief. I think that is one scripture that has been overused and maybe even abused.

My freedom to joy is in Christ. And I don't want to forget that.

Expax said...

But let us not forget the possibility of sorrow excisting as a means of grace.

Anonymous said...

True. But sorrow isn't our fixation, a life renewed is.

Kyle said...

I think both sorrow and joy are pretty unpleasant as fixations go. :0)

I agree that this bit of Pauline literature is too often taken out of context and done to death: the notion that Paul goes around moping about how much he sucks but that God is really awesome in the midst of Paul's suckiness really isn't what the narrative is about. I think we might do well to forget about our "selves" rather than think about how much we suck all the time. And that's not humility, either. That's denying God's good gift - of our selves.

Jesse has said what really needs to be said here.

Conviction is about a relationship to God and the Community and our continued restoration to that imago dei that Mike keeps going on about. Guilt, on the other hand is self-centered. There's a sorrow that works death, and a sorrow that works life, as Paul said.

Thanks for engaging, everybody.

+ Alan said...

a few points...

- Yeah, neurotic guilt is the other end of the pride stick. It's the same "disorder." It's being selfish. It's basically being sad that you aren't as "good" as you think you should be or as you want people to perceive you to be. Hanging on to that will eat you alive. I have scars.

- Paul also had the gall to say "follow me as I follow Christ," to offer himself up as a real life example of a "good Christian," if you will. So, he probably didn't suck that bad I'm thinking. He knew what a transformed life looked like and knew where his was and wasn't I'm sure. That's maturity.

- I don't care for the idea that we are "called" by God to a life we can never have. And that would have to be on-purpose on God's part, Him knowing everything and all. This is said often and it sounds good, but I don't think it's really in line with what God is giving us or calling us to even on earth. Of course if we get off talking about "morality" and everything being about following commandments and laws and rules, then we're in trouble and off-base anyway, so let's get out of that boat. That may be the difficulty anyway.

The real renewed Christ-Life begins now - not in heaven. It continues in the heavenly dimension and we may certainly not be yet fully formed as New Beings by the time we cross over into that plane, but I don't like when we make a point to remind ourselves that (logical conclusions here) it's not really important that we think about being "perfect" here because that's for heaven. Perhaps we have a skewed understanding of what "perfect" means - I'm sure that's the case.

- I was talking to Kyle about this already to some degree - that when I read it I first thought - "hmmm, well I think actually "perfection" is exactly the point of the Gospel." That is, if we properly understand "perfection" as being a Real Human Being, being in union with Jesus, having our insides reordered by the work of the Holy Spirit so that we become the God-like persons we were created to be. That's precisely why God came in the flesh. That's the Good News He brought. Not only forgiveness, but forgiveness first that then leads to transformation. Being transformed into His Image is perfection.

- Transformation flows from Grace and also is partially dependent on our cooperation. So we can allow ourselves to be transformed or not. We can say yes to God, or no. We can stay the way we are or become something New. And we CAN become New, by His Grace as we cooperate with it, with Him, through the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Just a caution, as I see it, from saying we "won't" or "can't" be that. I've thought these things for a long time about this language. Just seems a good time to throw them out. Interesting stuff people. Peace and Grace to you.

Anonymous said...

I find this thread fascinating. I really have a hard time understanding why rules are such a bad thing to so many people. I like rules; I like commands, and in my context they have greatly assisted me in the salvation process. Sometimes, when my intuitions fail me and I really don't WANT to do something (or DO want to do something bad) I am reminded of a Scriptural command and I act accordingly. Commands have been my friends.

Of course, commands and rules are NOT the content of the Gospel. That's where I certainly agree, and I think the scarring occurs when the focus of the Gospel goes from the love of Jesus to the inflexibility of rules and laws. That's what Galatians is all about: law is good, but it won't save you.

I appear to be in the minority about this even among other evangelical churches back home. My home church did a sex study among the high school kids and the book they read opened with a guy saying "sexual purity is about a relationship to God, not about rules." Some parents pulled their children from the study because of this line.

I am really uncomfortable leaving something like sexual purity in the abstract realm of relationship instead of the concrete of command. Again (and not to make this about my feelings) commands have been my friends.

When I read the New Testament I see it laiden with ethical commands-not as the emphasis of the good news but as guidelines. (I can offer examples if you'd like but I feel we all know the NT pretty well.) We all step out of bounds and the beauty and insensibility of the gospel is that it doesn't matter because we are all being transformed.

When I was young, my parents commanded me to do lots of things: "don't play with fire, look both ways before you cross the street, etc." I am grateful for those commands because they kept me safe, and when I DID play with fire, my parents forgave me because they love me. I apologized and all was well. The rules were not the content of our relationship, but helped.

These may be poor analogies and I realize that most of my argument has been about my own experiences, but I still don't think it's without any value. I'd like to reemphasize, the Gospel isn't ABOUT rules.

Alan: if it is our responsibility to cooperate with God's grace, what does that look like if not (at least in part) in the form of actually behavioral changes? Call it ethical, moral, or whatever (those words aren't often helpful) but the I still say the Gospel makes demands on our behavior.

I'm not sure if I've been clear in this response, but take it for what you like. (Not surprisingly considering my recent posts, I've taken a moderate stance.)

Kyle said...

Jesse said,

"I believe that Jesus does call us to an ethical standard of excellence which is entirely impossible to attain before the completion of our restoration. In that sense, I think Jesus wants us to be moral and to repent of messed up things in our lives and move away from damaging, inappropriate, and just plain sinful behavior into a 'new way to be human.'"

No. And yes.

I agree that "...Jesus wants us to ... repent of messed up things in our lives and move away from damaging, inappropriate, and just plain sinful behavior into a 'new way to be human.'" If that's what you mean by christian morality, I'm on board with that. However, I put that over against a notion that Jesus wants to see us fulfill some kind of "ethical standard of excellence." I don't think Christian perfection can be described in those terms, either, but rather as the redemption and healing of our humanity. That brings with it changed attitudes and behaviors, and of course, it is also in our changing attitudes and behaviors (repentance!) that we do cooperate with this.

I think rules and commands and disciplines are quite good for us. But Jesus did not come because we couldn't behave or ourselves, and he did not save us so that we could behave ourselves. Keeping some kind of moral/ethical standard is not an end in itself in the divine plan of salvation.

Jesse, I think I do see what you're getting at with the talk about rules. Love and obedience aren't abstractions, they do take the form of rules and a standard. But I do have a guess as to what that questionable curriculum was speaking to: if you realize that purity is about a relationship to God, rules will make sense. If you don't have a relationship to God that's in the forefront of these things, you have a relationship with rules. And that's always going to be problematic at best. Or maybe it was a completely hedonistic book. Beats me. :0)

Oh, and let me be perfectly clear about what I have implied in the above statement:

I don't think for a moment that what Jesus came to save us from was our inability to maintain some objective, moral standard. I know lots of people think that's why, but such an interpretation ignores the biblical account of creation and fall. It ignores the Prophets. It really just ignores the whole Bible. Jesus did not save us so we could "be good." The Holy Spirit did not descend, and we were not baptized into the life of Christ so that we could keep some moral standard.

Thanks, guys.

naak said...

Somehow we went from being a "good Christian" to rules.

Now not to sound legalistic, but the Word says, "we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments" and "we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them"(1 John 2:3, Ephesians 2:10). It is by the grace of God that we have the ability to repent and live for God. God does call us to keep His commandments, which is impossible for us to do.

Rules keep us in check, they keep us from thinking we can save ourselves, they keep us from forgetting what Christ has done, and they remind us of how holy Christ is. I don't support Christian depression, I support Christian understanding that even though we have been justified we are in the process of being sanctified (transformation), but we have not yet been perfected, yet we press on (Philippians 3:12). Because I'm not perfect I'm neither good, yet I can be an example as Paul (follow me as I follow Christ) because I am pressing toward the mark.

Jesus did not come because we could not behave ourselves. He came to save us from and to be our propitiation for our sin, which resulted in us not being able to behave ourselves.

Jesus did not save us to be good. He saved us so that we might bring glory to Him, which is the purpose of man. In the end though, indirectly that means following rules and moving closer and closer to good.

That done make me depressed though, convicted yes; what it does make me is driven as I continue to press toward the mark. I think if I could call myself good I would sense I had achieved something of worth, yet I have achieved nothing; "I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6). What ever there is to be proud of is the work of Christ…who is good.

Some times we Christians want to move away from rules because we find ourselves in liberty. Let us remember that no one has been enslaved to doing good things, or if they have they have not complained, but we were enslaved to sin. Praise God for our liberty in His law.

Literary Networks and Dissenting Print Culture said...

I admit that I am one of those Christians who beats themselves up for not being "perfect" or "moral" enough.

And I remember you saying those very words, "i think i do alright" in the middle of that CU meeting and it was music to my ears then, it's still music to my ears now.