The dictionary defines the word “irony” as “an incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result. It is ironic, for instance, that an orthodontist has crooked teeth or that a dairy farmer is lactose intolerant.
And, it is ironic that a community of faith like contemporary evangelical Christianity, which supposedly offers a message of hope and forgiveness of sin, should strive so hard to give the impression that it has no need for forgiveness any longer.
In his excellent book, Twelve Steps for the Recovering Pharisee (Like Me), Christian musician John Fischer has addressed this very irony. He writes…
I often wonder how a gospel based solely on the merits of one who has died to forgive sin could be perpetuated on the merits of those who don’t seem to need it. If the whole point of the gospel is the forgiveness of sin, then why do we insist on continually parading these almost perfect lives in front of each other? How has it happened that the people who proclaim forgiveness of sin don’t seem to have any sins to be forgiven of themselves? How has a church that once was the happy possession of common fishermen and prostitutes and tax collectors become the home of the spiritually elite?
It’s as if we believe another standard takes over once we become Christians. The unbeliever receives forgiveness of sins; the believer, however, must simply stop sinning. (Or at least stop admitting that we do.)
This is precisely the attitude which cultivates fertile ground for the growth of what Brennan Manning calls “the impostor.” When pretending to be perfect is more important than admitting that we are constantly in need of God’s saving and sustaining grace, beware the impostor.
And John Fischer reminds us further…
Apparently this is not a new problem. We start with the Spirit; we start with salvation; we start with the undeserved grace of God, but then human effort creeps back into our spiritual lives like weeds returning to a weeded garden. We start looking to ourselves again, thinking we have to come up with what we need to be good Christians, and the minute we start looking to ourselves, we start covering up and being defensive and comparing ourselves to others.
Instead of admitting that we are sinners—sinners saved by grace, for sure, but sinners nonetheless—we perpetuate the idea that “good Christians” have it “together” and really don’t need the continuing grace of God. In short, we become impostors.
Mike Yaconelli was the founder of the ministry to teenagers called Youth Specialties and of a magazine called The Wittenburg Door, which sought to encourage Christian faithfulness by pointing a satirical finger at our foibles and smug self-righteousness. Mike Yaconelli was a constant encouragement to me—he died in 2003 at age 61, a year younger than I am now—because he had the honesty and temerity to admit that, even after many years of vocational ministry, he was still struggling with consistency and faithfulness in his service for Jesus and in his spiritual life.
Not long before he died he wrote a little book called Messy Spirituality, and I read it recently for the umpteenth time. Here’s some of what he wrote, as it relates to “being real.”
One look at the book of First Corinthians and it’s clear the Christian life doesn’t take place in the rarefied air of perfection. Paul wrote his letter to the church at Corinth to help them figure out what Christianity means in the everydayness of life. Paul gives us spectacular glimpses of Jesus while trying to deal with the messes which were occurring in the church: incestuous affairs, vicious lawsuits, divorce and separation, idol worship, overinflated egos, doctrinal infighting, jealousy, sexual promiscuity, and getting drunk during communion! And that was just in one small congregation. Spiritual growth thrives in the midst of our problems, not in their absence. Spiritual growth occurs in the trenches of life, not in the classroom.
We don’t grow while studying the definition of consistency; we grow when we try to be consistent in an inconsistent world. We can talk about love all we want, but loving those who are unlovely is how we learn about love. Jesus gave Peter some excellent teaching about betrayal and arrogance, but Peter didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about until he actually betrayed Jesus. Peter’s failure was the primary cause of his understanding and maturity.
So, do we encourage people to fail so they can grow? No, we encourage people to grow, which means they will fail. We encourage each other to keep our eyes on Jesus, but we are not paranoid about failure. Paul himself said,in his letter to the Philippians…
I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. (Philippians 3:12-14, The Message)