The preacher says:
“The first guy hears the Bible and cleans up. The second guy hears it, struggles about it, but he cleans up too. And the third guy does whatever he wants — and suffers the consequences. You know, STDs and jail time and a wild debt and a busted marriage and begging neighbors for change and a messed up life forever.”
With much aplomb, the preacher finishes: “Don’t be the third guy.”
Everything in me wants to get up, flip a table, punch a hole in the wall, and yell, “Hey preacher, I’m the third guy. I’m living that mess. And Jesus loves the third guy.
Jesus: he loves the third guy.
Nearly every sermon, Christian book, and abused statistic outlines the Christian Horror Story, an easy illustration that categorizes the consequences into a simplistic guilt trip device. “Don’t be that guy.” I’ve done it, too. It’s easy to turn real people into cautionary stories without offering any grace.
Take Bill. Addicted to porn, got into prostitutes, lied to his wife, hurt his kids, left the church. What does the Christian writer say? Don’t be like Bill. Because Bill is evil. Life is black and white. There’s Bill, and there’s not-Bill. And God sent His Son Jesus Christ to part the universe and galaxies and stars and skies to die on a cross in our place for everyone — except that dirty, disgusting, filthy pagan Bill.
When we believe people cannot change, we suckerpunch the sovereign grace of God. We make inexplicable exceptions for the loser, the failure, the fallen. We distort actual human beings into one-dimensional caricatures, as if the Gospel is too good for them. There is a political divide, an abyss, a chasm that threatens to separate the religious do-gooder from the untouchable, unforgivable, unimportant rebel.
Jesus came to flip that table.
Of course we face consequences. God disciplines. But most of these preachers and authors assume if we know enough about “how bad it gets,” then we can avoid it. Except people are not blank slates that walk into a room with empty cups. The people I speak to have been through horrific break-ups, abusive pasts, and enough drugs to kill a circus of elephants. Is there no hope for them? Is there no moving forward from what they’ve done to what they can do? Where’s the grace?
I’m not sure where this tactic comes from. Maybe the preacher feels superiority or is compensating for past sins or recognizes the power of guilt and shame. I’m reminded of a martial arts coach who pushed his students to the extreme, but his own skill was below average. There was a vicarious catharsis in coaching his students to success. It was a sick, twisted psychology — and that is the opposite reason to pursue ministry.
Preaching the consequences is throwing out desert sand for the thirsty. Even now as we’re convicted of sin, we must be empowered towards something greater. Otherwise we make a sin-fetish, where accountability groups obsess over recovery and become addicted to bragging about their criminal record.
There’s also: “You’re committed or you’re not. You get Him or you don’t. You’re following Jesus or you’re not.” I get that. We shouldn’t be lukewarm. But following Jesus is sometimes straight up hard. We want to follow Jesus but there are days we struggle, sink, fail. Does this mean we’re doomed to a second-rate faith and unstable assurance? There must be some gray area here. Making it one or the other is grading by performance, which Jesus also came to destroy.
Categorizing happens in subtle ways, too. Christian authors will remark, “I went to this church and the preacher did this and this. I couldn’t believe it.” Or the Christian blogger writes, “Heresy-blasphemy-not-Reformed-bad-doctrine-false-teaching-they’re-evil.”
If it’s really this bad, then we should be grieving on our knees praying for their souls with tear-soaked eyes. If we even remotely have compassion for the lost, then how much more for our deceived church. It’s as if we wish hell upon them, like a bunch of voyeurs driving by a car accident doing nothing.
I realize the irony of this since I’m also categorizing in the same way. I’m essentially saying, “Look at these people.” But to the extent that my wicked heart allows, I sincerely grieve for the condemned and condemners. There is no special class of sinner who has hit an expiration date for grace. That’s why it’s grace.
Jesus took a special interest in the woman at the well, the adulterer on the street, Zacchaeus the arch tax collector, demon-possessed people that the city had given over to hopelessness. They were written with depth, humanity, dignity. It is a terrible, ugly thing to demonize God-created beings that have just as many dreams, ambitions, and passions as you.
Pastors, authors, bloggers, fellow church: Please do not do this. Please stop the Christian Horror Story. The lost need to find the way, not hear about how they got lost. The drowning need a lifesaver, not a description of the water. The blind need vision, not false sympathy. My heart hurts for them and for me. Plead with God for tenderness.
A famous preacher once said, “I have a dream.” Another said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” They spoke not of what should be, but what could be. There is yet hope, always.