“You can always see who’s a legalist because he can’t laugh at himself. He’s the one going around saying, ‘That’s not funny.’”
A friend of mine was telling me about these two Christians fighting on the street and how he stopped them by saying, “Why don’t you two just fight in church where it belongs?” Everyone cheered and the fight stopped and these two guys walked away totally shamed. I might have cheered, too.
My friend says, “You know, if a Christian claims to be a Christian, they really ought to live up to that.”
But this just didn’t sit right with me.
So I told my friend (who is not a Christian), “Well I’ve sat with dozens, if not hundreds of ‘Christians’ who come to me with massive amounts of guilt. Like suicidal guilt. They never feel like they’re measuring up or good enough or doing what they ought to, and they’ll say, ‘Man I blew up the other day’ or ‘I lost it on this guy in traffic’ or ‘I punched a wall again.’ I go through that, too, and it’s like people presume to know my whole life based on a bad day. I mean you saw five seconds of two strangers on the street, and who knows if they felt bad about it, but being a pastor, I always see the moment afterward when they’re calmed down. They always feel really bad about it, like self-hate kind of bad. I’m seeing that people have layers and feel conflicted and don’t want to mess up like this, and I’m not saying all of them are so thoughtful, but we could try to be fair.”
My friend nodded slowly, saying, “I get it. But they should just know better. I mean they’re Christians.”
“Right, I get that too,” I said. “I hate saying it like this, but I’m not sure it’s fair when a non-Christian can always say, ‘I’m NOT a Christian and I never prescribed to your rules so I can do whatever.’ I don’t think it’s so extreme like that, but it bothers me when someone can use a loophole to absolve their own responsibility when almost everyone already knows common sense and human decency. It doesn’t seem right that we can call out a Christian for his non-Christian behavior on some standard of ‘good’ while not using that same exact ‘good’ standard for everyone else. That’s not a moral statement, that’s just crappy.”
My friend didn’t like that last part and replies, “What I mean is, if they claim to be a Christian, and they don’t act right, they’re a hypocrite.”
I shook my head. “That’s probably too quick to throw down ‘hypocrite.’ I really think what counts is the moment right after defeat, the moment right after messing up.You’re right, there are some people who burned their conscience a long time ago and don’t really care to change. There’s hope for those guys too, except something probably has to crush them first. I’m just talking about the ones who snapped but immediately have a self-awareness about what they did, that they’re wrong, and they want to make it right. Some of them are so desperate and self-hating and guilty, like they’ve really let down God and it’s the end of the world.”
“Okay, I see,” my friend said. “You’re one of those complex guys.”
“I don’t know, I guess you can call it that. The Bible — gross, I know — keeps picturing the Christian life as a walk, taking steps, falling down, getting up, moving forward, going again. Some days we start stepping backwards but God says repent, a good old-fashioned church word, which just means turn around. And during those times when I really mess it up, that’s when I least want to turn around: because I’m so ashamed, I’m full of guilt, I can’t stand to think of what God thinks of me. I’m suddenly the dude in the pastor’s office crying my eyes out about fighting on the street wondering if it’s too late and why can’t I get past this and is God going to smush me. But in that moment afterwards when I do turn to God, He still actually likes me. He knows what I did and He’s got grace to bring me up and restore me and set me stepping right again. And actually, it’s only because God is so gracious that I can keep stepping at all. Imagine that kind of fearless life, to just really be so vulnerable and still loved.”
I already knew what my friend would say here. “So then, Christians can do what they want and God just takes them back.”
“You knew that I knew you were going to say that, right?”
“Yep. And you’re going to say, ‘No, God has rules too and they’re good for us.’”
“Is that how you are with your wife?”
My friend laughs. “No way. I just … well no.”
“Right. You could probably do what you want towards your wife, but you wouldn’t. Because —”
“Because I love her.”
“Yes. You don’t love her out of some moral obligation. You love her because you know her and you find her loveable. I don’t follow God’s rules to follow God’s rules, even though I know they’re good for me. I follow out of love. That’s probably corny to you, but it’s personal for me.”
We went back to the two Christians fighting on the street — but differently this time. How they might have felt like total losers afterwards. How they felt like they let God down, again. How they humiliated themselves, their church, their God. How it must have felt in God’s heart to see His kids fighting each other.
For a moment, at least, my friend could understand God even if he didn’t believe in Him.