Most of us who fall into the “Christian” category walk around with at least some conception of a “good Christian” in our heads. It might not be a very good conception. It might not be very clear or coherent or compelling in any way. It might even be downright repellent to many, inside or outside of the Christian camp. It might be a fire-breathing, red-faced white Republican for whom Christian faith seems to mean a long list of things to be against, sprinkled with a generous dose of syrupy personal piety, muscular Americana, and unbridled capitalism. Or something else. Lets hope.
Whatever “good Christian” connotes in our heads, the point is that we all walk around with some ideal that we are daily striving to live up to. Or at least feeling guilty about failing at.
For me, the stuff that fits in the “good Christian” box would probably be pretty ordinary and predictable. Good Christians have a sufficient amount of conviction about who God is, what God had done, and what God wants from his people. Good Christians are kind and decent people. Good Christians are compassionate and generous and resourceful. Good Christians are relentless advocates for those who find themselves on the wrong end of the score and diligently work to address injustice. Good Christians are pretty much settled in their opinions and have thoughtful and well-informed views about important issues. Good Christians are studious and curious. Good Christians love and defend the church. Good Christians are mostly optimistic and positive people. Good Christians are not afraid. Good Christians seek daily to live as Jesus taught and modeled during his time on earth. Good Christians, in sum, believe and love and hope rightly and truly.
The problem is, by my own criteria I am quite often a lousy Christian.
My convictions about God are pretty settled. Most of the time. I do believe that Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s character and nature, and that the cross and empty tomb are the hope of the world. But I am product of my time and place. Like many in the (selectively) skeptical postmodern West, unbelief is alway nipping at my heels, enticing me with far easier and more convenient options than the one offered to me by Jesus of Nazareth. My prayer, like many others, is that of the father of a boy troubled by an evil spirit in Mark 9:24: “I do believe; help my unbelief.”
As a good Christian, I aspire to be kind and decent. I admire such people and long to number myself among them. But sometimes I can be a selfish jerk. It’s rather easy, in fact. It takes very little effort on my part. And while compassion and generosity are not usually too much of a stretch for me, there are times when I can be a closed-fisted miser when it comes both to my empathy and my stuff. Sometimes, despair and apathy are far easier than creativity and resourcefulness. Sometimes I just can’t be bothered to care.
And of course I am against injustice! What good Christian wouldn’t be? But some injustices work rather well for people like me and the sacrifices required to address them are, well, rather difficult and demanding. And the causes of injustice are so many and varied and complex, and we are all so enmeshed in them in so many ways. There are so many competing agendas, so many things we can’t see or understand. Hopelessness and resignation offer the path of least resistance and this is a path I often lazily find myself wandering down.
It’s important for good Christians to think and speak clearly and coherently about important and controversial issues. And I generally do my best to be informed, to read the world I live in through the lens of the gospel, to not follow along with the herd. But sometimes I feel utterly powerless to speak compellingly in the face of the reflexive moralism (from the right or the left) that dominates and shouts down thoughtful or potentially productive discourse. Sometimes the toxic stew of lazy individualism and the imperatives to constantly be validating whatever idiosyncratic uniqueness we can conjure up and correctly speaking our native language of outrage according to the edicts of the intelligentsia seems a mountain unworthy of climbing.
And the church… Ah, yes, the church. As a good Christian, I know that I must love the church. And I do. I love the people, the liturgy, the hymns, the communal meals, the shared vision, the bread, the wine, the body, the blood, the changed lives, the strength and support and generosity I experience, the incredible gift of belonging to this beautiful community that crosses space and time. I love the church. Except when I’m tired. Or when people are nasty or spiteful. Or when I’m bored. Or when I don’t feel like I have anything to say, much less the energy to say it. Then I tolerate the church. And pray that it can tolerate me.
Good Christians are thoughtful and curious. Excellent. This should be easy. Alas, here, too, I miss the mark. I have had the privilege of long periods of study in good institutions under good instructors. Yet I am often unable to remember even a fraction of the good words I’ve encountered in my past formal studies (or the good words I encountered an hour ago). Sometimes all the good theology that I once drank deeply from the well of now feels scattered amidst the dank and dusty caverns of my brain and I can’t access it in the midst of the frantic every-dayness of the everyday. Sometimes I will be in some official situation and think, “You know, a good pastor would say something wise and inspiring right about now” and then watch and listen as the words that come tumbling out of my mouth seem more clichéd and redundant than wise or inspiring. Sometimes I think, today, today is the day that I will read a book and learn something new and broaden my horizons. And then the phone rings. Or I get lost on some Internet rabbit-trail. Or I decide I’d rather have a snack. And the books sit forlornly unopened on the corner of my desk.
I could go on. I could talk about how I should be an optimist, but don’t always find this easy or about how I find Jesus and his way simultaneously beautifully compelling and irritatingly impossible or about how fear comes easily and often. I could talk about how my faith, hope, and love are not nearly as true as they could be or should be. But you get the idea by now, surely. I am not a very good Christian. By my own standards, never mind God’s.
But hang on a second. Speaking of God’s standards… What might those be?
God’s standards are a miserable tax collector beating his chest saying, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
God’s standards are a criminal moments before execution saying to Jesus, “remember me.”
God’s standards are a shit-stained drunk stumbling home to an open pair of arms after wasting everything he had been given.
God’s standards are a woman of ill-repute wasting her tears and a bottle of expensive perfume.
God’s standards are a man who was blind exuberantly declaring, “I have no idea who the guy who helped me is, but I do know that I can see!”
God’s standards are a bleeding woman clinging desperately to a rabbi’s robe.
God’s standards are an avowed empiricist with his hands over his mouth gasping, “My Lord and my God…”
God’s standards involve women, an empty tomb, and the capacity to step into the surprise of lifetime—the surprise upon which history hinges.
God’s standards are a loud-mouthed, cocksure disciple whispering; “You know I love you, despite my many betrayals… ”
Upon closer inspection, Good Christians seem to be those who can set aside their pride and acknowledge that they are beggars and fools, nothing more, and hungry for mercy. Good Christians seem to be those who recognize that their standards for what makes a “Good Christian” are not necessarily God’s standards. Good Christians seem to be those who recognize that God is less interested in “Good Christians” than he is in contrite hearts that can be broken in order to be mended and loved into life.