I’ve spent my entire life so far in the church, mainly evangelical churches of one kind or another.
I’ve also spent the last ten or so years in active ministry in a few different church environments – conservative Baptist, missional church plant, and, now, mainline Methodist.
And one hard lesson I’ve learned on this journey (among a whole hell of a lot of hard lessons) is that not all Christians are good people.
In fact, some of them are really bad.
(Yeah, you read that right.)
Thing is, that statement in itself is a problem for most Christians, especially the evangelical kind. And that’s because we evangelicals have been trained to believe that there’s no such thing as a good person to begin with. We’re all sinners, right? We’re all broken. We’re all bad. And all sin is equal in God’s eyes. Even the slightest offense is an infinite offense to an infinitely holy God. We are totally depraved! Every facet of us is corrupted by the power of sin! And even after we are saved, there remains a sin nature that wars against the new Spiritual nature within us, so that every act is still threatened by the effects of the Fall. In sum:
‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God’…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…
In this sense, we are all the “worms” to Calvin and Luther’s Perfect Judge. Or, in Edwards’ vision:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.
Or, in Driscoll’s modern vision: “God hates you.”
This, of course, is all a setup for The Gospel which is presented as a message of sheer grace in light of such sure damnation. The gospel has nothing to do with you or your supposed “goodness” – it has everything to do with God’s mercy in Christ pardoning you from your death and hell sentence. It is hyper-individualized to mean that God’s wrath is what you, the individual sinner, deserve, but God’s grace can give you what you don’t deserve. In the words of C.J. Mahaney (currently embroiled in a child abuse scandal) Christians should never complain because we are always doing better than we deserve!
Of course, I believe this is a distortion of the gospel. But the strange side effect of what many believe to be the gospel is a self-deception that fosters a kind of moral agnosticism. Whereas in one sense conservative evangelicals are known for their insistence on moral values and politicized judgment towards outsiders, in another sense they are insisting that none of us can be deeply, truly good. It’s my belief that this leads to a kind of spiritual split personality disorder in the life and thought of many Christians, such that a superficial morality and spirituality is held tightly while the inner struggles and brokenness are attributed to that unfortunate sin nature, and are largely ignored or avoided. It is a kind of baptized denial – turn away from the dark stuff and just pretend it’s not there. Because, you know, the joy of the Lord is your strength.
I’m not saying that this is the psychological profile of every Christian, nor that evangelicals are categorically any worse than non-Christians overall. What I am saying, though, is that reason, experience, and reality have proven to me time and time again that there are, in fact, good people and bad people in the world. And the good people I have known have often been non-Christians. And some of the baddest I’ve come across have been, you guessed it, Christians.
And I don’t believe it’s good enough to say, “well, simul justus et peccator (simultaneously sinner and saint),” or, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” and lapse into that same old moral agnosticism. Instead, I think we have to acknowledge this reality and envision the gospel afresh in light of it.
And that starts with a working definition of “good” and “bad” – which I think would be better described as “healthy” and “unhealthy” or perhaps “honest” and “dishonest.” The best people I have known (Christian and non) have been those who are truly, deeply healthy in an emotional sense; that are most in touch with the things going on within them, the brokenness, pain, and struggles, the experiences that have scarred them, the traumas they’ve endured, the mistakes they’ve made. They are working through these things, not avoiding them or running from them. Likewise, these good people are honest – terribly, wonderfully honest. Rather than deceiving themselves through constant self-justification leading to arrogance and hubris, they recognize there own shortcomings, and it humbles them. It makes them open, attentive, empathetic. And rather than deceiving others through leading, manipulation, and control, they put things on the table and work things out. They risk not getting their way. They avoid aggression and passive aggression alike and opt for healthy, straightforward conflict resolution. They see things clearly and understand and own the consequences of their actions, rather than pinning destructive choices on everyone but themselves. Good people are very familiar with the words, “I was wrong, I’m sorry, and I love you.”
They aren’t perfect, to be sure – but they are good. And this isn’t a pristine moral state that they’ve arrived at so that they can look down their nose at others (because that would be bad), but is instead a direction, a path, that they are intentionally and decidedly pursuing. And this is not to say that bad people are ruled out, but that even Pharisees and rich politicians have the opportunity to move in a different direction and become good too.
Of course, it is disturbing to an evangelical Christian mind to call anyone who doesn’t believe and worship God “good.” It scandalizes modern visions of the gospel. But I believe it is necessary to both recover the ancient sense of the gospel and reimagine it for a culture in which emotional health is an increasingly desirable (and necessary) goal. If anything, what the New Testament is giving us is not a hyper-individualized vision of sin and pardon, but a covenantal and corporate vision of brokenness and healing. Thus, the church is not the place where individuals are subjected to the crucible of an angry God offering pardon through conversion on an anxious bench, but a society of wounded sinners who are finding forgiveness and the hope of actually experiencing the good, the healthy, the honest way to live.
And this is not out of sync with what many outside the church are also seeking and experiencing, but in sync with it – and then some. The uniqueness of Christianity is not that we now may appear highly moral and spiritual by denying the sin nature below the surface and running away from our issues, but that we may face our shadow self in all its darkness with courageous honesty because we believe the resurrection of Jesus promises complete healing in the end. Our struggles, our traumas, our shortcomings are all now subsumed under the already/not yet unveiling of the kingdom, and as whole people we can begin to move toward the consummation and full restoration of that which is broken.
This kingdom vision of goodness – which is actually good news! – takes the “simul justus et peccator” and “all have sinned” realities and injects them with resurrection hope. We need not run. We need not deny. We need not self-deceive. We may be honest. We may pursue real, deep health. And we may do this, looking unto Jesus, with the wind of the Spirit beneath our wings.
If we allow the modern Christian gospel to be scandalized by this vision of goodness, we may find far fewer actual scandals rocking the church.
If we allow the reality of bad, unhealthy, dishonest people to have a category in our thinking, we may find that fewer Christians are becoming those people (and there is protection in the church from those people).
And if we even follow the example of so many outside the church who are living healthy, honest lives, we may finally find that we have so much in common with these “outsiders” plus a unique and everlasting hope that actually welcomes them in.
None of us are perfect. All of us are sinners. And no one is ruled out. There’s hope for the hardest Pharisee.
But the good news is that all of us can actually become…good.
Ok, let’s have it. Push-back. Critique. Accusations of heresy. I’m ready!