How Messed Up Can You Be?
A colleague in campus ministry and I were talking about one of my students. This student experienced some pretty significant moral failures and had an ongoing struggle with Christian living, but as a professing believer who continued to be involved in our campus group. As we talked about how to deal with her, I expressed my operating principle with which my friend agreed: “I guess I think you can be more messed up and still be a Christian than some of our friends think.” Did then. Have since. Do now. In congregations. In Presbyteries.
It seems that the church, leaders and members, can deal pretty well with most sins if they occurred in the past, especially before a person professes faith. But the church has trouble dealing with the person who, after profession of faith, has ongoing struggles with sin and experiences multiple moral failures. What this means is that the church has a hard time dealing with a not inconsiderable percentage of its members, some of whose sins are exposed and some of whose sins remain unexposed, partly for fear of the response. In my view this hinders the church from confronting sin and helping faltering Christians and weak Christians from transparency, confession, and opening themselves to help.
The church’s understandable difficulty in dealing part of its membership does raise questions because the realities that confront us in the Bible’s narratives of people who are undoubted believers. Of course, David is always Exhibit A. We think immediately of his adultery with Bathsheba and all the sins that followed. The sin with Bathsheba by this man who was after God’s own heart, grievous as it was, was not a one-time mess-up on David’s part. His sin with Bathsheba was not his only sexual sin, nor were sexual sins his only “big” sins.
Think, too, of Abraham, God’s friend and the father of the faithful. He did not leave the idolatry of his father’s house and then live the consistently exemplary life of faith. He seems to have been an inconsistent leader of his family, perhaps especially in relationship to his wife, and an inconsistent truth teller. While he could demonstrate great courage, as he did when he rescued
Lot, he could show not a little cowardice, at least twice lying about his wife and risking her chastity to save his own skin. At the end of his life we find that he had a number of children besides Isaac and Ishmael by a secondary wife with whom he quite possibly had a relationship while Sarah lived. And what are we to make of Sarah, the mother of the faithful and the example of wifely submission? We, could, as the writer of Hebrews might say, go on to speak of Noah, Moses, and more.
But, I will speak of one more –
Lot. Lot was surely a “worldly believer” who lived much of the time by sight rather than faith, who was willing to subject his daughters to horrible abuse, who had to be compelled to leave to avoid its judgment. Then there is his drunkenness and incest. But, he was a believer, a miserable one, but a believer nevertheless. How would we in the most charitable judgment find him to be a believer, if Peter did not tell us he was a “righteous man”? (2 Peter 2: 7 – 10). We are confronted with the reality that a man like Sodom Lot was a man of true faith.
We could say, with some justification, that these incidents are from the Old Testament before Christ came and Pentecost occurred and that more is both expected and possible for New Testament believers. I agree. But, I believe there is another factor, too. It is that the Old Testament gives us much more narrative of the lives of its believers than does the New. We know very little of the non-ministry lives of New Testament heroes.
We know that Peter’s denial of our Lord was not his first or only failure as a follower of our Lord. Nor was it his last public failure as a minister. Even after the resurrection, his restoration, and Pentecost, and he failed miserably in
, as a church leader. Yet, while rebuked by Paul, Peter continued as an elder and apostle, gave us two apostolic letters, and through Mark (another mess-up) gave us a Gospel. Galatia
While we know only a few things about the lives of New Testament leaders, we know a whole lot about the lives of New Testament New Testament Christians who made up the apostolic congregations. Take a look at
or Thessalonica and note the instruction, correction, and rebuke having to do with the some of the most basic matters of Christian doctrine and of Christian ethics and morality. Yet they are “sanctified in Christ Jesus”, “beloved by the Lord”, those whom “God chose.” Corinth
Is the goal of all this to lower standards? To allow us “to continue in sin that grace may abound”? No, no more that Paul was when he insisted on justification by faith alone whole apart from human works or merit. “By no means!”
It a rather an exhortation to realism, charity, and forbearance. To be more ready to restore than to condemn. To hang with rather than give up on. Jesus seeks sinners. He not only seeks but accepts sinners. He not only accepts them; he keeps them. He not only keeps them; he uses them. Perhaps the church could learn from him.