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Does Christianity Make Us Better?

September 12, 2012

One of the supposed benefits of being a Christian is that it improves us morally. Certainly no one would convert to the faith if it made you less moral, but does it actually make us better people? I suppose I have struggled a great deal with this question both personally and professionally. As a son who has watched his apparently devout father crumble beneath the weight of pain and temptation. As a parishioner who looked on as church leadership made decisions that had the feel of back-room deals and Nietzschean will-to-power. As a pastor who has spent countless hours with people who cannot seem to stop patterns of behavior they desperately wished to be rid of.  Not only this, but then there is the modern West which has so readily discounted Christianity for its apparent lack of power to make people better. Then when I lie awake at night, I must wrestle with myself and with the deep dark that is often hidden from public view. Not only why are others not better, but why am I  not better?

I have spent much of my life listening to messages claiming that Christianity makes us better fathers, employers, employees, husbands, sons, coaches, in fact all around better people. But my bare faced observations tend to betray the pop muzak of the Christian message. I read just today about well known country star Randy Travis whose well-publicized faith is only to be counterbalanced by his ongoing and very public war with alcoholism. Travis, in this regard, is not the exception but the rule (and I don’t just mean in country music). It seems to me, sooner or later, every Christian must come to terms with this issue, both in themselves and in others. If Christianity is so powerful a message, why doesn’t it seem to make much of a difference in people’s lives who lay claim to its supposed power?

Consider the apostle Peter: his encounter with Christ and subsequent apprenticeship to him did not in any way negate profound and very public personal failures. This often blundering and brash disciple could in the mere turn of a phrase go from “the rock” on which Christ would establish his Church to “satan” who proved to be an obstacle to the very mission Christ came to fulfill. Then there was his betrayal. Then there was the whole elitist Jewish movement he was encouraging in Antioch. Would Peter’s apprenticeship to the ways of Jesus have made him a far more moral person? Wouldn’t it have prevented him from making very public and injurious mistakes? This is not to mention the countless unnamed disciples who belonged to the various churches Paul wrote to who seemed so incapable of getting their acts together. I mean, these are the people who had the Holy Spirit right? Why hadn’t the Spirit simply and rapidly produced in them His fruit?

The history of our faith is very checkered indeed.

What then shall we say? I am of the opinion that Christians can and do actually become “better” but the ways by which this comes about is not at all obvious and is often counter-intuitive. Not all must have devastating and public failures, but it is more regular than we lead on. It was only out of the dust of David’s pulverizing failure that he could pray “a broken spirit and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Jesus seemed to indicate that the primary rhythm of the Christian life is marked most frequently by the need for forgiveness. It’s wrapped into the Lord’s prayer. It is required of us not “seven times but seventy-seven times.” This rhythm is only necessary if sin is that regular. In other words Jesus seemed to assume our failures would be a regular part of our journey, and what we needed most wasn’t advice on how to stop doing what we were doing, but the gospel of forgiveness of sins. Becoming a Christian doesn’t man that you don’t have to deal with your problems anymore because they have been forgiven, but rather that you will have to deal with them in a more direct and searing way because they will be forgiven. Death comes before life, and in all cases the Christian must die to the notion that he can by a mere act of the will better his condition. The surest way to bring about this death is for the Christian to fail, event against the best of their intentions. These failures make us uncomfortable, because it seems to us that Christianity isn’t working the way we thought. And that is exactly right.

Christianity’s power is not found primarily in its moral improvement but is found among all those who confessedly should be better but aren’t and are holding out for forgiveness. It is found among a people who are hoping and trusting that this sin won’t disqualify me from His presence, that they have a Father in Heaven whose name is hallowed not primarily because He is mighty (though He is), but because He is gracious, and His eyes are bright with kindness, that He tenderly welcomes those who so obviously don’t belong with Him.

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