The Christian life is never easy. Growing up in the church, I was told constantly that living as a Christian would be challenging, but I didn't really know what form those challenges would take. As a believer, you are called to die to yourself, to take up your cross, and to follow Jesus (Matt. 16:24-26). You are called to fight against sin (Heb. 12:1). But one of the things I didn't realize believers are constantly called to fight against is unbelief.
Last week, I saw another Christian with a large public profile announce that he was walking away from the faith. I was sad. I didn’t know him personally or follow his career closely, but it’s always hard to see a Christian abandon the faith. And I think my sadness was compounded by the fact that this was not the first or even the third high-profile Christian to make this kind of announcement in recent days.
It is difficult to describe the pain that can come from seeing someone you look up to walk away from Jesus. Even for someone who has rock-solid faith, that experience can be jarring and lead to, at least, momentary doubts. A similar kind of pain and disillusionment can arise from seeing Christians or even the church fall short of the standard of Jesus. I’ve noticed that many times, the doubts and struggles that Christians experience come as a direct result of seeing other Christ-followers manifest the kind of brokenness and sin that Jesus came to save us from.
Focus on Jesus
This is the reason that I (following a practice I’ve learned from others) try to stress to the men that I’m discipling, or the Christians I work with closely, that they should take care not to focus on me—or anyone—more than Jesus. I am flesh and blood. I am redeemed but fallen. And I fail and fall short every day. I am grateful to God that I’ve been able to positively influence and encourage other men and women through my faith and ministry. But knowing myself as I do, I know that if they ever begin to see me as more than merely human, they will soon be disappointed.
For the same reason, I try to be honest with those around me about the sins that I struggle with. I don’t want people to be surprised when they see me stumble or fall. I want more than anything to be like Christ, but the best way I know to point others to Jesus is to let them see me when I’m faithful and when I fail. That’s a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way. It’s great to have human heroes. We are supposed to look up to those who are ahead of us in the faith. But more than once, I’ve experienced deep pain from seeing men and women I look up to act in ways contrary to the convictions we held in common.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that Paul wasn’t calling himself some kind of super Christian when he exhorted others to follow him as he followed Jesus (1 Cor. 11:1). I think Paul knew that the people he was ministering to needed both things. They needed to look at Jesus, to see his example, and to know what perfect obedience looks like. But they also needed to see Paul—a fallen and frail disciple doing his best to keep the faith and run the race (2 Tim. 4:7). While Jesus is a perfect guide, Paul was only ever a man. And in Paul we see faith and fear, triumph and trepidation. There is a lot we can learn from him about faith and faithfulness and even failure, but only if we remember that Paul can never take the place of Jesus.
It really isn’t a mystery why some people would become disillusioned with the church. Jesus has a messy bride. The church is full of sinners and hypocrites like me (and you). Every day people who identify with Jesus sin in ways large and small—sometimes in ways that are truly scandalous. But when we really think about it, we shouldn't be distracted by the missteps of our fellow brothers and sisters. Nor should we be disillusioned by the church’s shortcomings, which can be remarkable at times. After all, when each of us look inside of our heart to truly see ourselves, we see all of the sin and brokenness reflected in the world—we’re just usually better at hiding it. Often, the church merely reflects the brokenness in our own hearts on a much larger scale.
If you find yourself tempted to doubt or despair because of others’ failings, no matter what else you see, don't miss Jesus. He has never left and has never changed.
So when we see the church embrace bigotry or fail to stand against injustice or appear hypocritical, it is natural that our hearts are filled with judgment and disappointment. Like our Creator, we are supposed to hate these things. But before we judge or look down on our brothers and sisters, we should remember all of the times we’ve done the same (Matt. 7:3). We should think of all of the times we’ve failed to speak or spoken in anger or failed to act or harbored contempt. We should, in other words, reflect upon the very real and present sins in our hearts and realize that the church is not made up of good people who constantly embrace their vices, but sinful and fallen people whom Jesus is redeeming.
Jesus is the center
And this is the whole point. To get Christianity, you can’t focus on the circumference. You must focus on the center, which is Jesus. The essence of our faith is not the church, nor our core beliefs, as precious as both of these things are. Instead, the center of our faith is a person. And in our darkest moments, we would do well to remember what most of us have always known. It is easy to miss because it has grown so familiar, but the most radical truth that defines the gospel is that Jesus, the Son of God and rightful king of the universe, condescended and came to save us. And, as with every good story, he did it for love.
John 3:16 is more than some familiar trope from the Scriptures. It is the gospel. God loves us. God came for us. And, in Christ, God saves us. The problem with our disillusionment is that we often don’t go far enough. The gospel is a scandal: a perfect God redeemed a wicked people. I totally understand what it means to be scandalized by the brokenness we see in the world, especially when it occurs among the people of God. Sometimes sin leads to tragic, even unspeakable, wickedness. But the truth is, we should not be more scandalized by the wickedness we see than we are by the fact that these are the people God has chosen to love and forgive and redeem.
Right now we experience only glimpses of the perfect life that is to come. But those glimpses simply punctuate our experience of brokenness in what Paul described as “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). We should long for Jesus' return and yearn for that day with hope and expectation. But when we see the brokenness of his bride, we should be driven mostly toward adoration instead of toward despair. It is right that brokenness breaks our hearts. It breaks God’s too. But he sent Jesus anyway. And through Christ, he is right now doing the work of turning back the curse and reversing the effects of sin.
I’ve struggled with my faith for most of my life. But there is always one thing that brings me back no matter how hard things might be. Jesus is always there. And no matter what kind of brokenness or pain I might experience or see in the world around me, I know that when I look to Jesus, I not only see a better way, but a better future. And when I’m tempted toward doubt or unbelief, he always pulls me back. If you find yourself tempted to doubt or despair because of others’ failings, no matter what else you see, don't miss Jesus. He has never left and has never changed.