I think a lot about the church. When you write a book called "When Bad Christians Happen to Good People" you tend to hear from angry and wounded churchgoers. I have received hundreds of emails and blog posts from hurting believers. If a modest selling author and blogger like me gets that many responses then you can extrapolate that this is a big problem for the American church.
A study by the Barna Group among unchurched adults shows that nearly four out of every ten non-churchgoing Americans (37%) said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people.
My heart aches when I hear stories of people who have been wounded and even abused by the churchgoers, leaders and pastors. I used to get angry and self-righteous.
"How can they call themselves a Christian?"
That is a question that I am often asked. But now I am more inclined to ask the question more personally in my own journey.
How can I call myself a Christian?
I began the book mentioned above with this paragraph.
"I am a hypocrite. I can be arrogant and selfish. I have been known to stretch, conceal, or slightly message the truth. I am sometimes inconsiderate and insecure. I struggle with lust and impure thoughts. My ego often rages out of control, and I battle foolish pride. I can be lazy and foolhardy with my time. I get angry, petty, and ill-tempered. I am sarcastic and cynical. I am a Christian."
I can make the claim in the final sentence only because of Christ. A song by one of my favorite artists, Andrew Peterson, reminds me of the mystery of grace. Peterson beautifully illustrates that I am like every sinner who ever lived or will live. Peterson's lyrics hit home and remind me that I am saved by grace alone. It is not my disciplined and upright behavior that I perceive to be better than most other people that wins favor with God. My ranking of which sins are more disgusting is, to quote Rich Mullins, as useless as a screen door on a submarine. I was a sinner in need of a Savior. Andrew Peterson's lyrics describe it well.
I am the woman at the well, I am the harlot
I am the scattered seed that fell along the path
I am the son who ran away
I am the bitter son who stayed
I am the angry men who came to stone the lover
I am the woman there ashamed before the crowd
I am the leper who gave thanks
I am the nine who never came
Paul tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I used to feel superior to those who violated my denomination's "Top 10 list of things not to do if you are a real Christian". But I came to realize that having less repulsive sins on my resume than someone else only mattered to me and my miserable band of legalists. It did not matter to God.
As my journey continued I was wounded by the church and I got angry at God when fallible people (just like me) did not follow His Word or wouldn't live out of His grace. Yet I often did the same thing that offended me from others. And that is why Peterson's question resonates in my heart.
My God, my God
Why hast thou accepted me?
Indeed. I had nothing to offer that God needed. I was falling far, far, far short of the glory of God. But what He did is pure grace and Andrew Peterson says it well.
You took my sin and wrapped me in
Your robe and your ring
My God, my God
Why hast thou accepted me?
It's a mystery of mercy
And the song I sing.
I love that imagery. He took my sin and wrapped me in robes of undeserved righteousness.
I am still prone to react when I hear stories of harsh shepherds and mean-spirited churchgoers. But more and more I realize that I am more than capable of being that harsh shepherd or mean Christian apart from trust and dependence on Jesus.
Paul wrote these words in a letter to his spiritual son Titus.
Once we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaves to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other. But—"When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he declared us righteous and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life." This is a trustworthy saying, and I want you to insist on these teachings so that all who trust in God will devote themselves to doing good. (Titus 3 - NLT)
Why hast God accepted me? Because of Jesus and not for anything I have done or could do. Today I have a heart of worship as I meditate on this mystery of mercy and grace.