Why become a Christian when Christians are as bad as anyone else?
Dr Daniel Strange, PhD, got involved in church and Boys Brigade as a kid because he enjoyed the sport, even though he didn’t really believe the Jesus stuff that they kept going on about. But then one day, at a normal meeting, when they started talking about Jesus, Dan suddenly recognized the claims that this Jesus was making on his life, and he turned around and trusted him. Dan is currently Tutor in Religion, Culture and Public Theology at Oak Hill College, London.
The Opening Round….
Call me strange (yes, I know that’s my surname!) but I love boxing and the other month I was up in the middle of the night watching Ricky Hatton get soundly whipped by Floyd Mayweather. What is the attraction for me? Well more than any sport, the hype and expectation in boxing can be overwhelming, as can the sense of anticlimax and disappointment. I love the names boxers give themselves: ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson, Ricky, ‘The Hitman’ Hatton, Mike ‘the Body Snatcher’ McCallan, Roberto ‘Hands of Stone’ Duran, Friday ‘the 13th’ Ahunanya. Of course there are some names which a bit less threatening…’Pretty Boy’, ‘Sugar’, ‘Marvellous’ - a bit sissy but I’m not going to tell them that. But then there are those names which don’t quite have the same ‘weight’: John ‘Quiet Man’ Ruiz, Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright, and Jerry ‘Wimpy’ Halstead. Finally there are the frankly bizarre: Archak Ter-Meliksetian, known as Archak ‘Shark Attack’ Ter-Meliksetian and my all-time favourite, a 70’s boxer, Barry Funches known as Barry ‘bunches of punches’ Funches. Brilliant!
One famous boxer is Evander Holyfield, known as ‘The Real Deal’. Indeed his ‘Real Deal’ name has become a franchise – including the launch of his ‘Evander Holyfield Real Deal Grill’, a rival to take on George Foreman’s ‘Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine’ which has made Foreman $100 mill. In boxing having a name like the ‘Real Deal’ is to make a claim - to cut through all the crazy hype: here you have the genuine article without spin or lies – someone who can ‘talk the talk, and walk the walk’, someone who ‘tells it how it is’, who can be trusted, who can be a genuine champion.
Don’t believe the Hype
I don’t have to tell you that in our lives today we are surrounded by plenty of hype and spin, things and people who claim to be genuine but turn out to be fake and not the genuine article. We don’t know who we can trust apart from ourselves and even then we seem to let ourselves down quite a lot. Many people, maybe including you perhaps don’t even want to consider Christianity because in your personal experience Christians are as bad, or good as everyone else. The people who call themselves ‘Christians’ that you have come across in your life, are at best just idiots who still say and do idiotic things or worse still are damaging to others in the way they act and behave. Yes the media may hype things up but it must be based on something. Even if you are not part of it all, just look at the way Christians acts towards each other in the church.
Perhaps this makes you angry, “I know these ‘Christians’ think they are better than me, they look down on me and judge me – but when it comes to it – they are no better than me – just look at the mess they get themselves into.” Perhaps there is a bit of you which secretly smiles when you see a professing Christian caught in some sordid scandal – “They think they are better than me – that’ll show them.” Indeed on a scale of comparative morality, you might think you live as ‘good’ a life as them, or even better, so what’s the point of even considering it.
Perhaps though some of you are not angry, but disappointed even crushed. In the claims of Christianity, there might have been something that might have given some answers to life, the universe, and everything; there might have been hope, something to trust. But perhaps you have been let down by someone claiming to be a Christian, and so you think there might not be answers here, only more lies, more fakes. What a terrible anticlimax.
All in all though the result is the same: you don’t want to consider Christianity, what’s the point? They are just a bunch of hypocrites.
Well if you feel anything like that then I want to say that I understand where you are coming from, because before I became a Christian I felt exactly the same. I went to church to play sport (hard to believe I know!) and nothing else, but one summer some of my mates (including my wife to be) became Christians. However over the next few weeks I noticed, at close range, that they still got things badly wrong in their lives, in their relationships, sometimes they were idiots – sometimes it seemed as if them becoming Christians had made little difference – what was the point?
But you see what I came to understand then, partly from just talking to my Christian friends, and what I want to tell you, is that my thinking here was based on a massive, massive misunderstanding. Sometimes misunderstandings can be funny, sometimes tragic, my misunderstanding about Christianity was the latter. For some reason, I had completely got the wrong end of the stick and I want to tell you how, because I think it can be cleared up quite easily, I think. You know in a film when you shout out at the telly in frustration over someone who has misunderstood something, well I’m keen to tell you so that we can clear things up a bit.
You see I thought all Christians were hypocrites but actually when you think about it for a minute – hypocrisy is a slippery thing. How do you know when someone is being hypocritical? It’s not easy. A hypocrite is someone who wears a mask, an actor, someone who is pretending to be someone when they are not really that person. What’s the problem here? Well the best actors really know how to pretend, a really skilled hypocrite would be impossible to recognise. At the end of the day, we can’t see into someone’s heart to see what they are really like - we are not God. If you’ve met someone who you think is a Christian hypocrite, either he or she is not a very good actor, or perhaps you are being too quick to judge.
Now I don’t deny there are real genuine Christian hypocrites about – but what I came to realise more and more was that when we call Christians hypocrites, what we really see a lot of the time is not real hypocrisy but very flawed and broken people - it is a perceived hypocrisy and that when you speak to these people you will realise that they recognise these failings - indeed that is the point of why they are Christians in the first place.
Don’t get the wrong end of the stick
You see I always thought Christianity was about having to obey a set of impersonal rules to be accepted by God, it was about being a good person – sometimes I thought I was good enough without all this religious baggage, other times I knew I wasn’t good enough, so what was the point in trying especially when Christians could never live up to their standards. But what I want to tell you, is that I slowly came to realise that this is exactly the opposite of what Christianity teaches. The central message of Christianity is that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s acceptance and love, we can only have a relationship with God by sheer ‘grace’ – which is God’s undeserving and unmerited love. It is a gift, it can’t be earned. As someone says: Christianity is not ‘I obey, so I am accepted’ but rather ‘I am accepted, so I obey’
Obey what though, and on what basis am I accepted? Well not ‘what’ but ‘who’. You see I realised that although my Christian friends were still weak and fallible, they didn’t talk about themselves as much as they used to, rather they talked about someone else – someone who gives Christianity its name – Jesus Christ. At the heart of Christianity is not an abstract principle or a set of rules but a person – Christians are followers of Jesus. Now you see I came to recognise some characteristics of this Jesus as I looked at the Bible, he was the most genuine, real, non-fake person ever – someone who talked the talk and walked the walk – but also someone who could see like an x-ray into someone’s heart – someone with authority and power, divine authority and power. I realized that this authority was not simply over the lives of my friends, but was over my life as well and I would want to say ‘your lives’ as well. I came to see that Jesus was ‘the real deal’. Now when we are faced with Jesus –we are all left wanting.
Don’t measure yourself by the wrong standard
If we measure ourselves by the standards of other people, most of us will end up thinking we are OK. After all we can always find people out there who've done things we would never do.
Imagine our lives are like a skyscraper. Imagine if we were all placed on a floor level depending on our relative goodness. Up there in the Penthouse apartments: Mother Theresa and Gandhi. Down in the basement: Harold Shipman and Osama Bin Laden.
And we like to think that God would call out a floor number and anyone on that floor or above qualifies for heaven and those on the lower floors miss out. And we are, well just about the right side of the line – we would always qualify for heaven. Where would we put ourselves – Fraud? Not spending time with the kids? Talking about others behind their back?
My friend asked a 6th form class this question – which crime would disqualify you for heaven? Their conclusion after much thought and soul searching? – Serious fraud. And they all fell about laughing because they realised how arbitrary it was.
But in fact that's what I thought Christianity was all about, it is so easy to misunderstand the Christian faith.
You see Jesus warns us not to compare ourselves to one another, some kind of relative scale of morality. Because the standards that matter are not ours, but Jesus’ perfect standards. And the foremost thing that Jesus asks of us is not ‘do not murder’ or ‘do not steal’. The foremost thing God asks of us is that we love him with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength.
But you see I knew then, and I know now that I could never do that on my own and that I wasn’t a friend of Jesus but rather an enemy deserving Jesus’ judgement.
Do understand the good news of Christianity!
But wait, the good news of Christianity is that Jesus came not to judge us but to rescue us. You see he had the authority and power not only to Judge but to offer forgiveness – that is what Jesus’ death and resurrection is all about. And not just for me but for people like you as well. Jesus who is the standard is also the Saviour who came to rescue people. And this is the heart of the Christian faith – the genuine Christian message – Jesus provided salvation for broken people.
And so all this is the reason why the church is full of broken people – it is a hospital for people who know they need help and often it is those who are more visibly broken who recognise their need for God. Now Jesus wants us to follow him and obey him – Jesus said if you love me you will do what I say – and Christians are striving in everything they do, to do what Jesus says. And actually when you think about it for just a little bit you will recognise that Christianity is responsible for so many things we cherish in our society and culture.
But in all this obedience, Christians recognise that this is not the basis on which they are accepted – Christians know they can’t earn God’s love and acceptance.
The important question to ask here is the motivation behind the things we do or don’t do and the things we do or don’t see in those who call themselves Christians. Now I have already said that motivations are sometimes very difficult to detect - we cannot see someone’s motivation - Jesus can. Jesus was able to look into people’s hearts and see people’s hearts and the motivations for there actions. You hate religious hypocrisy? Well let me tell you that Jesus hates it more, in fact he often spoke against it. Persistent hypocrisy doesn’t characterise genuine Christianity.
I hope this might have cleared up some misunderstandings you might have. There are lots of questions you might have about Christianity, but I do think this one can be explained. Reject genuine Christianity, not a fake. Investigate Jesus and his claims, don’t ‘not bother’ because you have witnessed a flawed witness.
Don’t be a hypocrite…..
Before I finish I want say one more thing and it is something for you to ponder. This is something I have thought about since I became a Christian, looking back at how I used to think before I was a Christian.
We have been talking about Christian hypocrisy – but I want to say something about non-Christian hypocrisy. I want to ask you this: are you the ‘real deal’ in your unbelief? Are you talking the talk and walking the walk in your non-Christianness? Are you being a hypocritical non-Christian?
What do I mean? Well look, I have said that Christianity can make sense of Christian failing and hypocrisy - Jesus provides not only a fixed standard (for failures and genuine hypocrites), but wonderfully that Jesus provides forgiveness.
Christians’ failing doesn’t disprove Christianity, because the ‘good news’ of Christianity includes something called spiritual and moral failure and brokenness. In fact I would like to suggest that failure and brokenness is an argument for the truth of the Christian message.
Now I would like to ask you a question: how do you defend your unbelief in Christianity?  You see real Christian hypocrisy is so ugly and embarrassing because Christians claim to love and obey Jesus, but act as if he didn’t exist, or certainly that he is not Judge of the universe. No criminal defendant in a human court would make nasty faces at his judge or pull a mooney at him while the judge prepares a sentence. A Christian hypocrite is one who says that the judge's bench is filled, but acts as if there is no-one there.
But it seems to me that non-Christians can be even more hypocritical. You see some people, maybe you, claim to be very confident that when it comes down to it, there is no judge, no courtroom, or any law, but they spend their whole lives acting as if they know that the judge is really sitting there watching everything. They may admit someone called Jesus existed, but they don’t believe that Jesus is the king of the universe and has a claim on their life. They say all this, but they still demand to have injustices dealt with, they still demand that we reason according to the set rules of the court, and still demand that they are really innocent of any crimes. But without a judge, or standards, what does injustice or reason mean? If Jesus is not the standard, what is their standard? Where did it come from? Where does the anger and disappointment at Christian hypocrisy come from and how can it be explained?
You see such people verbally deny the existence of the judge, but show that they really do know that the bench is filled. They don't have the courage of their convictions, because, perhaps, they know deep down that those convictions are false. You see to make sense of the charge that Christians are hypocrites you have to borrow Christian truth.
The Closing Round…..
So can I leave you with a question: Are you like that? You may not think about it much, but perhaps you might now. Like me, maybe, just maybe, you might realize that the problem you have with Christians is a diversion from a bigger issue, a tactic which takes the heat off you and puts it onto others. At the end of the day, if Jesus is the Judge of the universe, then what matters is not someone else’s relationship with him, but yours. Can I ask you: are you playing a game of pretend with Jesus?
Like me, maybe you will realize that Jesus does have a claim on your life and that you have a dysfunctional relationship with him. Like me, maybe you will realize though that Jesus is the ‘real deal’ who can be trusted and that if you come to him with your broken life you will find not just meaning and standards, but something else which is wonderful… forgiveness.
© Daniel Strange 2008
Source: This transcript of a talk is used with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without the prior permission of the author.
 I have adapted the following argument from Doug Jones, Why and What: A Brief Introduction to Christianity available at http://www.theologue.org/WhyWhat.htm