Posted on July 9, 2018 | Posted by Annie Saunders
Let’s talk about the phrase “good Christian” and why it’s a myth.
A few months after getting married, Kristen and I bought our first car together. We’d each owned a couple of those cars you own in college – the kind where you call your parents after driving across town to let them know you’d made it. We needed something reliable, and it was time to actually spend a little money.
We found a car an hour away and liked the price, but struggled to figure out how to pay. See, the seller had recently seem some Dateline show or something about forged cashiers checks and refused to accept one. We didn’t feel like taking out thousands of dollars in cash from the bank and driving across the county in a 1984 Volvo. Which is how I found myself sitting in a stranger’s living room signing a bunch of traveler’s checks to buy a car.
I took a break when my hand started cramping and the seller noticed the cross necklace I was wearing. Oh, she said, you’re a Christian. Yep. Well, had I known that, we would’ve just taken a personal check. I managed a smirk when I wanted to scream. If only she’d known I was a “good Christian.”
At the mechanic down the road, the owner has a Christian fish in the window, signaling that they can be trusted. In the prayers of many a grandmother, spoken or unspoken is the hope that their granddaughter will one day find a good Christian boy to marry. In political campaigns, candidates will note their church membership as a mark of good character.
The good Christian is an idea that permeates our collective imagination. The good Christian is someone to be trusted, someone who has a few foibles, a few tendencies which annoy the spouse. Shoot, maybe even a major flaw or two, but those are in the past. The good Christian pays their taxes, helps their elderly neighbor, makes it to church most of the time. The good Christian is guilty of few sins, and definitely not a real sinner, you know. And, of course, the good Christian is a myth.
Like most myths, there are elements of truth in the idea of the good Christian. Most Christians I know are kind and caring. That includes you. But, it’s still a myth. A composite figure that doesn’t truly resemble any of us. The good Christian is not broken, but we are. The good Christian is not afraid or angry, but we are. The good Christian is not a sinner, but we are. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
We know the good Christian is a myth. We know it. It’s why we confess our sins at the start of each worship service. It’s why we run background checks on Sunday School volunteers and do an audit each year. We know it’s a myth.
But it persists. We just can’t quite shake it. And worse, we keep proclaiming that we are the myth, the good Christian with foibles and eccentricities, but not those real sins. Not like those other people. We think that way, all the while knowing that really we’re deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
So, why do we it? Why do we struggle to face our selfishness? Why do we struggle to come to terms with the communal sins of our past, whether as the church, a family, or a nation? Why to struggle to admit that we have sin, that we have strayed from God, from that relationship of trust and service – and for the authors of First John, that’s what sin is – to stray from God.
Why do we deceive ourselves about sin? It’s probably shame. Shame rooted in the sense that even if we aren’t the mythical good Christian, we should be. Aren’t they supposed to “know we are Christians by our love?” It’s embarrassing, it’s shameful to admit the truth.
And it’s also scary. We’re scared of the truth of our sin. We’re scared to open our eyes, because what will we see? How bad is it? How deep does it go? We don’t look because we don’t dare.
So instead we set up the façade. We do our best to convince the world, and of course ourselves, that we aren’t all that bad. That we’re pretty good, really, all things being considered. Just don’t let the silence for reflection at the start of the service last too long, pastor. Gets uncomfortable.
If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
It doesn’t have to be this way, you know. We don’t have to deceive ourselves. There’s an ‘if’ at the start of that sentence. If we say we have no sin. We don’t have to. So what if we didn’t?
Well, there’s a second if. “If we confess our sin, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That’s the alternative. Confess. Admit it. Tear down the façade. Open our eyes. Name the myth for what it is.
And if we do, God’s grace will pour down upon us.
Hmmm. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, is it? If we confess, God will forgive? That doesn’t sound right, does it? I thought God’s love and grace and forgiveness were unconditional. I thought it didn’t depend on anything we can do, do do, should do, don’t do. If we confess, God will forgive our sins and cleanse us from unrighteousness.
I don’t like that ‘if.’ It goes against everything I believe, against what I feel the rest of scripture is telling us about God. But, here’s a hard truth: sometimes the Bible says things I don’t like. So now what do we do with it?
Well, here’s what I notice. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. That definitely rings true. The myths, the façades that we construct are all about us and they’re all deception. And they don’t just hide us from the world, they don’t just sweep the dark, broken, straying-from-God parts of ourselves under the rug. The façades also cover our own eyes. They cover our eyes to the truth not just of who we are, but also who God is. The cover our eyes to the grace of God.
You could say that if we don’t recognize our own sinfulness, then we won’t see the need for grace. That if we don’t think we are broken, then there’s no need for a fix.
Or, you could say that we spend so much of our time, of our energy, of our being holding up those façades and myths that we don’t even notice the grace that flows all around us. Like God’s busy trying to love us, but we’re too focused on these cardboard houses we’re building.
Or you could say that if you’re blind to the hard truth inside you, you’ll be blind to the wonderful truth surrounding you, to the grace and love of God.
You could say any of that, develop any reason you want, but if you’re like me, then you probably have just noticed that if you open yourself up to the truth of who you are, the beautiful truth and the ugly truth, if you open yourself up to that truth, then you also start to see grace. You see people who love you for who you are. You second and third and fifty-seventh chances. You see God who takes who you are and does wonders with you. You see so much grace.
Grace is unconditional or it isn’t grace. I believe that with my whole being. God’s grace is unconditional. But our ability to receive it, to notice it, to appreciate it, to live in the truth of it – that might be conditional. If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us. If we confess our sin, we discover not just the ugly truth of who we are, but also the far more beautiful and powerful truth of who God is.
Two pretty tough if statements, you know. But we like doing things in threes around here, so allow me to add my own. A third if. Sort of.
What if. What if this passage wasn’t something we thought about in abstract, but actually put into practice? Admitting our brokenness, confessing our sins, facing the truth – those all sound kind of pie-in-the-sky, don’t they? But maybe they don’t have to be.
What if you faced up to the ways you were broken. What if you admitted to your spouse that you don’t always love as fully as you should? What if you admitted to yourself that you don’t spend your money wisely and generously? What if you admitted that the reason you haven’t made it further isn’t because you’ve been cheated, but because your unsure of yourself, or afraid, or needing help which you’d rather not accept? What wonder might happen if you did that? It would be hard, for sure. But knowing God’s grace is there ready to hold you, the truth might not be so daunting. What if?
What if we did the same thing as a nation? What if we admitted that we aren’t the best at everything all the time? What if we admitted that the sins of our past, of slavery and stealing land and denigrating women and spending too freely and all the rest – what if we admitted that we aren’t past these, that they still haunt us? What if we admitted that we haven’t yet lived up to the ideals we claim? What wonder might happen if we did that? It would be hard, for sure. But knowing God’s grace is there ready to hold us, the truth might not be so daunting. What if?
What if we did the same as the church? What if we admitted that we don’t really share God’s grace that often? What if we admitted that we kind of like being a little close-knit family, and that sometimes we only want enough people to join us so that we can keep things how they are? What if we admitted that we say God is calling, but sometimes we don’t hear the call, and sometimes we don’t really try? What wonder might happen if we did that? It would be hard, for sure. But knowing God’s grace is there ready to hold us, the truth might not be so daunting. What if?
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. What if we believed that? What if? Amen.