The Man at the Bottom

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Contrary to popular belief, Christianity is not about good people getting better. If anything, it is about bad people coping with their failure to be good. That is to say, Christianity concerns the gospel, which is nothing more or less than the good news that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). “[Christ] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). The gospel is a proclamation that always addresses sinners and sufferers directly (i.e., you and me).

The prevailing view in much of contemporary Christianity is more subjective. It tends to be far more focused on the happiness and moral performance of the Christian than the object of faith, Christ Himself.

Think about it: How often have you heard the gospel equated with a positive change in a believer’s life? “I used to __________, but then I met Jesus and now I’m ___________.” It may be unintentional, but we make a serious mistake when we reduce the good news to its results, such as patience, sobriety, and compassion, in the lives of those who have heard it. These are beautiful developments, and they should be celebrated. But they should not be confused with the gospel itself. The gospel is not a means to an end, it is an end in itself.

What happens in this scheme is the following: well-meaning Christians adopt a narrative of improvement that becomes a law (or an identity, which is often the same thing) through which we filter our experiences. The narrative can be as simple as “I was worse, but now I am better,” or as arbitrary as “I used to have a difficult relationship with my mother, but now it’s much easier.” Soon we wed our faith to these narratives, and when an experience or feeling doesn’t fit—for example, when we have a sudden outburst of anger at someone we thought we had forgiven—we deny or rationalize the behavior.

If the narrative we’ve adopted says that in order for our relationship with God to be legitimate, our life has to get better, we set up an inescapable conflict, or what social scientists call “cognitive dissonance.” When our view of ourselves is at risk, honesty is always the first casualty. That is, when the gospel is twisted into a moral improvement scheme, (self-)deception is the foregone conclusion.

There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon of a man sitting down with a woman, having dinner, saying to her, “Look, I can’t promise I’ll change, but I can promise I’ll pretend to change.” I hope that line doesn’t characterize your church, but it does characterize more churches than you think. Instead of a hospital for sufferers, church becomes a glorified costume party, where lonely men and women tirelessly police each other’s facade of holiness. The higher up in the pecking order, the less room for weakness. Perhaps it should come as no surprise when we read headlines of pastors of legalistic churches acting out in self-destructive ways (Rom. 5:20).

God is not interested in what you think you should be or feel. He is not interested in the narrative you construct for yourself, or that others construct for you. He may even use suffering to deconstruct that narrative. Rather, He is interested in you, the you who suffers, the you who inflicts suffering on others, the you who hides, the you who has bad days (and good ones). And He meets you where you are. Jesus is not the man at the top of the stairs; He is the man at the bottom, the friend of sinners, the savior of those in need of one. Which is all of us, all of the time.

(Excerpted from Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free, pg. 78-80)

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