Growing up in a religious household, in a religious community, among religious people, you learn certain things. One of the first things I learned was this: “For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).
I don’t know if I heard that in a message from Leviticus or it was told in another form — the “be holy for I am holy” part is quoted in 1 Peter 1:16 — but the message was clear: you are to be holy. What does holy mean? Be obedient and do not sin. God doesn’t sin, Jesus doesn’t sin — so to be like them, don’t sin. If you do sin, you’re failing and you need to do better.
When I got to college, I eventually figured out, thankfully, that everyone sins and that’s just part of being human. So it’s OK that we’re sinners! We have nothing to be ashamed of because everyone sins, and the grace of God steps in to help us.
Wrong, apparently. Confession of sin was saved for one-on-one conversations, filled with religious platitudes like: “Thanks for sharing,” “I admire your honesty and transparency” and “We’ll pray for you.”
So simultaneously, it was holy and righteous to be a good person — to be obedient and righteous — and to confess how much you suck — to be honest about your failures and how much you needed Jesus. In fact, the more you needed Jesus and the more you confessed it, the more holy you appeared.
So which one is it? Or is it both? I’m not quite sure.
Doing an “About” Face
I listened to a message recently from Crosspointe Church in Cary about the first few verses of Matthew 6. Here’s the Scripture the preacher covered, in the words of Jesus:
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”Jesus Christ, in Matthew 6:1-8
The base of the message was this: Why do you do what you do, and who do you do it for?
So often, he said, we try to seek people’s approval by being certain things. We’ll stoop to any level to find satisfaction in what people think of us.
Not that it’s a bad thing to be loved and accepted by others — in fact, he said, it’s “normal” and “healthy.” We as humans — and Christians, specifically — have an amazing opportunity to make a difference in this world by loving others, particularly those who are looked down upon by society.
But we end up draining ourselves and others, our relationships, when we seek to be approved by others as the reason why we do certain things. That thought process made me think about my life as a Christian, made me ponder my life and what it looked like and does look like. And as I hinted in the open, it has relied both on being an amazing Christian and being a sucky Christian.
The Best Frickin’ Christian You’ll Ever See
When I moved from my small private school in fourth grade to the slightly-larger private school in fifth grade, I transitioned worlds. Granted, it was also an age shift, but the Montessori School of Sanford and The O’Neal School in Southern Pines were worlds apart, despite being 30-40 minutes away from each other.
At Montessori, “niceness” was the goal. It was the whole ballgame. We would be fussed at for picking on people. At O’Neal, at least among the students, it was a different scenario. I heard cuss words used by people my age for the first time.
So I became the “good guy.” People would come to me for questions on homework. They’d cuss in front of me, turn to me and say, “Sorry, Zach.” I tried to play it off as “I’m cool, do your thing” — most of the time at least — but inside I was deeply judgmental. That continued into college.
Side note: I had a wake-up moment early in my sophomore year when I was told by a friend of mine that someone else in our friend group felt judged by me for what they did or said. It was very enlightening.
Anyway, I began to feel like I needed people to know I was a Christian. Not necessarily outside Christian circles, mind you, but within the campus ministry I was a part of. The people that were cool and admired were the holiest — the ones that memorized Scripture, the ones that didn’t struggle with porn, the ones that did the most evangelizing, the ones that prayed the best prayers, the ones that confronted the most sin in other people’s lives, the ones that did the most mentoring.
“Christianity” became my calling card. I thought that was what it was supposed to be. But it wasn’t always a good thing.
I was in a group counseling session during my senior year of college — long story, maybe some other time — and the counselor asked us to draw pictures of what our lives would look like with X or without X, the thing we were struggling with.
I drew, not too artistically, what I thought it would look like.
Without X, I would go down a road that was winding and difficult, but had happy stops along the way: getting married to a good Christian girl, having kids, writing books for a living, just generally being happy. With X, I was alone, just sitting there.
But in the top right corner of the page, I drew a cross.
After we were all done, and a couple other people shared their pictures, I shared mine. The counselor leading the session asked about the cross. “Well,” I said, “God is always with me, right? Even when I sin, even when I X?”
The counselor did not dispute that claim. Instead, he said something to me that shook me. I don’t remember the words, but it was something to this effect: “Perhaps you’re wearing a mask of hyperspirituality.”
We had been talking about masks, the things we wear to hide our issues from the world, the coverings we have to protect our fragile selves from letting people know about our X. The counselor was right: I didn’t want to let people know that I was struggling, so “being a Christian” became the thing I did to hide my weakness.
I thought being looked upon as a “good Christian” was the right thing, that it was holy and righteous. But really, it was masking my insecurities, driven by my failures and many X’s.
I’ll always remember that conversation — maybe not the exact words, but the feeling I got when that was said. “But God will always be there,” I reasoned — can’t remember if it was in my mind or I actually said this. I probably said it. The response was something like: “But why is that so important to include in your drawing? Is it because you really believe that, or is that the image you want to give to the world?”
From that point forward, I knew I had to change. I knew there had to be something different. So I began writing, blogging and talking about transparency and honesty about personal sin.
I remember one time I posted a Facebook status that said something like: “Would you ever, unprovoked, confess personal sin in a public Facebook post?” Of course no one said yes, and I probably wouldn’t have said yes either. But that was the attitude I took.
I want to emphasize a couple things before moving forward: Believing that God is with you through your X’s is good and correct, because He is. Seeking to be honest and transparent about your life and your mistakes is good and correct, because it’s the way to healing.
But where I got confused is thinking that being those things made me an acceptable Christian in the eyes of people. I was hailed on one hand for being a “man of faith,” and on the other hand for “sharing honestly about your struggles.”
As I thought about this part of my life in the aftermath of the message I referenced earlier, I began wondering: Which one should I have been seeking?
After all, the song goes “sweetly broken, holy surrender.” To be broken down and ruined by your sin is considered a holy thing. To be sorrowed and mourn over your loss of innocence and failure to obey is “righteous.” But then, being obedient and a “good Christian” — whatever that means, that’s a whole other conversation — is what gets you book deals and speaking gigs and a good Christian wife and praise from people.
What the fork?
I’ve spent most of my life evaluating and re-evaluating my thoughts and actions, trying to make sure they are the “right” thoughts and actions. And while that’s not inherently bad — of course we should try to do the “right thing” — if that’s the motivation, you’re sucking the life out of yourself.
Know that who you are is loved by God, and you are enough on your own. We all have things to work on, things we struggle with, and of course we should strive to improve as human beings. But making it about impressing others or being considered the “most Christian” is not just incorrect, it’s harmful to yourself and others.
Be who God made you to be. Don’t be ashamed of your obedience or proud of your failings. Just be who you are, and know God loves you. Strive to improve, but don’t let that improvement or your quest for improvement define you or bring you satisfaction. You’re loved!