August 14, 2014.
I heard a sermon once that asked the question “Is it better to be really bad and then good, or to always be pretty good?” The topic centered around someone who was walked into a class, obviously older than the other students, and eventually told the class about his life, how he had gone through the typical rebellious period, with a lot of alcohol and parties, sex and perhaps even drugs (I don’t remember) but then turned his whole life around to follow Christ. Obviously, his testimony for Christ was powerful. But his life raised a question for a younger Christian in the class, the question that was stated above. This Christian had not gone through that stage, nor had he ever been involved in anything remotely as bad as what the older man had done. That’s not to say he claimed to have no sin, it was just that he had always lived a life of trying to follow Christ and avoided the sin that the older man had been involved with. But how would he ever have a testimony like the older man who had been through so much? How could he ever talk to those people who had been through the things that he had been through. Would it have been better for him to have lived a life apart from Christ for a certain period of time and then had a come to Jesus moment than to be a Christian from his youth up?
I think this way of thinking comes up a lot more than it gets addressed for Christians who have grown up in the Church. Our testimony, our word, our teachings don’t seem to hold as much weight as one who had been involved with bad things and then changed does. I know from experience that this can be very discouraging, and even make it tempting to leave the church for a while in effort to experience the world. However, this is Satan’s draw. That’s how he wants us to think. He is very good at what he does, and if he can’t entice you with sin itself, he will use faulty logic in order to justify sin for a season. I have done a lot of thought on this topic, and I have come to the conclusion that I am very thankful for my strong biblical up bringing. It reminds me of an important character in the New Testament, Paul’s son in the faith. Timothy was a young man who had always been “pretty good,” at least as far as we can tell. This is what Paul has to say about him:
“I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
(2 Timothy 1:3-7)
Timothy’s faith was grounded though his upbringing, dwelling first in his grandmother, then through his mother and on to him. Timothy was set to be a strong leader in the church. Paul did not considered his upbringing of faith to be a defect for Timothy. No where does he mention that Timothy can’t minister as well to people because he had never really done the whole “worldly” thing. Instead, he says this:
“Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”
(1 Timothy 4:11-13)
Paul could have told Timothy to set up lectures from those who had come out from the world into Christianity. He could have told him to find the right people to minister to certain groups of people based on their background. But he didn’t. He told Timothy to be an example to the believers, in speech and conduct. We too, then, should be examples whether we have the background of a mobster or a saint.
There is a notion going around that it is good to be broken, so that we can minister to those who are broken. It is good to go through rough things so that we can help those who have gone through the same. While I understand the logic behind this, and it may be beneficial for someone to talk to someone who has been there, it is in no way necessary. It is especially not as important as we want to think it is. Before you stone me, hear me out.
We live in a victim society. Our culture teaches us that pity belongs to the victims and it almost encourages us to be the victim. No one will come out and say they like being victimized, but I honestly believe people do. I know I have been there. I have played the victim in order to get sympathy. In order to make myself feel better. Or even in order to get what I want. But there is a problem that comes with this logic when it comes to Christianity. We are not victims. In contrast, we are quite the opposite:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is not the only place that Paul cites a list similar to this one, a list of persecutions and hard times for those who serve our Lord. But notice his attitude about it. Does he say “Look at us. Poor us. We are being persecuted and killed, all for Jesus. Doesn’t that say a lot about our faith? We are victims of a loveless world.” No. He says the opposite: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” More than conquerors. Not victims. When he is citing a list like this to the Corinthians, he does not call for pity. For through his weakness, Christ’s strength is shown:
“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
(2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
In fact, even when I think of the people who complained about their life to God in the bible, God does not pity them. It is true that He is full of mercy and compassion, but when Jonah complains, God simply questions him and teaches him to love people more than he does. When Job raises his case before God, He displays his everlasting power and omniscience. And one of my favorite stories in the bible, when Elijah is hiding in a cave from the evil Queen Jezebel, he asks God to take his life, for the is the “only one left.” This is what God says to him:
“And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
(1 Kings 19:13-18)
Elijah is hiding in a cave and God comes to him and basically says “What are you doing? Get up and go do your job. It is what I appointed you to do.” The battle has already been won. Our job is to bring others to Christ. As Christians, we are not victims. We are more than conquerors. That should be out attitude. Not arrogant, but alive through Christ. Not victimized by the world. We will not bring people out of the world by convincing them it’s okay to be the victim and there’s really no way around it. We will pull them out by showing them there is a way to overcome. To conquer. To be victorious. Through Christ, and Christ only.
So, back to the original question. “Is it better to be really bad and then good, or to always be pretty good?” Let me answer by asking another question. How is it that Christ is our great High priest, able to sympathize with our troubles. Is it because he was engulfed in sin for a while? Certainly not.
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Christ did not have to commit sin in order to be there for us. He had to be tempted with sin and overcome it. That he did, and thus we have a great High Priest who is there for us always. And are we not supposed to be following Christ?
I’m not saying that the testimonies of those who have been through rough times isn’t powerful, because it is. And if that is you, I encourage you to use your background to witness about Christ in every way possible. I am not shaming Christians who have come out of the world, because I think that is simply amazing. I am simply writing to encourage those who have a “pretty good” background, because they are just as important. We all have our story, our talent so to speak, to teach in different ways. All must be done for the glory of God, and with this in mind, we can all glorify his name regardless of our background. All praise be to his name.
Suggested Daily Reading: I Kings 19, I Timothy 4, II Timothy 1, Hebrews 4.
Grace and peace.