People struggle to respond to imperfect people.
I remember when a famous Christian speaker took a turn in his theology away from orthodoxy. Christians seemed confused, unsure if they could still endorse or embrace his other work or if they needed to cut ties with the man altogether. A popular worship band earned a similar response when they made a questionable word choice in one of their songs. Believers quickly divided over the issue, some endorsing and affirming the decision while others strongly opposed it. Such responses, with some variations, also seem to appear regularly in the wake of moral failures or controversial claims among believers. When Christians show themselves to be imperfect, the church doesn’t always know how to think of them.
Perhaps part of our difficulty stems from uncertainty in understanding our own lives before the Lord. No matter how you interpret Romans 7, you can likely sympathize with the tension between doing the good one desires and the evil one hates. We live between the now and the not yet of the kingdom of God, counted righteous yet still wrestling against the flesh. We feel the weight of our sin while also knowing the beauty of mercy and grace. We know our imperfection and need well.
Nonetheless, when we see flaws in others, we struggle to relate to them. When we look into imperfect eyes, we tend to either ignore the specks we see or else see nothing but the specks, wholly endorsing or wholly discrediting the believer on the basis of his or her perceived righteousness (or lack thereof). All the while, our planks remain unmoved.
So what do we do? How do we understand imperfection in ourselves and in others? Scripture may provide us a way forward.
1. Scripture highlights the good in God’s people.
Hebrews 11 notably traces how God’s people exemplified faith throughout history. Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Samson, David – each proved God’s character and word through faith and obedience before him. We remember them as heroes, examples of how we ought to trust God through every circumstance, and we do so for good reason. A quick study of any of them will reveal that they each did great things for the Lord, and they are commended for their faith.
2. Scripture does not hide the bad in God’s people.
A study of these men and women will also reveal that none of them was perfect. Each life, no matter how praiseworthy, was marred by sin in some way. Each fell short, some more notably than others. If we shift from Old Testament heroes to New Testament models, we find the same pattern. We read of Peter’s denial of knowing Christ, of Paul and Barnabas’s bitter disagreement and separation, and of the church’s continual struggle and failure to perfectly live out the life of faith. The sins of God’s people are clearly seen in Scripture, never hidden or covered but laid bare for all to read.
3. Scripture emphasizes God’s grace for sinners.
Paul saw himself as an example of God’s grace. Though he believed himself to be foremost among the unrighteous, he also understood the depth of God’s grace for the lost (see 1 Timothy 1:12-17). He wrote that God’s love was demonstrated in Christ’s death for sinners (Romans 5:8). The beauty of the gospel message is that sinners can be washed, sanctified, and “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). And though we may still sin, Christ remains our advocate before the Father (1 John 2:1). We are broken people, but we are also loved people.
The longer I walk with the Lord, the more I find that the Christian life is not what I initially expected it to be. When I first began to grow as a believer, I assumed, rather naively, that such a life would consist of encouraging discussions with fellow believers, with passionate Bible studies and fervent prayers, and with an ever-deepening richness in one’s walk with the Lord. These things aren’t absent, of course, but they aren’t the whole story. The Christian life also consists of difficult questions, of disheartening responses, of spiritual dryness. At times, life in the body calls for discipline, for rebuke, and for purging (see 1 Corinthians 5). The Christian life will introduce you to many men and women who will inspire you with their commitment to the kingdom and their love for people, and the Christian life will also give you a front row seat to the failures of some of these heroes. Christian life mingles unmatched joy with unspeakable sorrow, revealing both the heights of selflessness and the depths of selfishness. The call to follow Christ is a weighty calling, a difficult calling, and, at times, a messy calling.
In the face of such a calling, let us be people of charity, full of love in all we do (1 Corinthians 13). Rather than tearing each other down with ungracious words, let us stir one another up to love and to good works (Hebrews 10:24). Let us be people whose lives testify to the grace of God within us, forgiving as we have been forgiven. And may the world know us, a group of imperfect people saved by a perfect God, by our love (John 13:35).
Thanks to John Massey for his help in the editing process of this post.