Many years ago, I heard a radio preacher say, the goal of the Christian life is to sin less. When I was young (and more optimistic) it made sense to me. After all, we are to become more like God and he is holy. So, we should, at least, be on the road to improvement. Like so many of the things I was told and I used to believe, it also sounded kind of weird, but I accepted it anyway.
There is the assumption that human beings can be effective in changing deeply ingrained behavioral patterns. But it seems like a punitive goal that our purpose in life is to clean up our act. It also seems a bit arrogant to think we can make ourselves like God.
I always felt I must be different than the rest of the people in the Christian faith because I wasn’t on some sort of upward trajectory in changing my thoughts, habits and actions for the better. For me, it was more of a step forward, followed by a step backward. Sometimes, I might even take two steps one way or the other, but I never felt as though I was miraculously delivered from a besetting sin. Thinking other people were miraculously delivered, left me feeling pretty depressed.
When I was a pastor and would ask people to evaluate their progress in following Christ. The response was always a matter of “more” or “less”. “I need to read my Bible more. I need to pray more. I need to witness more. I need to stop losing my temper. I need to stop looking at lustfully at other women.”
The church’s message has been, “You need to fix that.” “That” being whatever you feel guilty about and if you don’t feel guilty about it, you should.
If an alien who secretly landed on earth were to examine Christian books and listen to Christian radio, he would conclude we are a self-consumed, neurotic people, bent on attempts at self-improvement.
The church’s message to men is even worse. It’s emasculating. “Be a good husband and father. Be a good church member. Don’t do porn. Join in “the rah, rah” of the men’s ministry.” It is basically, “Be a good boy.”
The kind of Christianity I have described is anything but compelling. It is a negative message about trying to rein in sinful behavior, and it only increases our sense of guilt and does nothing to improve our behavior. It actually makes us want to engage in some more of that sinful and destructive behavior as a relief from the pain of continued failure.
It doesn’t sound much like Jesus’ message of giving up on attempts of self-reformation, accepting the fact that he has sacrificially paved the way for us to enjoy a relationship with God, and has given us immense personal meaning as we join him in his kingdom work.
What has been missing from the church’s proclamation is grace and a personal sense of meaning. It is positive message, a here-and-now message that brings meaning and fulfillment to our lives. If anything has the power to change those deeply ingrained behavioral patterns in our life, it is grace, not guilt.