Christians certainly don't seem to live the way they say Jesus did.
I claim to be a Christian, but not always out loud.
Take a brief look at the course of history, and you’ll understand my hesitation. Many bloody, terrible wars have been fought in the name of Christ; many atrocities committed supposedly for “his sake.” The media reports about fanatical Christians engaging in intolerant and sometimes downright violent behavior “because of their beliefs.” I shudder at the thought.
Yet I am not disheartened to the point of relinquishing my faith. I may avoid sharing that controversial morsel of my biography at the early stages of my acquaintance with others, but something compels me to keep the distinction.
Actually, it’s someone: Jesus Christ himself.
“I Like Your Christ, But”1
In modern times, Jesus is popularly viewed as a great man, perhaps even a great teacher. He has been lumped in to a group of wise men, prophets, and enlightened people that includes Buddha, Muhammad,2 and Mahatma Gandhi,3 making him more palatable in our age of tolerance and universalism.4
Jesus is known as a man who came to promote love instead of judgment. He advocated for the poor, the fatherless, the widows.5 He was an agent of social justice, a man who treated women with respect centuries before the idea of equal rights was conceived, a man who dined with social outcasts. Jesus welcomed children into his presence when others viewed them as an annoyance.
He spoke in stories and used the language of an ordinary man. By all appearances, he was an ordinary man. And this image of Jesus—a good man, a friend, even “my homeboy”—is promoted by popular culture.6
“You Give Love a Bad Name”7
Christians, on the other hand, can seem quite the opposite of the picture painted of their figurehead. Confrontational, judgmental, intolerant, hypocritical—they speak a special language that only a member of their clique can understand.
But these people fall into the same sins they denounce: adultery, abuse, deceit, murder—just to name a few. Some supposed Christians have become infamous for their un-Christlike words and actions, further sullying the reputation of the faith.7
It’s no wonder the general populace cannot reconcile their picture of Jesus with their experience of Christians.
The Real Jesus
So who was this man whose time on earth caused such a stir? And what, if anything, does he have to do with the people who call themselves Christians?
The accounts recorded in the New Testament of the Bible make for some interesting reading. There the reader can get to know the real Jesus, through the words of those who knew him best. The first ragtag band of Christians, who are featured in the Bible, were prostitutes and fishermen; lawyers and tax-collectors; doctors and the sick, blind, and lame.
And Jesus taught that each and every one of them was deserving of love, compassion, and kindness.
Love and Perfection
By the accounts of his first followers, Jesus’ teaching wasn’t easy to obey. He may have spoken in a loving manner, but the standards he communicated for righteous living were exacting in the extreme.
In his renowned Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins with a series of blessings but gradually builds through an unsettling series of challenges surrounding tough topics like adultery, divorce, and—famously—loving your enemies.9 In this sermon, Jesus presents a large portion of his instruction to his followers. He roots his teaching in the Hebrew law but communicates that his standards when it comes to such things are even higher. Indeed, he directs his followers to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”10
But that’s humanly impossible! Ay, there’s the rub.
“Jesus, Save Us from Your Followers”11
Christians believe Jesus was and is more than a mere figurehead for a bunch of shady-characters-turned-goody-goodies and recovering hypocrites. More than a wise teacher. More than a prophet. More than a man.
Christians believe that Jesus is God, the one who can and will transform this motley crew of followers to be just like him: perfect in every way. As fully God and fully man, Jesus has the ability to understand our struggles and the power to save us from them.
I said before that I reluctantly claim Christianity. If I’m honest, it’s not all those other Christians out there messing up that make me want to run and hide . . . it’s me.
I don’t represent Jesus well. I don’t love the way he loved, or gently engage my children the way he engaged those who flocked to him. I will never achieve his brilliance as teacher or storyteller or leader or friend. I am broken, selfish, needy. I am far from perfect.
But the gospel writers speak of good news, proclaiming that Jesus Christ came to fill our needs. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”12
Jesus came to save us, his followers, from ourselves.
Though Christians are meant to represent Jesus on earth, they are still humans—and therefore flawed. Becoming like Jesus doesn’t happen overnight. It is a lifelong process of spiritual growth and discovery from the moment one makes the decision to follow him.