Many militant atheists will say, “Christianity screws up everything,” citing warfare, slavery, the Crusades and intolerance.
Christians will generally respond in three different ways:
- “Christianity is about Christ and not about individual Christians. I am deeply sorry about what people who have called themselves ‘Christian’ have done. However, I’m here to tell you about Jesus.”
While this response majors in the major – Jesus – it simply makes an end-run around the challenge. The challenge still remains: “How can those who claim to have God act so ungodly?”
- “Let’s take the big picture and compare those nations that have emerged from a Bible-centered culture to those nations that haven’t. The former are superior in regards to any measure you want to use.”
Although this might be very true, it often leads into endless back-and-forth argumentation: “Well, the Christians did…” “Have you forgotten that the Communists did even worse!”
This approach also takes us away from what is central.
- “Logically, you cannot bring charges against the Bible or against Christians because you, as a moral relativist, have no basis to make such charges. You are unable to demonstrate how any moral absolute has been violated.”
Although this is very true and perhaps the most effective way to respond to a militant atheist, it fails to win hearts for Christ. It also leaves people with a gut-level feeling that this is a mere cover-up for the failures of the church.
There is a place for each of these approaches. However there is also another approach. This one is intended primarily for in-house consumption. It is an approach that helps us to understand why we, both individually and church-wide, fail to look as good as we should.
1. We endure great trials. When we are caught in the pressure cooker, steam pours forth in the form of bitterness, anger, envy and discouragement. God ordains these struggles so that we’d cry out for understanding and find our comfort in His revelations and in His Word (Psalm 119:67, 71).
2. Trials begin with the church (1 Peter 4:17). Those whom God loves, He chastens (Heb. 12:5-11). We are therefore works in progress. Therefore, we are not going to look as morally competent as we would want to look.
3. We are often perplexed (2 Cor. 4:8). This can be very discouraging and de-motivating. Although God is eager to grant us understanding, there is a great danger that understanding can produce arrogance and self-sufficiency (1 Cor. 8:2) if it comes to us before we have the spiritual capacity to handle it (Romans 8:24; 2 Cor. 5:7).
4. Perhaps the greatest fruit—the one that underlies them all—is humility. Humility teaches us that it’s about Him and not about us. This is something we need to learn if we a really going to trust in Him—something that can only arise out of affliction and failure:
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:8-9)
Only after we despair of our good deeds and merit can we learn to trust. We are simply far too addicted to self-reliance and our own giftedness to rely on an unseen God. If the other “fruits of the Spirit” aren’t built upon self-despair, they’ll produce arrogance, self-reliance, and eventually contempt for others—the very opposite of what God wants to accomplish in our lives.
5. We Christians were scraped from the bottom of the barrel, and so we’re going to look so good. Because many of us come out of broken and abused circumstances, we’re not going to look very appealing to the rest of the world and even to the faithful.
- “He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Cor. 1:28-29)
Unbelievers often exhibit personal qualities that make us envious. However, without the presence of the Spirit to shape and guide them, they will eventually become corrupted. A rose can look wonderful after it is cut and placed in a vase, but it nevertheless is dying.
6. It’s when we are struggling with weaknesses and even moral failures that we become spiritually strong:
- “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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9-10)
God has a vested interest in keeping us humble. He will not exalt us when we are strong, self-sufficient, and morally adequate in our own eyes (Luke 18:14). This would merely enable us to become proud, arrogant, and look down on others, convinced by our successes that we deserve God’s good graces. Instead, God targets the needy and broken as recipients for His comfort (Isa. 57:15; 66:1-2; Psalm 34:17-18). Eventually, we will bear good moral fruit.
7. God loves us too much to make the faith-walk easy for us. He might even restrain our attempts at moral rectitude. Instead, He uses the struggle to make us like Jesus:
- “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.” (2 Cor. 4:10-11; Hebrews 12:8, 11)
8. Being morally successful in the eyes of the world might not produce an eagerness for Christ. Instead, it will allow us to feel too comfortable in this world:
- “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23; 1 Peter 4:12-13)
Consider this scenario: Christ returns and we tell Him, “Jesus, would You just delay for another week. There’s a ball-game and a new Chronicles of Narnia movie was just released and…” This is the antithesis of the joyful meeting Christ has in store. But such a meeting is only possible if we are longing for His return because this life isn’t so pleasant. If, instead, we become a moral success-story, we might simply become too comfortable here.
Nevertheless, we have to continue to model ourselves after the moral example of Christ (1 Peter 1:15-16). However, it is inevitable that we will fall far short of this goal.
9. Moral success might produce complacency, not a love for God and His Word:
- “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:3)
Trials bring out the worst in us, at least at first. We scream and complain but are humbled in the process. It’s only when we’re humbled and despair of self and our own opinions that we come to rely on His Words. We have to grow less in our own sight so that He might become greater. Therefore, God might withhold moral success until we have acquired the understanding to handle it.
10. Moral success can prove counter-productive, unless we are prepared. Some of the most moral people have become the most vicious people. Their moral success had enabled them to believe that they were more valuable and deserving than others. And once they have this entitlement mentality, they can easily justify abusing others.
The examples of this are inexhaustible. Many Communists had devoted themselves so sacrificially and completely to their cause that they had convinced themselves that they were entitled to exterminate any who didn’t fall into line behind their moral cause.
Of course, none of these ten points should be used as an excuse to not act morally. However, I would instead hope that these would help give us some degree of cognitive peace when we are troubled by our own failures and also those of the church. Although we should grieve over our moral failures (Matthew 5:3-4), let’s not become discouraged.