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Don’t Be a Christian Jerk

July 5, 2011

We are a pilgrim people.

We are a people in exile.

We are called in to be “in the world,” but not “of the world.”

Do any of these motifs sound familiar? We throw these terms around and we all know what they mean, don’t we? Why is it then, that none of them ever really help us understand what a life of faith lived out in the twenty-first century is supposed to look like?

At its core, This Pilgrim’s Progress has been written with the express purpose of offering musings from the pilgrimage of life and faith, to shed some light on the idea that the Christian life is about the pursuit of holiness through a profound relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church on earth.

As Christians, I think we have some idea of what our relationship with Jesus should look like. Sure, Protestants and Catholics differ in their understanding of worship and experience of God but, at their core, I think all Christians desire to reverence and worship the triune God. However, when it comes to how we understand our relationship with the world, the waters become a bit murkier.

There are many ways that Christians have conceptualized their relationship with “the world.” Some have hunkered down, fleeing the “evil” of the world. Others adjusted their Christian beliefs to match every cultural value, watering down the teachings of the faith that developed through the apostles and church fathers. Still others have taken the road of Christian jerkiness.

I can speak intelligently about being a Christian jerk because, in all honesty, I spent the first couple of years of my life of faith being one. I sat back with my arms folded, shaking my head at the sinfulness of others. I lamented the failings of those around me audibly and judgmentally. I turned my back on friendships with those who weren’t a righteous as I perceived myself to be.

“Why don’t they get it?,” I wondered. “How can they just turn their back on Jesus?”

It’s easy to sit in the ivory tower of faith and cast such aspersions. In fact, it’s much easier than confronting our own failures in the faith. As believers still saddled with humanity, one of our best defense mechanisms is to manufacture our own righteousness by pointing out the unrighteousness of others. The more we get frustrated about the obstinacy of others, the less we have to confront our resistance to take steps of progress in our own pilgrimage of faith.

So, what then, is our response? How should we respond to “the world?”

It’s a cheap answer to say, “love.” But it’s the right one, isn’t it?

Jesus, who was without sin, was not so disgusted by the prostitutes and thieving tax collectors that he couldn’t share a table with them. What claim, then, do you have to be above such interactions?

Jesus recognized and valued the image of God in each human being, and never wrote them off as lost causes. St. Jude might be the patron saint of lost causes, but Jesus showed us what it meant to be the lover of the lost, of those who had been cast to the margins of religious life because of their sinful unworthiness. He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to save the one.

The Apostle Paul knew what it was like to be a religious jerk. As a Jew, he looked at Christians as those who had turned away from the true faith. He says, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance and in my unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13).

Whenever I read that passage, I marvel at the words, “ignorance” and “unbelief.”

It’s hard to believe, in this day and age, that people don’t know the gospel of Christ, but many don’t. I grew up in the Church, received the sacraments, and I don’t remember truly hearing the gospel until I was eighteen.

Still more, it is easy to see how people don’t believe. The division of the church and confusion of the Christian message has to be a stumbling block to those who have tried to understand.

As Catholics, however, we hold the truth. We believe that the truth of the Church is the complete truth of God and it is our job to compassionately respond to the reality of ignorance and unbelief that exists in our midst. Too often, however, our response to the ignorant and unbelieving is to write them off in frustration and disappointment.

What would happen if we looked at them with compassion instead?

I once tried to justify my Christian jerkiness by likening my frustration to the holy anger that the Apostle Paul often displayed in his letters to the Christian churches.

“I just love God so much,” I would say, “that it makes me so frustrated to see people turning their lives away from him.”

It likely comes as no surprise to you that I was nothing like the Apostle Paul. It’s true that, time after time, Paul’s frustration comes off in his letters. We cannot, however, just focus on that frustration. We have to focus, first, on the relationships that existed between he and his readers.

It’s easy, when reading the epistles of Paul, to skip over the first or last chapters, when Paul is saying all kinds of lovely things about his brothers and sisters, dearly loved in Christ. And yet, those parts point the fact that Paul walked among the people to whom he wrote. He shepherded them, taught them about Jesus and the life of faith, and was legitimately dismayed when they turned away from the faith and back to their previous lifestyles.

Paul was like a spiritual parent to the believers of the first century churches and just like a parent gets frustrated when their child hurts him/herself doing something they were told not to do, so too Paul confronted the failure of spiritual children with a spirit of correction and love.

As much as we’d like, love doesn’t rule by edict and decree. Love exists in the investment in another’s life.

Having the truth doesn’t allow us to be jerks, it puts the burden on us to love. It means we pursue others with the same relentless abandon that sent Jesus to cross.

Jesus doesn’t need jerks. He needs us. And he needs us to look like him.

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