I am a terrible Christian.
I sin on a daily basis in many more ways than I even realize, failing often. I don’t always give to the homeless when they ask and I have money. As a teacher in a poor inner-city environment, I’ll make dark jokes about the school system that I probably shouldn’t. I gossip about the latest person that offended me or pissed me off, or whose ideas I don’t deem “woke” enough, all the time.
I curse all the time without even thinking about it. I don’t listen enough. I care too much about money and reputation. I’ve been losing my shit more and more in my impatience with people who I think are wrong about Baltimore and wrong about my family. I don’t pray nearly as much as I should.
And I say I do all these things in acceptance that I am a terrible person, a Christian that is by no means holy, someone who constantly falls short of the standard of Jesus Christ. In so many things I do, I put success, money, approval, and accomplishments over God.
I labor every day failing as a Christian. And how my mind runs in circles thinking about the shame that comes with being a Christian and constantly failing God.
But that is the reality of every person who calls themselves a Christian. Like humans fail, we fail as Christians because we’re not God, only human. The truth is that everyone is going to sin. Everyone is going to fail.
What’s next, however, is the mindset to have when we fail.
“How we respond to that failure is up to us,” writes Elliott Dodge of Cru. “and either way failure can be a powerful force in our lives.”
There’s a lot of labor in failing as a Christian and constantly being ashamed of how we can’t be perfect as followers of Christ. There’s shame when I say I’m not like those Christians, the right-wing, evangelical, anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion Christians. The truth is that although they might be bad, I’m worse, and my sin is so bad that I have no moral high ground to call someone a bad person or not Christian at all.
The truth is I’m a hypocrite, and I fall short so often, and the labor that comes with falling short and failing is much more of an emotional toll than being successful.
But it is the story of Peter that gives us a lesson on how to proceed as Christians, even when we fail to be saints. Peter told Jesus at one point “though [everyone else will] fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Peter thought he was the perfect disciple. Peter thought he could never fail as a follower.
And then he did, when he denied Jesus three times in the Garden of Gethsemane when he failed to ever to acknowledge he knew Jesus at all to save his own behind. If the story ended there, Peter would have won the award for least valuable player in the Bible.
But the story didn’t end there.
In John 21, Jesus rebukes Peter for his betrayal but also restores him as a follower. He tells Peter of how he’s going to die and be martyred for Christ, and lets Peter go on a journey.
Nowadays, in a lot of places, it’s not popular to be a Christian. Ryan, why are you a Christian when the church is so dismissive of women’s rights is a question I’ve often received from close friends, as is why are you a Christian when the church isn’t tolerant of the LGBTQ community?
And a lot of these times, I’ll distance myself from Christianity and elevate myself as a special and unique kind of Christian. “Look, those people aren’t real Christians,” I’ll say. “A real Christian doesn’t judge, let he or she be judged.”
That mindset, however, is one of denial, one that fails to recognize that everybody judges and has negative thoughts and perceptions of others. But it is the internal gift of forgiveness that Jesus gave us, that we need to have on a day-to-day basis with the people we interact with. If God forgave us, then we can forgive others no matter how much they slight us, no matter how much whatever they do agitates us, no matter the insensitive comments they make about our lives or homes.
As a Christian, I’ve learned that you need to have thick skin when people challenge your faith, and engage those people in thoughtful dialogue about their lives. The church is an institution, and often times it has hurt a lot of people, especially people force-fed religion growing up. Being a Christian also means learning to let go, surrender, and trust God, and trusting God means that God is at work in someone’s life, not you, because you’re not God, and God doesn’t need you to do His work. Imposing your beliefs on others in putting yourself in the position of God.
Every person has their individual relationship with God, and in relationships, we make mistakes. We fail. We stray away and grow distant, and even hateful. But turning back and putting God first is how we make right, and Peter models an example of turning to God and being redeemed.
“He accepted his Savior’s forgiveness and correction, and responded to His call,” Dodge continues. “Rather than being crippled by his failure, Peter was able to move into a deeper relationship with Jesus.”
I can do away with the emotional labor of shame if I allow each of my sins and failures to move me closer to God and recognize that I’m nothing, and need Him to save me. The labor of shame tells you that you don’t deserve God’s love because you’re such a piece of shit.
But even though I might be a piece of shit, God took me in, loved me and built a relationship with me. It happened even when I didn’t deserve it, even when I failed God and continue to fail God time and time again.
Christianity is about love and relationships, not rule-following. Any teenager can tell you how often they break the rules just because they can, just because they want to test limits and boundaries. I feel the same way as a follower, sometimes, testing God and his grace and sovereignty. I know a lot of devout Christians that constantly struggle with doubt, constantly struggle with the question of whether God is real.
So in all the emotional labor of failing as a Christian, recognizing what the purpose of failure is and recognizing our need for God’s grace means that the emotional labor of failure is all meant for good.