“The Christian life is a life of starting over every day.” -Unknown
I remember hearing the story about the Christian farmer who acquired two new cows. He took his wife out to show her the new acquisitions. He told her, “Yep, fine looking cows aren’t they? But don’t get too attached to both of them. One is for us and one is for the Lord.” The farmer’s wife replied, “Which one is the Lord’s?” “Don’t know yet,” he said. “No need to decide now.” After a few months, the farmer came into the kitchen where his wife was. He was downcast. “What’s the matter,” she asked. “It’s the cows. One of them took ill last night. I am sad to say, but she died. There was nothing I could do.” “Oh dear,” the wife replied. “Which one was it? The Lord’s or ours?” “It was the Lord’s,” the farmer quickly came back. “But I thought you had not decided which was the Lord’s.” “Nope,” he responded. “It was the Lord’s. The Lord’s cow died.”
While this is a great illustration when it comes to Christian stewardship, especially of our finances, it broadly applies to how so many of us Christians treat the things of the Lord.
I will get back to the Lord’s cow in a moment.
I am so often convicted by my inability to live up to my calling and representation of Jesus Christ. I am quite hyper-critical, especially of myself. Idle time for me breeds much self-condemnation, remorse, and feelings of insufficiency. I have to discipline myself quite a bit here. I cry out to the Lord “Why aren’t I a better person?” The issues are plenty. While I don’t have any acute self-destructive addictions that would make most people’s top ten list, I am addicted to sin nonetheless. I am often mean, irritable, and selfish. Ask my wife. She will be happy to fill in the details. In short, I don’t have a stable personality in many ways. I never know who is going to wake up. I can manipulate truth with the best of them. Sometimes I justify my selfishness do to the bitterness that life often rewards. The easiest thing to ease my conscience is to compare myself to other Christians around me. I pick out the worst of them and say to myself, “At least I am not that bad.”
However, the guilt is intensified when I begin to look to the outside world and see many people who don’t even love the Lord who act better than I do. They seem to be more giving, have better marriages, and less self-conscious. It is true that I cannot see deep into their lives, but, nevertheless, from my perspective, many of them seem to be doing better on the Christian score card than me. In short, it seems that people, non-Christians and Christians, are letting the Lord’s cow die.
Not only this, but we see moral failure all over the place by Christian leaders. Those who are supposed to be leading the way fall in the ditches of depravity themselves. From child molestation to secret homosexual encounters, Christianity is at no loss for scandal. Then there are the great historical black-eyes from forced conversion (inquisition) to wars being lead by the church (the crusades). I don’t want to blow this out of proportion or be unfair here, knowing that fallen leaders will always get more press, but the fact is that Christians often don’t fair much better than non-Christians.
Sure, there are many like me who think in cosmic scales. I have imagined being martyred for my faith. No matter how I imagine it, I always see myself making that ultimate sacrifice. As well, I think to myself that if I had a million dollars, I would give most of it away. And you know what? I think I would. However, these cosmic cows so often give way to the day to day cows. All of them are dying. All of them are the Lord’s. It is not the cosmic sacrifices that are hard, it is the widows mites. It’s not the big things that we resign that are hard, it is the little things. Its not the theoretical cows that are sick, it is the actual ones.
The more I talk to other Christians, the more I find this real struggle present. The things we want to do—the things we know we ought to do—don’t get done much. And the thing that frustrates them is the same thing that frustrates me: we all want to be better people. We all want to sacrifice our cows. But for most of us, we have to pick ourselves up off the ground anew every day. The Christian life, for so many of us, is a life of perpetual new beginnings. It is starting over again every day due to the failures of the previous day.
Why doesn’t the Lord just change us? Why does he allow so much character failure from his children? Our prayers are sincere. But, when we back up and get a good look at things, it does not seem like Christians are much better people.
Why aren’t Christians better people?
Wrong answer #1: Christians are always better people. In fact, once you become a true Christian you should expect to reach complete and total perfection. If you are struggling too much, then you are probably not saved.
This is an answer that has been given by many Christians throughout the years. The formal name for this is “Christian perfectionism” or “complete sanctification.” The idea is that Christians should expect to acquire a perfected life. Sin can be completely eradicated on earth. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Christian should expect to conquer their sin nature.
However, this is not the message we get from Scripture by any means. Let me explain.
I love the story of Samson in the book of Judges 13-16. Thank God it was not passed over. If ever there was a guy who did not fit the qualifications on anyone’s top ten list of what it means to have faith in God, it was Samson. This guy was about as selfish and self-centered as they come. From the moment he comes on the scene, we see him seeking an unlawful marriage and, like a child, throwing a tantrum to his parents (Judges 14:1-4). Next we see him arrogantly telling riddles and making hasty deals. When those challenged with the riddle solved it, he lost his temper and went and killed thirty men and took their clothes to fulfill his obligation. All of this time, we are told that the Lord was using him in spite of his arrogance (Judges 14:19). His whole ministry was one of personal selfish revenge. Yet through all of this, he was a chosen vessel of God; he was one who was called a man of faith in Hebrews 11:32. Why wasn’t he a better person?
Poor Lot. He is forever labeled as one of the wayward Christians. Lot was the nephew of Abraham who had an eye for the pleasures of the world. He lived among the depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah as if he were one of them. He hung out at the bars and stood by in passive approval of the homosexual culture in which he chose to live. Yet, Peter calls him a man of faith designating him with the title “righteous” (2 Pet. 2:7). It is only through Peter that we see that he was “distressed” living among the debauchery. Yet, he curiously did not leave. Why wasn’t he a better person?
Romans 7 is an epic passage of Scripture for those of us who are distressed about our own sinfulness. Let’s let Paul speak for himself:
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
This is an epic passage of Scripture because it presents us with the epic battle that defines so many of our lives. Those things we want to do, we don’t do. Those things we don’t want to do, we do. Why doesn’t God instantaneously make us better Christians? Why is it that the Lord’s cow is consistently the one who is sick and in need of attention?
Time will fail me if I speak of the failures of Moses, Jephthah, Abraham, Jacob, David, and the Apostle Peter. It’s hard to get more clear than 1 John 1:8: “If we claim to have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The Bible seems clear. Christians, while here on the earth, will struggle with sin.
Wrong answer #2: Christians should not expect any victories or change. We will be controlled by our old nature until the resurrection.
An equally wrong position to take is to believe that we should not expect any victories over sin. Christians don’t wave the white flag and give in to our sin nature. While we may lose battles and limp with the wounds of our battle scars, we are in the fight. The Bible tells us that we have died to sin. It no longer is our master. Though we may give into our depravity more than we desire, we are being changed. How do we know?
First, we must must not lose perspective of the most significant change that has already occurred in our lives: we have turned to God for forgiveness. That is the greatest victory that we can experience. We have waved a white flag indeed. This flag surrendered our own self-righteousness to God. We yielded in subjection to God’s words: “All your righteousness is as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). We have been introduced to the creator of all things and we have bowed our knee to Jesus Christ. From God’s perspective, we are clean. From God’s perspective the change from who we were to who we are could not be greater.
Second, Paul says that we are not under obligation to obey our sinful lusts (Rom. 8:12). Before, we were slaves to sin. Now, we are slaves to God. While it may not feel like it sometimes, the reality is that sin is not our master. Before, we had no choice but to let the Lord’s cow die. Now, we have the option that was not present before. We can let it live and recognize that it is more expedient to do so.
Third, though the change is often very slow, God is at work in us. “I am confident of this very thing: he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:6). The very fact that Christians cannot live comfortably in sin for too long is evidence of the work of God in us. The very fact that we daily come before the Lord with defeated faces is evidence of the power of the Spirit. The very fact that we are more and more inclined to open our hand to grace is due to our trust in Christ.
Forth, broadly speaking, I do think we find that Christians fair better than we are often led to believe. Christians are not perfect, but studies have shown that Christians are more benevolent than other people groups. They are more likely to give to the poor, remain faithful to their spouse, and obey the law (see Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…And Other Lies You Have Been Told, Bradley Wright). In fact, when studies are shown with regard not merely to Christians but Christians who are committed to their faith (i.e. regularly attend church, pray daily, have more understanding of what it means to be a Christian), you will find that Christians fair much better. But this is a given seeing as how it is commitment to the faith that we are wrestling with!
First and foremost, I don’t give in to the assumption of the question. I think that Christians are better people (or, at least, better than they were). By the grace of God, Christians have relinquished their cosmic rebellion toward their creator. They have turned to him in repentance for salvation. This is indeed an incredible thing that is only possible by the grace of God. To be in rebellion toward God is the worst possible act that we can do.
As well, while Christians do live dichotomized lives to some degree, this is something that the Bible says will happen. It is exemplified by the heroes of the faith. It is only remedied by the resurrection of the Body.
I love what Ray Stedman says in his book Authentic Christianity in a section entitled “The Battle Already Won”:
“Since we can live only in one area of relationships of our life at any given moment, it is evident that we can be in a Spirit-controlled area one moment and in a flesh-dominated area the next. This is why we can be a great person to live with one minute (delightful, because we are in the Spirit) and then a moment later some old habit of the flesh reasserts itself and we are right back in our old covenant behavior—harsh, nasty, or cruel. When we become aware of those feelings within, we know we will lose our Christian reputation if we are allowed to show, so we snatch an evangelical veil and hide the fading glory.
But how encouraging to know that the Spirit will never give up the battle! He seeks in a thousand ways to invade each separate relationship of the soul, and gradually He is doing so—sometimes faster, as we yield to him; sometimes very slowly, as we resist and cling to our veils. The more we work and live with the face of Jesus clearly in view, the more quickly we find each area of our life being changed into His likeness.” (102-103)
Why aren’t Christians better people? I think the better question is: Why doesn’t the Lord just instantly change and perfect us when we turn to him? Why is it such a battle? That is a question that I don’t have the answer to. But I do know that the Bible tells us up, down, and sideways that this is the way it will be until the final enemy is defeated, death (1 Cor. 15:26). We are to neither have defeatist attitudes, nor attitudes of judgmental triumphalism. One day the Lord’s cow will never get sick or die.