I know this is going to be kind of hard to believe (sarcasm), but most new Christians don’t pop out of the spiritual chute morally sophisticated or biblically articulate. They are almost always a bit rough around the edges in the way they speak, act, and communicate their faith. Lord knows I was! If you had sat down to have a conversation with me three months post-conversion, I would have said something like, “I love Jesus and stuff, but I’m never going to be like those stick-up-butt church folks” as I sipped on my fifth glass of merlot and chain-smoked my Marlboros.
My faith was genuine; I promise you that. The new life that had been poured into my heart through Christ was vibrant and effecting real changes in my life. I had stopped going to bars and clubs. I’d stopped guzzling down hard liquor to the point that I blacked out nearly every night. I’d started going to a church, praying, reading the Bible, spending time with Christians, and thinking non-stop about God. But I did not yet fit nicely into the image of what many churched people envisioned me to be and act like. I was still a bit jaded in my attitude, liked my wine a little too much, loved my cigarettes, and even dropped an f-bomb here or there just to satisfy that rebellious urge still wiggling around in my heart.
As time passed and my relationship with Jesus grew, the sanctifying hand of his Spirit started to touch these parts of my life. I began to enjoy things in moderation, rather than indulge them. I started to grasp how much Jesus loves his church, which caused my love for her to grow. My understanding of grace deepened and I began extending it toward the hyper-religious folks that got on my nerves. The Spirit of God continually gave (and gives) me a more full understanding of the gospel and wisdom to apply it in various areas of my life. But this took time. It was a process. It still is a process. And I think that Christians forget this sometimes. Being born again is just the beginning of a beautiful, slow, and awkward sanctifying process.
A few days ago I ran across another video of Justin Bieber sharing his newfound love for Jesus—and more Christians (who don’t know him and make rash judgments based on a 3 minute video clip) criticizing him. Ever since Bieber came out about his faith, many Christians have flocked to social media to accuse him of being disingenuous because he doesn’t articulate things quite as clearly as they’d like him to. “Too much love talk; not enough sin and repentance talk. Too much talk about ‘God’; not enough about Jesus.” Umm . . . okay. Likewise, a couple of years ago when Shia Lebouf professed faith in Christ, many Christians violently attacked his profession because he said the word “sh*t” in his interview.
Can we just give these guys a break? Yes, holiness is important and a distinguishing mark of the believer. I’m all about some Christlikeness. But they’ve been following Jesus for what—[looks at watch]—three and half hours? You can’t expect people who have been drowning in iniquity for years to emerge from their “sinner’s prayer” squeaky-clean. Justification is instantaneous, but sanctification is far from speedy. Jesus himself knows this, and he extends great grace and patience toward the frailty of those who follow him.
Though Peter publicly denied him, Jesus didn’t hop on his first century equivalent to a Facebook account and accuse Peter of being a fraud. Believe it or not, knowing beforehand exactly what would happen, Jesus told Peter how he would soon deny him three times. And he didn’t accompany it with a sharp rebuke, either. He actually comforted Peter by telling him, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” – Luke 22:32. Grace and patience.
In the first few chapters of Revelation, we see Jesus addressing churches that are far from perfect, but they are nevertheless his churches. He is definitely stern with them and demands—not requests—that they straighten their crooked paths. But notice that in the same sentence in which he warns of the judgment coming upon some for their refusal to repent, he also expresses how he gave them time to repent (Revelation 2:21). Jesus gives time. He gives us time to grow in the knowledge of the truth, respond to conviction, turn from our sins, and put on the new self that is made in his image. Grace and patience.
If Jesus is so gracious and patient with faith-professing people in their weakness and imperfection, shouldn’t we be as well? Yes! We should!
I understand that fighting for the authenticity and purity of the faith is important, and there is a need and place for pointing out false teaching, insincere professions of faith, etc. But God bless, I think many of us just like to hear ourselves talk. Maybe some of us need to spend less time saturating ourselves in the podcasts, blogs, and books of hypercritical Christian teachers, and spend more time in the Bible—learning to emulate the grace and patience of its Author.
When people are just beginning to profess faith in Christ, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt. If in the years to come, their way of life demonstrates that the gospel has had no real and lasting change on their souls, so be it. But we shouldn’t judgmentally jump to conclusions about the state of their hearts when they’re just beginning to crawl toward Jesus. If we know them personally, let’s encourage them in the faith. If they’re some big celebrity like Shia Lebouf or Justin Beiber, let’s not immediately jump to criticizing them on our social media. Let’s be gracious. Let’s be patient. Time will tell what is true.