That’s how it’s supposed to work, according to one commonly held narrative. And undoubtedly there are many testimonies from people, often those who have had to confront what I call the sexy sins (drugs, alcohol, to sex, gambling, etc.) at some point in their lives, for whom this particular type of “lost, then found” story has been an authentic Gospel journey. And I would never deny their experience. Alleluia. I give thanks for them.
Problems only occur when this is believed to be the only summary of what a life of faith looks like, and we fail to think critically about what it really means to “find Jesus.” When this happens, we all begin to presume that we’re on the righteous path so long as we’re not struggling with any of what I call the sexy sins—i.e. those of which the laws and customs of our society and moral culture basically disapprove. When Jesus is only expected to swoop in and fix us if we’re up to some sexy sin, then how will we ever be freed from the unsexy sins, the ones of which society basically approves?
By “unsexy sins,” I mean addiction to the approval of one’s peer group, to status and climbing the social ladder, to the illusion of safety which sanctions all state approved violence, to the idolatry of one’s kids, one’s race, one’s nation, one’s lifestyle, and who could forget, one’s money. Many people live their entire lives without taking the first step to recovery from these idolatries and addictions, and they do it without losing a drop of social respectability.
One of the great ironies of Jesus’ life was that he developed a reputation for being “soft on sin,” not because he liked sin, but because he saw clearly that if you compared the destructiveness of the sins of a prostitute to those of a war-mongering king or a corrupt priest, there was no contest. The prostitute was basically harmless by comparison, even though the king and priest could wreak their havoc on the world while never losing the carte blanche respect of their moral universe. So it’s not that he wouldn’t ever tell a smalltime sinner, “Go and sin no more.” He would. It's just that, by and large, he had much bigger fish to fry in a society which, like our own, called many bad things good and good things bad.
Walking the path of social respectability and the path of Gospel grace are not only two separate paths, they very often go in the exact opposite directions. When Christians confuse the two, their message becomes meaningless. They immediately forfeit any claim to having any “news,” let alone “good news” to share. At that point, they have fully submitted to what G.K. Chesterton called, “the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” Their "faith" becomes nothing more than a platitudinal rubber stamp on whatever the majority morality of their particular time and place happens to already say you should or should not do.
This is why televangelists and politicians will often take an ethic that's almost universally agreed upon already and associate it with some ambiguous phrase like “family values” or "momma grizzly," in order to make it sound as if caring about that commonplace thing is an exciting rebellion. It’s why it was so important to Sarah Palin to market her very popular version of God and guns Christianity as that of a “maverick” who was “going rogue.” How else could they make this “degrading slavery” to what the majority in their race and class already think seem like anything but a betrayal of the man who was crucified for his confrontation with the "moral majority?"
The prophet Jeremiah would almost definitely disagree with the narrative that finding Jesus is a free ticket down whatever society considers the “righteous path.” He describes his call to follow God this way:
“O, Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived
You are stronger than I,
And you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day;
Everyone mocks me…
For the word of the Lord has
become for me a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, ‘I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,’
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary of holding it in,
and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:7-9)
Far from trying to win votes by his association with God, Jeremiah is throwing out accusations that it’s God who has ruined his life. “Following” isn’t even the right word. He says he was “deceived,” which might itself be too gentle of a translation for a word that can mean “seduced” or even worse. The fact that he says God is "stronger" and "prevailed" over him suggests it's even worse.
By trickery and perhaps even by force, he says YHWH sucked him into a lifetime of telling the truth to elites who thrive on inequality and injustice. And it has brought him nothing but disgrace and downward mobility. In fact, what he’s been doing by preaching God’s word is what most of his society would call sin and desecration. And the worst part is, God seems to have wired him in such a way that if he were to give up God’s call to tell truth and do something more socially respectable, become a CPA or a mortgage broker or what have you, that word would burn him alive from the inside. He’s stuck.
His struggle is echoed by peace activist Shane Claiborne who mentioned the narrative of finding Jesus and getting back on track at our denomination’s youth gathering a few years back: “That’s great for you, if that’s your story,” he said, “But it didn’t work like that for me. I found Jesus, and he really screwed me up.” He then elaborated with several instances where he has been mocked, locked up, and otherwise stripped of any social respectability for standing up for the Gospel of grace.
It's a longstanding piece of wisdom in the best of the Christian tradition that an authentic Jesus encounter "comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable."
May both of those things happen to you at the right time in your journey.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.