The San Francisco 49ers were playing the Seahawks at Seattle’s home stadium on a mild Sunday night in October. Leaving my hotel room to take a stroll, I found an upscale, dimly lit corner restaurant where folks could eat while watching an entire wall of big-screen TVs. The noise from the West Coast fans poured from the TVs, through the restaurant’s open double-doors and onto the sidewalk, inviting me inside.
Leaning against a wall just inside the door, I caught a few minutes of the game. I watched Seattle fullback Shaun Alexander make a touchdown for the Seahawks. Pride swelled because Alexander had been a star running back for the University of Alabama and is also an outspoken man of faith. I was excited to see an Alabama native do well, and I wanted to tell somebody that I was practically related—just because we were both from Alabama.
A well-dressed man sat quietly on a stool opposite me, his gaze fixed on the game. His navy sport coat and slacks told me he had just left work, like me, and was there to unwind before bed. He smiled and nodded as I told him that Shaun Alexander was a ’Bama guy like me. Despite his nod, he did not answer. I assumed he was too tired to chat.
The next night I walked to the steakhouse behind my hotel for my take-out order. While waiting on a bench outside, I noticed out of the corner of my eye the same man from the previous night. Only this time he was not perched atop a stool. He was in a hurry.
What happened next made me embarrassed for him. Instead of being the businessman I thought he was, he began rummaging through the trash can in front of the restaurant.
After realizing this man was not the poised businessman he appeared to be, I considered a parallel about us as Christians. During a small group breakout session at church a few weeks later, a question was posed: Why don’t Christians witness more? Things like fear, intimidation and lack of theological training topped the list of reasons for our silence about God.
“Perhaps it’s because we Christians have so little to say,” said one.
The focus of a lot of modern evangelicalism has been to promote Jesus as the ultimate self-help sage, bringing inner peace and instant healing to all of our pain. But since most of us know how deeply we struggle with sin, how can we give a testimony that God has brought about a radical change in us with a straight face? One option is to keep our sin hidden so nobody knows that we still rummage through old trash cans of immorality from time to time. But is that really the right answer?
Looking back, I can see that I have been led to believe Jesus would not only forgive my sins, but that He would also make life easier, simply because I believed or followed the “right steps” as outlined in Scripture. I really didn’t expect to have the urge to rummage through some of the same garbage at this point in my life ; I expected to be dressed in respectability—not just on Sundays, but every day.
I’ve heard it said that I am the only Jesus many may ever see. That responsibility has been a difficult burden to carry because I know that Christ lived a sinless existence while I have not. Nobody will ever see Jesus this side of eternity, and if I am the only Jesus some may ever see, then I pray God will grant them blindness or ignorance to my sin so they don’t see how unlike Christ I really am at times. Christ said my righteousness had to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees before I could see heaven (Matthew 5:20). That is interesting because Jesus used the Pharisees to show us how legalistically applied religion brings death rather than an intimate knowledge of God. Becoming real with ourselves and with Christ takes much work and much more pain than merely following rules.
Sin thrives in secrecy. The fear of coming clean and being honest with ourselves keeps most of us in quiet desperation. We are constantly attempting to match our exterior with who we are when the lights are out and nobody is around to see. Most of us try to keep the lights out or try to bring congruence between the external and internal before somebody turns on the lights and finds out we are liars.
Matthew 23:25 reads: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence” (NAS). The verses following compare the Pharisees to beautiful white-washed tombs which may look good on the outside but inside contain empty bones and decay. Jesus had this to say in verse 28: “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
Jesus told the Pharisees to clean the inside of the cup (our hearts) before cleaning the outside (verse 26). Does this mean the inside of our cups (our hearts) must be cleaned to perfection before we can testify? No! We need not fear that we aren’t highly equipped to engage another person in a theological or religious debate. We need not fear our imperfection. Our mission is simply to testify to the forgiveness and grace in Christ that we have experienced thus far and the hope we have in Christ of continued healing and grace.
The world has seen plenty who profess miraculous deliveries from sin only to flame out later. They do not need to hear stories that are “too good to be true.” We owe it to them to show the real “us” and how the Lord’s grace is changing us and healing our brokenness. Let us not present our Christianity as self-help or a means to perfection, but rather as the grace that Christ is to us on the journey of this life.
[Alan Matthews is from Alabama and can’t wait until the start of football season.]
From Relevant magazine’s weekly 850 email.