Did you hear about the man who went to the doctor with a terrible headache? Before he got down to examining him, he first asked him a few questions.
“Do you drink a lot of liquor?”
“Never touch the filthy stuff!”
“How about smoking?”
“That’s disgusting! I’ve never smoked.”
“Now, you know how fellows do some running around at night—you do that?”
“Of course not. What kind of man do you make me out to be?”
“Tell me,” the doctor said, “the pain in your head—is it a sharp, shooting kind of pain?”
“Yes,” the man replied.
“Simple, my dear fellow! Your trouble is you have your halo on too tight. All we need to do is loosen it a bit.”[i]
Not only does wearing your halo too tight give you a headache; you become a headache (and a pain elsewhere) to everyone you’re around. As Brennan Manning says, “The trouble with our ideals is that if we live up to all of them, we become impossible to live with.”
And there are few people more impossible to live with than those religious people who claim to have achieved the “victorious Christian life.”
“The Church’s Got Talent”
When we imagine we’re living an evil-shunning, virtue-practicing, morally superior Christian life, the problem is not that our halos are too small, but that our heads are too big. We stick adjectives in front of our names: we are serious Christians, devoted Christians, true Christians, victorious Christians, instead of simply Christians. And with every adjective, our prideful heads get a little fatter. We’ve got this Christianity thing down.
What’s more, the unspoken implication is that all those inferior believers—the addicts, the divorced, those who struggle with same sex attraction, the non-tithers, the members of impure denominations, the ones who don’t know their Bible well, and those who vote Democrat—well, they have a whole lot of catching up to do.
All this amounts to the creation of a virtue hierarchy inside the walls of God’s house. Rather than a gathering of weak and wounded sinners on Sunday morning, the church becomes a religious version of “America’s Got Talent,” where the best are applauded and the worst get shamed.
Signing Autographs at the Church’s Door
I’ve got a message for those who think they’ve outperformed others in good works, they’ve spiritually prospered, they’ve moved beyond the cross of Jesus, they sin less and less as they climb the ladder of virtue to heaven. The message? You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. You’re not following Jesus; you’re licking the boots of the antichrist. If we say we have no sin, or less sin than others, or that our sins are less damnable than others, then we are deceiving ourselves and calling God a liar.
Rather than signing autographs at the door of the church, let’s take a knife and cut open our hearts. What do we see? A worm-crawling, vice-infested, haven of unholiness. What comes out of that heart? Evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.[ii] But something else too, something nastier and more pernicious: spiritual superiority, the ambition to outdo others at this God thing, pride and arrogance at being better than others.
@@If you think Sodom and Gomorrah were bad, they ain’t nothing compared to a group of Christians who think they’re less sinful than the world.@@
Tattoo a Cross on Our Brow
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! No matter where you think you stand on the ladder of virtue, we’re all lying face-first in the bloody dirt at the foot of the cross. Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God. Throw away your tinfoil halo. Get off the stage of “The Church’s Got Talent” and bow in heart-rending, sin-confessing repentance with all the other bastards in this sin-sick world before the God who bled and died for you.
Jesus, Jesus, see us here. And have mercy. Look down from that cross of love not with a dark, condemning face, but with eyes leaking tears of grace. Forgive us for not seeing our need of forgiveness. Heal us for turning a blind eye to our wounds. And lift us up onto that cross to die with you—that in your death, we may learn what life truly is.
To die with Jesus, to bleed in his wounds, to exhale in his breath, to be absorbed into his body, is finally and fully to find the only true victorious Christian life. It is in defeat. Defeat to our one-upmanship. Defeat to our self-deceptions of virtue superiority. Defeat to our pharisaical hearts. And victory in Jesus. Victory in union with the God who kicked the ass of death on that bright Easter dawn. Victory in joining fellow believers to exult—not in our morality—but in Christ’s triumphant grace.
Jesus, trash our homemade halos, and tattoo on our brow your cross.
That cross alone is our glory, our boast, our victory.
[i] Adapted from Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, 73-74.
[ii] Matthew 15:19