I’ve recently been re-reading Red Letter Revolution by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo, one of my favorite books. It’s all about living out the words of Jesus—you know, the red letters of the Bible. In this read-through there was a quote from Shane that really stuck with me. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
He’s talking about out the way the church treats unbelievers, and he says this: “I always tell our community that we should attract the people Jesus attracted and frustrate the people Jesus frustrated.“
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? If we are going to call ourselves Christians (that is, people who are Christ-like), then we should seek to emulate him. We should speak the way he spoke, act the way he acted, call out the people he called out, and spend time with the people he spent time with. That’s what being like him means, isn’t it?
This seems like a very simple concept, and in certain ways, it is. But I wonder if we’re always as good at putting this truth into practice as we are at simply assenting to it intellectually. Shane goes on:
It’s certainly never our goal to frustrate, but it is worth noting that the people who were constantly agitated were the self-righteous, religious elite, the rich, and the powerful. But the people who were fascinated by him, by his love and his grace, were folks who were already wounded and ostracized—folks who didn’t have much to lose, who already knew full well that they were broken and needed a Savior.
Whoa. I don’t know about you, but this bit forced me to stop and pause. If you ask most Christians how they’re supposed to interact with other people, they’ll probably tell you that they should be drawn to those who share their convictions and call out nonbelievers for their sin. But that’s not the way Jesus went about it.
Jesus attracted those who were lost and recognized their own need to be saved; he frustrated those who believed they’d found the truth and became self-righteous and complacent because of it. It almost sounds like the opposite of the way we’re told to conduct ourselves in the modern church, doesn’t it?
After reading this passage from Shane, I really had to stop and consider: Am I attracting the kinds of people Jesus attracted and frustrating the kinds of people Jesus frustrated? Or have I been getting it backwards?
Going beyond that, I had to get real and consider this: If Jesus were conducting his earthly ministry today, would I be attracted to him? Or would I be frustrated by him? That is a difficult question to have to grapple with.
Self-righteousness is such an easy sin to fall into. As believers, we’ve been blessed with knowing the truth of Jesus and the salvation he offers us. This truth is amazing. It changes our lives and sets us right with God, and that is such a beautiful thing.
But if we aren’t careful, we can allow this knowledge to lead us down a dark path. Truth removed from grace becomes twisted, ugly, even hateful. Once we’ve become reconciled to God and started working to live the way he calls us to, we can get to a point where we begin to look down on those who don’t live the same way.
Never mind that we used to do the same and that the only thing separating us from that life is the grace of God. We convince ourselves that we’ve found the right way to live. That our beliefs are the end-all-be-all right ones. That our way of doing things is God’s way. And anyone who doesn’t get onboard is worthy of judgment.
If we’re being honest, we can sometimes become so sure of our beliefs and choices that we act like we don’t even need God anymore. We’ve got it all figured out on our own. Anyone who disagrees with us is wrong. We live the way we do because we believe it’s the way God wants us to, but we’re not doing it to please God. We’re doing it to fuel our own sense of self-righteousness.
That is the exact outlook that Jesus called out the religious leaders of his day for. They’d become so sure of themselves and their ability to follow God’s will that they got lost in their self-righteousness. They started out with a sincere desire to live for God according to scripture, but their lack of grace for other people took them down a path that led to a clash with the son of God himself.
The people who were drawn to Jesus looked quite different. They didn’t come from the religious elite or the ranks of wealth. They came from the outskirts of society. They were the outcasts, the ones looked down upon by the people who believed they had it all together. These folks knew that they didn’t; they were drawn to Jesus because they recognized how badly they needed him in order to become right with God.
These sinners became righteous not through their own right actions but simply by accepting Jesus for who he was and following him. That’s what he wants from us: not for us to be perfect, but for us to admit that we aren’t and to follow him into a better way of living.
Accepting that grace Jesus extends to us shouldn’t lead us to self-righteousness. Rather, it should spur us to extend that same grace to others. Instead of looking down on them, we’re called to reach out to them in love, to draw them in with our compassion, and to show them the full life that Jesus has to offer—a life of joy, kindness, gentleness, and love, not of judgment and hatred.
Coincidentally, my pastor was writing a sermon on the topic of self-righteousness at the same time I’ve been thinking through this article. He preached on Sunday from the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee and taught us that humility is central to the life of faith. I love that truth, and I completely agree that the solution to this problem is a heavy dose of Christian humility.
If we as believers and as the church are going to live up to our calling to emulate Jesus by attracting the people he attracted and frustrating the people he frustrated, we’re going to have to put our self-righteousness aside and really re-think the way we approach people.
We’re going to have to be more like Jesus’ original followers in recognizing that no matter how good we may try to be, we’re still sinners saved by grace.
We’re going to have to start reaching out in grace to draw in the people Jesus did—not those who look and believe and practice like us, but the poor, oppressed, and outcast who need grace and love just as much as we do.
And we’re going to have to recognize and call out self-righteousness when we see it, whether it be in other believers or in ourselves. Being judgmental is not Christ-like, and it won’t help us live up to our calling.
I’m seeking to live this way in my own life, though not always perfectly. I love to seek knowledge and share truth, but I have to do so from a place of humility, not pride. I’m trying to live with such grace and love that those who don’t know Jesus are drawn to him through me, and when I see hate and self-righteousness within the church and myself, I’m compelled to call it out and uproot it. That’s the way Jesus lived, and that’s the way I want to live, too.
I hope that’s your goal as well. We all have a tendency to get off-track from time to time, but the good news is that there’s always more grace. God is inviting us to live lives full of grace and love, lives that emulate Jesus, honor him, and draw people into a loving relationship with him. May we all live such lives each and every day.