Posted by: 15shekels | January 27, 2010

Waiting for the halo to fall

I recently read a conversation on Facebook between two young men. The topic was Tim Tebow, the quarterback of the Florida Gators, who had lost the night before. Tebow is an outspoken Christian, to put it mildly (he’s the one who writes Bible verses in his eye black). The conversation went something like this:

“When Tebow talks to Jesus in the locker room, I wonder what he says after getting his butt kicked!”
“He probably assumes it’s punishment for looking at a woman with lust.”
“Just wait…he will be brought down to earth. No athlete is a puritan. Something will come out, just give it time…He’ll mess up and lose his halo.”

The basic assumption underneath these remarks is a common one: Christians who choose to make lifestyle decisions because of their faith are uptight rule-followers, desperately trying to be “good enough” for their God and to appear spotless and pure to other people. In this view, Christians are like teacher’s pets, trying to do everything right to earn accolades and rewards. Or worse, they are like anxious slaves with a rigid and hard-to-please master. Furthermore, there is an assumption that such Christians are judging everyone else. No wonder the secular world thinks we’re obnoxious. I would be rooting for a scandal too.

Sadly, even some Christians have come to believe these lies and fallen into “Phariseeism.” The Pharisees were a group of Jewish teachers and leaders who had authority in Jesus’ day. They were close observers of Torah, the Jewish law (a good thing) but many of them began to worship the law and its rules more than God (a bad thing). Jesus had harsh words for the Pharisees:

“He [Jesus] replied: ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'” -Mark 7:6-7

Those who read the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus will find a surprising trend—Christ spent most of his time on earth with blatant sinners, the morally worst of the worst—prostitutes and tax collectors (in the early first century, tax collectors were generally no better than thieves, and regularly cheated people out of money). He healed and reached out to social outcasts throughout his ministry, and never once turned someone away because of a moral failure. In fact, when the Pharisees questioned the company Jesus was keeping, he announced that it was explicitly for sinners that he had come to earth:

“Jesus answered [the Pharisees], ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” -Luke 5:31-32

Interestingly, many who reject Christianity because they view it as a religion of rules prefer eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. They seem more laidback and free-spirited. And yet, these are the religions of karma, in which one must live a good enough life to achieve enlightenment or other rewards. Christianity is radically different. Christians believe that none of us are good enough to work our way to God, or to achieve any good standing in His eyes based on our own efforts. The men who made the comments had one thing right: God’s standard is high. Looking at a woman with lust does in fact violate that standard (Matthew 5:28). They were also right that failing to meet that standard is inevitable. However, our failure isn’t the end of the story.

Because Jesus died on the cross to atone for the sins of the world, the only condition for good standing before God is to accept that gift. There is no ten-step program. No set of criteria. All we need to do is fall at God’s feet and admit our need, and He places crowns on our heads and calls us adopted children. And it is an irreversible transaction. There is no moral failure that gets you kicked out of the kingdom. No “really bad sins” that make God turn his face away. This is because Jesus took every single sin—including our future ones—onto himself on the cross, and paid the punishment for them in full.

When Jesus died on the cross, he made an offer to every person who will ever live: He’ll trade moral records with you. He’ll suffer the consequences of your sin on the cross: physical and spiritual death, and you can have his spotless, sinless record. In a way, Christians are teachers’ pets, because we can trot up to the front of the classroom with a perfect score. The catch is that it isn’t our own work we are presenting to the divine teacher. But no need to worry, the teacher knows we cheated. It was His idea.

The result is that those who accept Jesus’ offer receive the rewards his record merits: they are welcomed into the kingdom of God, and become new creations, pure and blameless in God’s sight.

This leads to a crucially important truth: The goal of the Christian life is not moral improvement; it’s closeness with God. We achieve that closeness through Jesus. Moral improvement, then, is a benefit that flows from that closeness, and it happens through the work of the Holy Spirit, God living in us. As new creations, we are invited to bring the reality of our day-to-day lives more closely in line with this new identity. But we’ll never achieve that sinless halo, not this side of heaven. I have found that with each area I try to improve or change, I find more sin underneath. And so, while we do undergo a process of spiritual and moral growth as we live with God, there will still be sin and failure until we get to heaven.

So gentlemen: I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you’re right, Tim Tebow is no angel, and I guarantee you he has failed morally in the past and will do so again. But as for that halo you’re hoping to see fall? No power on this earth can ever move it, not one inch. It was given to him by someone else, someone who did earn it— the sinless, pure, and endlessly loving Son of God.

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