Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and is the author of several books including his latest, Irresistible Faith. He also writes weekly at scottsauls.com.
In their book, unChristian, my friends Gabe Lyons and Dave Kinnaman wrote a sobering commentary on Christianity’s decline in the West due to departure from the biblical vision to engage a secular world with grace and love. Similarly, Philip Yancey wrote in What’s So Amazing about Grace:
“When I ask people, ‘What is a Christian?’ they don’t usually respond with words like love, compassion, grace; usually they describe a person who’s anti-something. Jesus was not primarily known for what he was against. He was known for serving people who had needs, feeding people who were hungry, and giving water to the thirsty. If we [Christians] were known primarily for that, then we could cut through so many divisions…Christians often have a bad reputation. People think of Christians as uptight and judgmental. Odd, I thought, that [our version of Christianity] has come to convey the opposite of God’s intent, as it’s lived out through us.”
Somehow, in a sincere effort to “speak the truth,” we can lose our way. How easy it is to forget that truth, in order to be true in the truest sense, must be spoken in love.
Jesus affirmed some and critiqued others. But it might surprise us to see who Jesus affirmed and who He critiqued.
Consider Peter. Even though Peter was hot-headed, fell asleep when Jesus asked him to pray, and betrayed Jesus at His darkest hour, Jesus called Him “the Rock” because Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah was the rock on which He would build His church.
Jesus reached out to the morally compromised Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). He invited a crook to be one of His disciples (Matthew 9). He praised the promiscuous woman who anointed him at Simon’s house with extravagant—and very unorthodox—expressions of love (Luke 7). He regularly ate with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors. He hung out with lepers and women and little children, all of whom were at the bottom of the social pecking order. Jesus, the author of all truth, beauty, and goodness, was quick to affirm, embrace, and keep company with the most unlikely people.
The only people Jesus seemed to chastise were pious religious people who were quite sure of themselves—priests, Levites, Bible scholars, as well as committed pray-ers, money givers, and churchgoers. Wherever there was self-congratulating and superiority, Jesus was unimpressed. He gave no applause to those known for bravado. He critiqued them sharply and often; told them they were not children of Abraham but children of the devil; called them blind guides who don’t practice what they preach, narcissists who honor themselves instead of God, hypocrites who neglect justice and mercy and shed innocent blood, and whose devotion was a self-indulgent show.
And yet, their self-praise reflected not only a prideful root but a needy one. Their posture of needing praise so deeply that they felt compelled to muster up praise for themselves wasn’t just off-putting and offensive. It was also very sad.
Comedian Tom Arnold once confessed in an interview about his book, How I Lost Five Pounds in Six Years, that most entertainers are in show business because they are broken people, looking for affirmation:
“The reason I wrote this book is because I wanted something out there so people would tell me they liked me. It’s the reason behind almost everything I do.”
Tom Arnold is not alone. Who can’t identify with a craving for affirmation?
Some call this neediness. Others call it the image of a God whose nature invites not only people, but rocks and trees and skies and seas, to praise Him. The chief end of everyone and everything, we are told, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We have been designed to be a reflection of Him. This means that receptivity to and desire for praise is deeply ingrained in us. In other words, it is natural.
Demanding recognition and praise is neither good nor healthy.
Desiring it is both good and healthy.
This is why the gospel, the truth that we have been given all the affirmation we will ever need in Christ, is such good news.
This longing for affirmation makes sense. Both existentially real and biblically true, it is the reason we Christians should be the most affirming people in the world. Rather than rushing to find fault, we should proactively seek opportunities to, as Tim Keller calls it, “catch others doing good” and to encourage (literally, put courage into) others.
Jesus certainly understood this, and so must we.
“But,” a Christian may ask, “Doesn’t critique play some sort of role in the life of a believer?” Shouldn’t Christians speak truth and warn people about sin and judgment? Shouldn’t Christians shine as light in dark places, call people to repent and believe, and go into the world and teach people to obey everything that Jesus commanded? Shouldn’t we expect that as we do these things, there will be people who oppose us and who say, like Gandhi once did, “I do not like your Christians?”
Yes, in some instances we should. Even when done in love, speaking the truth, shining as light in darkness, and taking up a cross to follow Jesus will draw certain forms of opposition. But if people are going to resist and reject us, let’s at least make sure that they are the same kinds of people who resisted and rejected Jesus.
Smug religious people wanted to throw him off a cliff.
People with special needs, little children, women, as well as sexually damaged people, crooks, charlatans, prodigals and addicts couldn’t get enough of him.
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Source: Church Leaders