I was talking with a Christian prisoner the other day who has let himself down by failing a drug test (well, not by failing the test but by taking the drugs that led to the failed test) after a long period of success in staying away from them. He is upset at himself and worried about telling his family what he's done. He has done so well for so long, and particularly because of his relatively new found Christian faith feels that this should just not have happened.
In the course of our long conversation, we talked about this as one of these two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back things. He wasn't buying that particularly as it feels like two steps back for him just now.
We also talked about how God is likely to view it. One of the things we pondered was how serious is this in God's eyes? It's wrong to take drugs. It's against the law for one thing, and Christians should live within the law. But at the same time it's just one sin among so many that we all commit all the time. I told him that Jesus says that the most important commandment is to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second, according to Jesus, is to love your neighbour as yourself. These two, the MOST IMPORTANT two commandments are the ones that the prisoner, the governor, the chaplain and all of us in the prison and outside it break every single day. So we're all pretty much as bad as each other, whether our drug tests turn out negative or positive. I told him God still loves him.
Later that day I was talking to a group of Christian prisoners about the one sin that most gets up the nose of Jesus. It's not failing a drug test. It's not adultery or even murder that Jesus picks out for special mention. The sin that Jesus, followed by Paul in his writings, is most forceful (even brutal) about is the sin of Christians judging their fellow Christians. Judging, bitterness, resentment, jealousy, negativity and constant criticism annoy Jesus intensely. To such an extent is He irked by them that the Bible says that if we won't forgive other people their sins then God won't forgive ours. At all.
The church the world over is made up of REAL and FAKE Christians. They're all mixed together - "wheat and weeds" the Bible says, rather than "real and fake"! And the Bible also says that people outside the church should be able to spot us (Jesus said, "By this shall everyone know that you're my disciples - that you love each other"). There's no such thing as a perfect Christian, of course. I am thoroughly aware of my own imperfections for example. But still it is the case that by and large even folk outside the church tend to grudgingly admit that they can spot the difference between the real and the fake Christian.
In prison guys used to pretend to be converted and start hanging around chaplaincy stuff with a view to improving their chances of parole. Nowadays, I reckon, talking about a conversion experience is more likely to see their mental health questioned and discussion of their "psychotic episode"! (I'm only half joking, actually). Anyway, many a prisoner has told me about fake Christians among the prisoners and how they may be able to keep it up for a wee while in front of the chaplain but they give the game away when they're back in the hall.
Churches have a mixture too of real and fake Christians. I could be a fake one if I stopped believing, as with my background I could talk the talk very convincingly. However my lack of love would soon give the game away.
I have three examples from my church experience to illustrate this lack of love. I'm ashamed of them, even though they were nothing to do with me - I'm ashamed of them because they were members of the church and I love the church.
The first was in 1986, when I took some guys to church, from the night shelter I was working in at the time. It was a well known evangelical church with a reputation for being something special. It had lots of great people in it of course. But I discovered that some people (only a few, I want to emphasize) weren't very pleased at my bringing these homeless guys to the church. A few months earlier the same people were complaining that the youth club members (unchurched kids) were damaging the fabric of the recently refurbished building with their football etc.. Where was these people's love and their heart for mission? I wonder if they were FAKES.
Also quite some time ago, a minister friend and most of his church leadership were exercised in their minds about the amount of unemployment that had suddenly befallen their area following the closure of a big steelworks. They began a club that unemployed people could come to during the day to meet each other and get free coffee and a welcome. However a couple of quite snobby elders complained about the type of person that the minister was bringing in. Where was these people's love and their heart for mission? I wonder if they were FAKES.
More recently, another minister friend and his church leadership decided to donate a big floral display they'd had for a special occasion to a local prison, to brighten the visits area (for as long as the flowers would last). The prison staff, prisoners and families were touched at this act of caring. However the minister received two complaints from people in his congregation that the flowers shouldn't be going to a prison as the prisoners didn't deserve them. Where was these people's love and their heart for mission? I wonder if they were FAKES.
The three groups of complainers I've described probably wouldn't approve of Jesus either, btw, as He famously hung out with tax collectors and sinners, eating and drinking with them.
I am convinced that God would 100% rather have the genuine love of a flawed human being in the shape of the prisoner I described, in spite of his failed drug test, than all the middle class snobby complacency of the FAKE Christian whose religion is worn as a cloak of respectibility to cover up their total absence of grace.