Theology for those Doomed to Fail in the Christian Life

Theology for those Doomed to Fail in the Christian Life

My brother works at a medical clinic for street people.  People come to that clinic who have real interest in God, but as far as what most of us consider normal Christian living to be, these people are doomed to fail.  Substance abuse and mental illness are only a few of the problems they face. Their faith helps them but does not change them in the ways we expect it should.

A friend was for many years a prison chaplain, and he told me the same kind of story.  An inmate would come to Christ genuinely, but leaving the bad habits and troublesome behaviour was a slow and jagged process.  They fell back to the very beginning again and again.  My wife worked at a street mission for a time, and has the same view of the street people who have real faith in Christ, but whose lives never “tidy up.”  Is there any hope before God for such people?

Here are some biblical texts that I believe make room in the kingdom of God for those who are doomed to fail in “the Christian life.” This will stretch the boundaries of what a godly life looks to us.  Some Scriptures themselves show that the boundaries are different than we may have thought.

I will make no attempt to argue away any part of Scripture that apparently disagrees with me.  There will be Scriptures that give a different side than what I offer here, they have a more urgent call to godliness, and they must stand as well. They are as valid as the texts I use; my point is that the texts I use here are as valid as those.

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit – the Opening Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-6)

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

These are the first four of nine beatitudes.  The beatitudes are best viewed not as nine different rewards for nine different virtues, but rather a nine-part description of a true disciple, and the reward is nine different ways of saying “theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” that is, eternal life.

Notice particularly the first, second, and fourth characteristics: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  “Poor in spirit” is clear enough, those who are spiritually poor and know it. 

The second is “those who mourn,” which coming after “poor in spirit” indicates not mourning in general but those who mourn their poverty of spirit.  The fourth, “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” also flows from this. They wish things were better, that they were better, more righteous.

This hunger and thirst for righteous is not just personal – I wish I was a better person – it may well include a much wider picture – I wish the world was a more righteous place. 

Either way there is a deep dissatisfaction with lack of righteousness personal and wider. 

Jesus says these people will be satisfied – remarkably, God makes curing this HIS business.

These beatitudes make a lot of space for those who would like to be better people than they are, and cannot get there.  The third, blessed are the meek, refers to those who are not trying to obtain the earth by their own plans or strength.  In that sense the third beatitude also would fit most of those who are doomed to fail in “the Christian life.”

The thing to notice about these four beatitudes is that they are in no sense trying to make room in the kingdom for losers.  These beatitudes are the basic entrance requirements.  People without this posture will not inherit at all.  The doomed to fail lead the rest as far as the first four beatitudes are concerned.

The Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13)

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
    as we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one

Over the years I have come to value this prayer more and more.  The first five lines express a combination of longing and faith and submission.  Longing that God would be God in every part of life on earth, faith that God’s way on earth is the best, and submission to what God is doing. It is not a promise to do anything. It expresses longing, faith, and submission. It is also the prayer of the helpless, helpless the way small children are helpless.

And remember that God is “our Father” here, he’s the Dad in heaven. The opening line insists that we view God as a Kind Parent, prejudiced in favour of his children in the sense of wanting to treat them well and to give them good things.  “If you then who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven …” (Matt 7:11).

Sixth line – give us today our daily bread.  The person praying this prayer is helpless in many ways, including inability to get food.  This line also tells us it is intended to be a daily prayer.

Seventh line – forgive us our sins.  The helplessness includes the fight against sin.  Jesus assumed his called people would sin every day, and forgiveness from the Father in heaven is available every day.  Helpless to stop sinning.

Eighth line – as we forgive those who sin against us.  This is the only spiritual requirement of this prayer, that the doomed to fail in the Christian life realize others are also doomed to fail in the Christian life and are generous with them.  The helpless recognize others are also helpless.

Ninth and tenth lines – Father, don’t lead us into testing and temptation, we don’t do well when tested and tempted, we fall, take us away from that.  Father, rescue us from evil and the evil one, we cannot rescue ourselves, it is up to you to rescue us, we are helpless.

The Lord’s Prayer echoes the posture of the opening beatitudes. It seems to me that the doomed to fail in the Christian life can pray this honestly every day.  And the Lord’s Prayer is not an obscure text hidden in a corner, to make room for the “doomed.” 

The Lord’s Prayer is at the center of the Sermon on the Mount, which is at the center of Jesus’ teaching.  If people can and will pray to the Father in the way of the Lord’s Prayer, they are not “in” by the skin of their teeth, they are solidly “in.” 

Bruised Reed and Flickering Wick (Matt 12:20)

A bruised reed he will not break, a flickering wick he will not quench,

until he has brought justice through to victory.

This is Matthew the writer quoting from Isaiah 42 to explain what Jesus was doing.  He will not break a bruised reed or quench a flickering wick.  This has to have in mind those who are doomed to fail and helpless to succeed. 

Some reeds are strong, and the call is to let our light shine.  But what if the light only flickers? The reed is wrecked? We have our answer here.  In Isaiah these words describe the Servant that God chose, the one God loves, and in whom God delights.  God loves this Servant because he does not break a bruised reed or quench a flickering wick. 

Receive the Kingdom of God like a Child (Mark 10:14-15)

When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

There is a sentimental view around that Jesus valued children and used them as models because they were innocent. Children are not innocent, and furthermore that view makes no sense in this text. We have to become innocent in order to receive the kingdom of God?  Then no adult ever would enter (and in my opinion no child either).

Little children are helpless, and that is the point.  They cannot get much for themselves, they are entirely at the mercy of the generosity and kindness of some adult around them. 

And the teaching of Jesus here is not that even the helpless can receive the kingdom of God, it is that only the helpless can receive the kingdom of God.  “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 

Helpless to succeed in proper Christian living may actually be an advantage in receiving the kingdom of God.  Sure sounds like it here. Little children are hardly able to live a proper Christian life.  But they can come to God and ask for what he gives.

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

“God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is in important ways an abbreviated version of the Lord’s Prayer.  There is faith, submission, longing, helplessness.  This story is exactly what it looks like when an adult receives the kingdom of God as a child would receive it.  Innocent?  Not on your life.  Helpless?  Absolutely.

This tax collector has nothing at all to offer God.  By being a tax collector he has for money joined Rome the great enemy of God’s people.  He is as doomed as it gets.  This is how a child receives the kingdom of God.

Notice again that this story does not stretch the kingdom to make room for people like the tax collector along with better people.  In this story, the posture of the tax collector is the onlyposture that will make a person just before God, a person whom God will exalt.  And in this story there is no promise from the sinner that he will do better from now on.

A Sinful Woman Forgiven because She Loved Jesus (Luke 7:36-50)

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

“Tell me, teacher,” he said.

41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

This story is like the parable of the tax collector praying in the temple, except that this is not a parable.  The story comes to us long and detailed, compared to many Gospel stories, which tells us that Luke the writer thought it particularly significant.

Forgiveness of sins is central here, both in what Jesus said to the Pharisee and what he said to the woman. The story is not clear on whether she loved Jesus because her sins were forgiven, or whether her sins were forgiven because she loved Jesus. In Jesus’ story it sounds like forgiveness comes first, but in the last few verses it sounds like the love came first.

In either case, her love for Jesus is the only thing tied to her forgiveness.  In the story of the adulterous woman in John 8, at the end Jesus said to that woman, “go and sin no more.”  This is the same kind of woman in Luke 7, but there is no such comment.  I do not want to make too much of that, but it is at least worth noting. Perhaps she is a prostitute, and there’s no way out.

The emphasis throughout is on her love for Jesus, indicated by the details of her affection told first by Luke and then repeated by Jesus. Her affection expresses her faith, her sins are forgiven, and she is saved.

Approach the Throne with Confidence (Heb 4:14-16)

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

We have a priest who sympathizes, empathizes, with our weaknesses.  He was tempted in every way himself, and though we do not know how exactly he experienced that, it was bad enough that it made him feel sorry for the badly tempted, his heart goes out to us when we tempted, including when we fail at that point and sin (it says we need to receive mercy). 

He himself did not sin, which is noted here not to shame us (why can’t you be more like him?), but to establish that he has every right to serve in God’s presence on his own merits.

Because of this priest, sinners can come boldly to God, can go right up to the throne, with confidence.  There is no limit here to what kind of sin is fresh on our hands.  The question is only if we will have the confidence to approach. 

The throne is not just a throne, it is a grace throne.  God’s throne is a grace throne. 

As the text stands, the people who approach do not even need to ask for mercy and for helping grace.  They just need to approach.  “Let us (the writer includes himself among these) approach the throne of grace with confidence, and just by approaching (it seems to say), we will receive mercy and helping grace.”

In this text, and in Hebrews generally, the only thing that will get people in eternal trouble is if they stop coming to this grace throne where Jesus is the priest. Their/our sins and failures are not the problem.  The road to the throne of grace has been paved, it is open to real bad sinners. 

Hebrews was written not because their sins were too bad, but because they no longer had confidence that Christ was the priest for them.

By the Grace of God I am what I am (1 Cor 15:10)

By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

Paul could see that he worked harder than the other witnesses of the resurrection; we are dealing here primarily with the Eleven disciples. Even back then Paul realized, and the others no doubt could also see, that Paul lived an exceptional life.  Even Peter and John could not match his tireless self-sacrificing life in the face of so many hardships. Grace is effective.

But before Paul says this about working harder, and again after, he will not take credit for this. God’s grace was doing something special in Paul, he knew it, and he gave the credit to God’s grace.  By the grace of God I am what I am.  Yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 

Preachers tend to make Paul a hero, and in some ways he has earned this, but these words also need to be absorbed.  Paul lived an exceptional life, he knew it, but not because he was an exceptional man.  That’s where we get it wrong when we make him the hero. 

Paul was not an exceptional man.  He was an ordinary man on whom God had put exceptional grace. We must not take this as some kind of modesty.  Take it as cold hard truth – Paul’s exceptional life was due entirely to the grace of God. A very ordinary man. By the grace of God he was what he was.

I think it will turn out that this is everyone’s story, every child of God. I have thought about this when I watch myself and others around me.  Others wish they could be more like me, and I wish I could be more like Paul and others I admire.  But what if every believer should say, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”

This is no reason to coast along when we should be diligent and enduring, and I do not know how far to take this.  But there are struggles I would like to leave behind and I cannot, things that displease me about myself that are not changing, so for now I live with them and serve the Lord as I am able.  He’s given me grace to conquer some things and not to conquer some others.

Where I’m going is this: perhaps those who love God but are doomed to fail in the Christian life are living out the grace God has given them.  He has given them grace to have some faith in him and some love for him, and to live it out in some ways, but he has not given grace for them to leave behind the massive dysfunctions that plague them. 

As long as these massive dysfunctions continue they will fail massively in the normal Christian life.  But we are all of us helpless except for the grace of God, and he has not given them the grace to leave those troubles behind.  God does give some that kind of grace, they do leave these plagues behind, and we hear these stories.  But many more also have real faith in Jesus the Lord and they continue to live troubled, difficult lives.

It is important for these “doomed to fail” people to live out their faith in some ways.  We can still pray, we can still treat the people around us graciously.  As we are able, these things need to happen.  In what ways can I treat people the way I’d like to be treated?  Jesus said this amounted to all the Law and all the Prophets (Matt 7:12)!  Never mind the ways we cannot do this.  In what ways can we do this?  It sums up the Law, and the Prophets, and Jesus himself.

As I said at the beginning, there are other Scriptures that emphasize and require a changed life for the Lord’s people.  I do not know how to put all these things together.  I am not in a place to say that the Scriptures I’ve used here are more central than those urgent calls to godliness, or that those are more central than these. 

I am sure that it all fits together nicely, but it is not clear to me how to do that.  What I do know is that in God’s book there are kind teachings like these along with those other teachings, and these kind words also must have a place.  And because of them there is good hope for those who are doomed to fail in the Christian life.  Maybe we’re talking about ourselves.

Ed Neufeld, August 2015.