When Christians Let You Down
Sooner or later someone who professes to be a follower of Jesus is going to let you down. Quite likely, you’ve already had that experience. And for many, it has happened many times. The hard reality is that people we trust and expect a lot from sometimes fail us, and when that happens, there is usually some significant collateral damage.
This has been on my mind in a prominent way ever since the news about Ashley Madison broke a while back. A website that was dedicated to cultivating adulterous relationships got hacked and user profiles were shared with the public. Ed Stetzer estimates that about 400 church leaders were found to be registered on the website, something which likely led to their resignation or dismissal from their various roles. It is a heartbreaking shame for families and a black eye on the Church as a whole. In addition, there have also been some other high-profile Christian leaders who have been hit hard recently with allegations ranging from financial misconduct to bullying to actual adultery. It is hard to watch when these things happen, and it is hard to imagine that anything good can come from it (thankfully, God can do things that I can’t foresee!).
And, of course, it’s not just Christian leaders who fail us. Christians in general let us down all the time. They act selfishly, spread gossip, lie, steal, manipulate, forget important things, and act like mere sinful mortals in general. And by “they”, I really mean “we”. It’s not that “those” Christians do it, but “we” Christians do it. All the time. Myself included. You too.
It’s Not “Just Me and Jesus”
Sometimes there is this myth among Christians that it’s all about me and Jesus, and my life is no one else’s business. That is simply not the case. No one lives in a bubble. Our lives, our choices, and our actions have an impact on others around us, for better or worse. I think that we often think of Christianity in individual terms because of the over-emphasis on a “personal relationship with Jesus”. I use that phrase a lot, and it’s a good one. Usually I mean it as opposed to merely observing some religious duties or holding to certain beliefs, which is not what Christianity is about. Christianity is about a personal relationship with Jesus…but at the same time, there is more to it than just two people. Jesus has a relationship with his bride, the Church, and we are made a family. A relationship with God is not just personal, it is also communal. And therefore, our faith is not an isolated thing, and we should not think of it that way. We should be keeping in mind how our lives will affect others and our witness for Jesus at all times.
When Christians fail, their sin hurts other people, and it damages the reputation of the gospel. In such instances, when we have been let down by another believer, feeling upset about it is usually the right response. There’s nothing wrong in reacting with anger or disappointment when we are hurt by another, so long as it doesn’t become bitterness or revenge or something of the like. If you’ve been wronged, it’s ok to feel wronged. That’s normal and appropriate.
Keeping Jesus Where He Belongs
However, there is also a sense in which we sometimes allow the failure of other Christians to affect us too much. What I mean is, sometimes when a Christian lets us down, we project our feelings of hurt and disappointment not only to the individual but also to all Christians or even to Jesus himself. We might begin to question the validity of Christianity altogether, and wonder if all Christians are secretly hypocrites. Doubts arise about faith in general and instead of treating the matter like an isolated incident, we use it to broadbrush all believers and develop unhelpful stereotypes.
For instance, when a pastor falls into some sort of moral scandal, the church is put in great distress. This makes perfect sense (though it is regrettable). But for many Christians, the pastor’s sin casts concern over wether or not any Christian can be trusted, or perhaps even if this whole Jesus thing is for real. It is not at all uncommon for people who once professed faith to walk away from it after being let down by another believer.
What I want to propose is that those sort of reactions come from serious misunderstandings about Christianity. It stems from one of the following two problems:
- an elevated view of self
- an elevated view of other Christians
Let’s consider these one at a time.
An Elevated View of Self
Most Christians rightly understand that there is a significant moral component to Christianity; that there are certain expectations about what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. What can happen for many Christians is that, as they aim to walk in obedience to God, they can become too prideful in their view of themselves. As they overcome sin, a sense of superiority can creep in, which ends up inflating the ego. As a result, when another believer lets them down, the knee-jerk reaction is to think “How can they be that way? Aren’t they a Christian? I would never do something like that!”
There is a sense in which it is right to have expectations of other believers, but quite often we can overestimate our own holiness and therefore become surprised by sin in others. As Christians, we should be the last people shocked that other human beings will let us down. That is the whole essence of the gospel – that we are all sinners in desperate need of grace! And so, the wise believer is one who weighs their response to being hurt: is it proper anger over sin, or is it a subtle form of pride coming out?
An Elevated View of Other Christians
While people are prone to pride, we are also prone to idolatry. That is the essence of this second mistake. When other Christians let us down, especially those who we look up to and admire, we are left disillusioned not only because of their sin, but sometimes because we thought too highly of them to begin with.
Especially in Western Christianity, celebrity Christians are a normal part of our faith. We have popular preachers, authors, musicians, and sports stars who we put up on a pedestal that frankly they have no business being on. It should be no surprise then, that when celebrity Christians come falling off their pedestal, the results are quite a mess. While all sins are messy and painful, the results can be multiplied if the person who falls was put up too high to begin with. Christians quite often revere other believers far more than they should, and elevate them past the status of sinners saved by grace to heroes of the faith. When this happens, we are setting ourselves up for future misery, because no Christian can measure up to the standards of perfection that we place on them. I’m not at all saying that we shouldn’t have expectations, but simply that quite often our expectations are not very realistic.
If we viewed other Christians as humble sinners, we would not be nearly as damaged by their failures. We would know that they are not perfect, that they have sin issues to deal with. And though their sin will cause damage, it won’t completely destroy.
If the the problem of over-reacting to the failures of other Christians is caused by an elevated view of self or others, then it stands to reason that the solution is to have an elevated view of Christ. We need to take down ourselves and other Christians off the pedestal and put Jesus on it. Our lofty expectations of sinless perfection are doomed to topple when they are placed on the shoulders of mere human beings. But the shoulders of Jesus Christ can carry such a weight. He alone will never let us down!
I believe that when Jesus is in his rightful place (way up high), and we are in our rightful place (way down low), the failure of Christians is not nearly as devastating. Yes, it hurts. And yes, healing will be required. But the blow will not be crushing to our faith, because it rests not on the faithfulness of people but on the faithfulness of Jesus. Our trust in God won’t disintegrate because it is founded on the Rock, not in the sand.
My friend, if you have been hurt by other Christians, I feel your pain. I’m sorry that it has happened. I can understand the pain and hurt and anger that you may be feeling. It is probably warranted. But I also want you to know that just because a follower of Jesus has let you down, it does not mean that Christianity is invalid. It does not mean that Jesus has let you down. If you cling to him, and place your trust in him and not in his followers, you will find yourself able to continue in faith. Don’t let the imperfections of others taint the perfection of Christ. Don’t let their failures be projected onto him. Instead, understand that sin is real and wreaks havoc in the world, and that is the very thing which Jesus came to oppose. Don’t walk away from Jesus because of the sins of others. He is your only hope – and theirs, too.