Monday, January 15, 2007

From One Jerk To Another

Yesterday morning, I attended Willow Chicago (the downtown Chicago branch of Willow Creek Community Church) for the second time.

After the worship service, Willow Chicago held a fellowship reception in the Windsor Room at the nearby Congress Hotel, since their contract with The Auditorium (where their Sunday worship services are held) apparently doesn’t include access to meeting rooms for such events.

As I approached the Congress Hotel, I looked into the window of the hotel’s gift shop. I saw what appeared to be a line of humorous bumper stickers.

However, the captions on some of those bumper stickers would not necessarily strike everyone as amusing. For example, the first bumper sticker I noticed had the following caption:

“Jesus Loves You. Everyone else thinks you’re a jerk.”

Alright, I made part of that up. “Jerk” wasn’t actually the word the bumper sticker used. It actually used a harsher word which rhymes with the phrase “brass pole” and which could be roughly paraphrased as “anal aperture”. But this is a family-friendly Christian blog, so I thought I’d try to keep things “clean” for the sake of the many Christians who think that certain words should be completely off limits.

I thought it was a bit ironic that I saw that message when I was on the way to a church event being held in that same hotel.

Putting aside the issue of the bumper sticker’s mild profanity, and putting aside the fact that it was obviously an attempt at humor on the part of the writer, I thought it was an interesting message which raised equally interesting questions.

In essence, the message on the bumper sticker seemed to imply that Jesus loves jerks because he is too naïve to recognize a jerk when he sees one. It implied that loving a person and recognizing that the person is a jerk are mutually exclusive.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Nobody knows us better than God. If any of us really are jerks, you can be sure that God knows that better than anyone else.

I have been known, from time to time, to characterize some particularly unkind people (including some of my fellow Christians) as jerks. I’ve even used the other word that was actually on that bumper sticker, when people have really made me angry by treating me badly.

However, in my more reflective moments, I suspect that God thinks that we’re all jerks, not just some of us.

Admittedly, some of us are bigger jerks than others, but the Bible makes it clear: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

We have all acted in self-centered ways from time to time. Intentionally or unintentionally, most of us have hurt one another on occasions. And even if some of us as individuals have not ever hurt other people, we have certainly hurt God when we have insulted God by implying by word or deed that we were better qualified than God to know how we ought to live our lives.

The Bible talks about two kinds of righteousness. One kind of righteousness is what might be described as “relative righteousness”. To be relatively righteous is to be more righteous than most other people. Job, for example, met that criterion. That’s why the Bible described Job as a “righteous man”.

Provided that it is tempered by humility, relative righteousness has value. It’s good to strive to be a relatively righteous person. In fact, God expects us to do so.

However, there’s also another kind of righteousness: Perfect or absolute righteousness. We ought to strive for that higher level of righteousness as well, but the Bible makes it clear that no one other than Christ has ever lived a perfectly righteous life here on earth. Compared with the perfect righteousness of Christ, our relative righteousness begins to look pretty sad and pathetic.

A lot of people think that because they’re relatively righteous, in comparison with other people, that means that they are qualified to enter the kingdom of heaven. Not long ago, I spoke with someone I care for deeply. He said that he knew he was going to go to heaven because he’d been a relatively good person who had “never murdered anybody”.

Such a statement is common in our society, but it shows a real lack of understanding, for two reasons. First, it implies that all one has to do in order to qualify for entry into heaven is to abstain from the most grievious sins such as murder. Second, it implies that murderers and others who have committed the worst sins have no hope of entering the kingdom of God. Neither one of those things is true.

God doesn't merely want us to be relatively righteous people. God’s standards are uncompromising. God requires perfection. Anything less than perfection makes a person unqualified to enter the kingdom of heaven. In terms of salvation, the extent to which you miss the mark is irrelevant. If you miss it by even a little bit, you’ve missed it.

It’s like being a deer hunter. You can miss the deer by an inch or a mile. Either way, you go home hungry, and the deer lives to see another day. What good is it that you almost hit the deer you were shooting at? When you're hungry for venison, "almost" doesn't cut it.

When it comes to pleasing God, we’ve all missed the mark. Some by a little, some by a lot, but we’ve all missed it. We all have a spiritual hunger that cannot be satisfied on the basis of our own inadequate efforts.

However, heaven would be a mighty empty place if God had not made any provisions for sinners to enter heaven. That’s why Jesus died on the cross for us. He knew that on some level, we were all rebellious jerks who didn’t deserve to go to heaven. Yet, Jesus inexplicably loved us anyway. That’s why it’s called “amazing grace”!

Jesus wants to spend eternity with us, despite our obvious and not so obvious flaws. Because Jesus was the only perfect person to ever live, Jesus was the only one qualified to pay the penalty for our sins on our behalf. He had no obligation to do so, but he did so anyway.

None of this ought to be used, as some immature Christians do, as an excuse to act like jerks. God’s grace and mercy can cover and forgive a multitude of sins, but we still have a moral obligation to make a conscientious effort to avoid sin. We still have an obligation to hold one another accountable for sins we may commit.

As much as possible, I try not to act like a jerk. Relative to a lot of other people, I think that I’ve done a pretty good job of living a morally admirable life.

Nevertheless, nobody but God is more aware of my shortcomings than I am. Consequently, I’m indescribably glad and grateful that Jesus has loved and forgiven me even when I have miserably failed to meet God’s standards.

Regarding what other people think of me or don’t think of me, I do want others to think well of me, but there is a sense in which it really doesn’t matter what other people think about me, just as there is a sense in which it doesn’t really matter what I think about others or about you.

Your judgments are impure. My judgments are impure. God’s judgments are perfect and unimpeachable.

In the final analysis (which is coming sooner than you may think), what God thinks about me and you is the only thing that really matters.

Don’t be caught unprepared for Judgment Day. Instead, I would suggest that you pray the following prayer, or something similar to it:

Dear God,

I’ve known a lot of jerks in my life. Sadly, I have to admit that I have sometimes been one of them. I have chosen my own way and not yours. I have rejected your wisdom and counsel. I have hurt you, and it's quite likely that I have hurt others. I have strayed from the path that leads to eternal life.

Please forgive me. Please set my feet back onto the righteous path once again. Please help me to help others so that they, too, can receive the glorious forgiveness you have generously offered to all who will humbly ask for forgiveness.

I thank you that you sent your son Jesus to die on my behalf. I thank you that you can be trusted to honor this request for forgiveness. I praise and glorify your holy name, for you alone are worthy of such praise.

In Jesus’ Blessed Name,


If you’ve just prayed the above prayer for the first time, or if you’ve just prayed something similar (possibly because the above prayer was not tailored perfectly to your own situation), please write to me and let me know that you’ve decided to follow Christ.

It would really make my day to know that I helped to play a role in leading you to make the most important decision that you will ever make.


Mark Pettigrew

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