No matter how good or bad our lived witness is, it will never be perfect. Since we are all somewhere between being the worst example and the best example, we are all going to make some really serious mistakes in our faith lives. A significant factor in the effectiveness of our witness will be how we deal with our failure to live up to what we proclaim personally and what the church as a whole proclaims.
Pretending this isn’t a problem doesn’t work. Nor does playing with definitions of good and bad, attacking those who point out the failures, calling the failures “God’s will” or any other way of trying to avoid the clear and visible truth that Christians are not perfect and so some really terrible stuff.
The only way to deal with our failures and the failures of the rest of the church is to own our failure. We don’t own our failure with pride. Rather, we follow the Biblical principles of confession, repentance and seeking to change. In practise, this translates to admitting that we made a mistake, offering apologies for the mistake, facing the consequences of the mistake and working to change what caused the mistake.
On an individual basis, this is hard. None of us wants to admit that we are wrong and we let our pride get in the way. No matter how we define it, it is hard to admit that we are wrong. Our pride drives us to do almost anything to avoid confession. Remember that when Adam was confronted by God about his failure, he responded with the words we find in Genesis 3.12: “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (NIV). His response is classic–he seeks to shift the responsibility for his failure to both his partner and to God, trying to suggest that on his own, he would never have eaten of the forbidden fruit.
But just as it is clear that Adam was responsible for his failure here, so it is generally clear to those looking on that we have failed in our witness. Our attempts to avoid accepting that responsibility only make us look even worse that we are and at the same time, make it easier for people outside the faith to stay outside the faith. Continual denial of our failures also drives a wedge between us and God because we are not being honest with ourselves or him.
The only real option that prevents further damage to our own spiritual lives and our witness to the world is to be willing to take responsibility for our failure–to confess it both to God and those affected, to apologize, do what is necessary and try to do better next time. If the failure isn’t our personal failure but a failure on the part of someone else in the faith or the church, we still need to accept responsibility and apologize.
Rather than being a sign of weakness, as some suggest, confession and repentance are actually a powerful witness. Remember that we are seeking to give witness to the love of God, not our perfection. When we trust God enough to accept our sins and trust that he will continue to love us and hold us in his eternal grasp, we are making a powerful statement about God and his love. We are showing the limitlessness of God’s love–he can and does love us when we are not perfect.
I am not sure there is a better comment we can make about the love of God than to show that even our failures don’t affect God’s love. He loved us before we followed him, he loves us when we follow him, he loves us when we fail him, he loves us no matter what. When it comes to being a witness, I would much rather give witness to the unending and unalterable love of God than to my imagined perfection.
“Witness always”–remembering that even our failures can become a powerful witness if we are willing to surrender our pride in ourselves and show instead our pride in being loved so completely by God.
May the peace of God be with you.