When I was in high school, long before Toby Mac sang solo, there was a popular Christian band called DC Talk. Their number one selling album was titled Jesus Freak and featured a song called “What if I Stumble.” At the very beginning of that track was a quote that I have never forgotten. It says: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today are Christians. People who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, but walk out the door with a non-brother lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
I can’t tell you how many times I have preached that message, basically raking believers over the coals for their behavior. It reminds me of something Jesus said about the teachers of the law: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4).
It all makes me wonder: What does it mean to be a Christian? We have all heard what the world thinks about Christians. That the connotations and stereotypes associated with “Christians” have become so ugly that many have begun to distance themselves from the term altogether. It is becoming increasingly popular to say things like “I’m a follower of Jesus” or “I’m a child of God.” As if changing the term will change the perception.
But what does it mean to be a Christian? And why has the term become synonymous with hypocrite? If we all tried a little harder and sinned a little less, would the whole world believe? Or have we painted a picture of Christianity that is so perfect that no one is able to live up to our standards? Maybe it’s time to start painting a different picture. Maybe it’s time to paint a Biblical picture of what we are, rather then what we should be. Let me explain.
In Genesis chapter 32 we find Jacob in a very difficult situation. If you will recall, back at the beginning of their story, Jacob and Esau had their differences. Esau was a manly man who thought more about hunting and being outside than he did about God. Jacob was a Godly man, but didn’t always go about seeking God in very “Christian” ways. Jacob actually ends up stealing Esau’s birthright and lying to his father to receive a blessing intended for his brother. This doesn’t make Esau very happy. In fact, Esau feels a little murderous and Jacob ends up running from him for a good part of his life.
It all comes to a head in Genesis 32 when Jacob gets word that Esau is coming for him with an army of 400 men. Jacob is worried and starts sending bribes trying to appease his brother’s anger. He ends up giving Esau just about everything he owns, sends his family away for their own protection, and then sits and waits alone.
That night, the Bible says, a man began wrestling with Jacob. They end up wresting all night long, and soon discover neither of them can overpower the other. So the man disables Jacob’s hip causing him immense pain. But Jacob doesn’t give up, he just hangs on to the man refusing to let go until the man will bless him.
The Bible says:
“I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” (Genesis 32:26-28)
It’s such a strange story. Jacob wrestles with a man, who is actually God, and ends up with a different name. A name that literally means “struggles with God.”
Do you remember how Jacob received his first name? He came out of his mothers womb grasping the heal of his brother. So his mother named him Jacob meaning “he grasps his heal” which is Hebrew slang for “deceiver.” It was a fitting name for Jacob.
He was a deceiver who loved, worshipped, and struggled with God.
Earlier this week I was talking with a group of teenagers about this very question. What does it mean to be a Christian? They all gave typical answers that you would expect any good Christian teen to give. “Love God and obey his commands.” “Bring other people to Jesus”, etc. All of their answers pointed out things we should do. Which is what I think a lot of people believe Christianity is about. Its about doing the right things.
Anyone who knows the Bible knows that isn’t true. That God’s grace is a gift. But yet we can’t help but fall into this trap of trying to do enough to earn that gift, and thus feeling inadequate when we fail.
So what does it mean to be a Christian? Maybe the best answer is simply this. To be part of God’s chosen people. God had a word for that. He called them Israelites. Literally: A people who struggle with God.
That is who we are. Not a people who have it all figured out, or who have a corner on the market of morality. No, we are a people who struggle with God. A people who struggle to know him, and do the right things. A people who struggle with faith, loyalty, and belief. I can’t help but think that is the way God wants it to be. Because when we struggle, it means we are seeking. And so long as we are struggling, it means we haven’t given up. It means we are still holding onto God. As Jeremiah says: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13).
I guess the more important question is not, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” The most important question is whether we are struggling with God? If you think of the people that Jesus was always getting infuriated with, we see a group of people who had stopped struggling. The Pharisees. The religious elite. They thought they had it all figured out, but they didn’t. On the contrary, Jesus was always walking around saying it was the strugglers, the people who were really in deep, fighting to figure it out, that they would enter the kingdom of heaven before the people with all the answers.
I pray I never again reach a point where I feel I have it all figured out, where I stop struggling. I hope this is an invitation to you all to stop struggling with your struggling. Rest in the battle. Be like Jacob and stay up all night wrestling with God, don’t give up so easily. God wants this. God expects this. I don’t think any of us want to be like Pharisees. If we reach a point where we are assured that we have all the answers, it might be time to ask ourselves some tough questions.
Are we struggling with God?
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