May 3, 2010
The Good News Is that You’re a Jerk
Back when I was in Bible College there was a weekly street witnessing bus that took students to downtown Calgary, Alberta, to preach the gospel. There was a signup in a hallway that I always looked at nervously from a distance, as if the closer I approached the more power it had to make me sign up. Well, it caught me eventually. Guilt on the one hand. But also adventure. And the need to prove myself. I hate not doing something just because I’m scared of it.
Terrified might be too strong a word for how I felt as we rode the old school bus into town, but it isn’t too far off. Still, I was determined to do the thing. To tell people the Good News. Like Jonah we were disgorged from the belly of the whale on to the streets of the great city. We were paired up and sent out. Lucky me, I got to be with a cute girl. A rare treat at a school that exercised strict control over male and female proximity.
We had these really cheesy tracks that we handed out to people. If you saw a rocker you gave him the one that had the flying “V” Van Halen style guitar. That sort of thing. But eventually I did talk about “the good news” with a young woman who clearly wanted me to get out of her face. Good theologian that was, I wanted to tell the story right so I started near the beginning and said something like, “We have all sinned against God and we all deserve to go to hell.” I expanded on this a bit and she just got irritated and walked off, tossing this line at me over her shoulder: “Oh, great. So we’re all going to hell.” Like, “this is ridiculous. Why would you bother to even tell me that? Do I look like I need to hear that kind of crap?” I suddenly realized that I had really messed up and as she escaped down the street I yelled after her passionately, “No, no, there’s more! There’s forgiveness!” But she just kept walking. Another soul lost in the darkness of the streets.
Chalk it up to nerves. In any case I’ve often looked back on that scene and asked myself whether we are right to begin the “good news” with the “bad news”. People have to understand that they are sinners, we say, in order to understand that they can be forgiven. You have to hear the condemnation of the law before you can hear the good news of salvation. But I’m not really sure I buy that anymore. The problem is that we end up spending all our time talking about the bad news. “The good news about Jesus is that you’re a jerk. But wait! You don’t have to be.” Aren’t people already sufficiently conscious of their own inadequacies, weaknesses and failures that they don’t need us rub it all in before getting to the good stuff? I think one of the theological reasons we feel the need to do this is that there is this idea in certain evangelistic circles that everyone thinks they are good enough for God and therefore don’t think they need his grace. So it’s our job to convince them otherwise. Then once their pathetic state is clear, they can accept the good news that God actually loves them.
It’s kind of sick, if you think about it. It’s kind of like the inquisition where you put people on the rack to extract a confession. Make theme feel bad so that they can accept Jesus. There is definitely something off when the good news is bad news. Maybe we should pay more attention to how Jesus preached the good news: God is coming near! You get to be a part of something that is really great. Turn to God and trust in him (Mark 1:14-15).
Some people will doubtless take this to me that “I’m soft on sin”. But to the contrary, I think sin is such a big deal that people already know all about it. That’s why the good news should start with grace, not law.