Recently, someone wrote in and asked me a question:
Is it possible to be a worse person after attending church for so long? I feel like I was more disciplined and had better character and integrity when I wasn’t a Christian.
I think the answer, as unhelpful as it might be, is yes and no. I notice a similar pattern among Christians – most of us experience huge growth spurts in the beginning because it’s all so exciting and new, but then it turns into begrudging obligation and critical self-punishment. It seems to happen in about 99% of the Christians that I know.
The irony perhaps is that the stronger you grow in faith, the more you become aware of your own faults and flaws. Christians are sensitive to their own shortcomings because we actually care, and when we grow in maturity, we stop making excuses and we quit the rationalizations. A sure sign of an immature person is one who cannot take responsibility for their own actions and won’t own up to their part; it was always someone else’s fault or an environmental factor. It could be true, but it doesn’t make us less sinful.
So you’re becoming self-aware, and seeing how bad our sin really is. When we get a glimpse of God’s holiness, we can’t help but feel wretched and naked and low. Even in the presence of better people, of skilled musicians or writers or scholars, we tend to feel like our progress was “dirty rags” (Isaiah 64:6). In the presence of God, this is amplified to an unbearable level. Because of Scripture, we suddenly have a very clear view of our issues – we regard them as sin instead of mistakes, and so we get very hard on ourselves.
At this point, most Christians stay in morbid introspection and forget to look up to the cross and to the resurrection. This is the only place where true character, integrity, and discipline could come from. When our motivation is no longer to “be good” but instead to look to the only one who is good, then our motives change from self-punishment to love-driven effort.
The essential Bible truth is that our works cannot save us, and only Christ can – so every Christian is the most critical of their own sin but the most victorious in a savior.
You’ll often feel like you’re getting worse before you get better. The funny thing is that Apostle Paul would bash himself all the time; in 1 Timothy 1:15 he tells Timothy, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.” That’s crazy to consider, that Paul called himself “the worst of sinners.” But the first half of the verse rides the tension between his own sin and the reality of Christ. It really is a tough balance.
If in the end you feel that you really have gotten “worse,” I hope you still won’t be too hard on yourself and that tomorrow is another day, a different day, to be who you’re called to be.
Of course, you’ll want to strive to have integrity and all those other things: but not to punish yourself, and instead embody the one who has already saved you. You don’t have to shackle yourself to your own record. Each day, I hope you’ll begin again. God wants that for you. He’s okay about yesterday and all that came before. I would know, because I really am the worst of sinners, to be the most pitied: yet I remember, I’m deeply loved. You’re loved, my friend. We are profoundly fractured, yet radically treasured in Him.
“[To have Faith in Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”
– C.S. Lewis