Why Are Christians Such Jerks? (Zechariah 7:1-8:3)

unhappy at computer

Big Idea: Why are Christians jerks? Because not all of us are real, none of us are perfect, and all of us are in process.

Have you ever tried typing in a phrase in the Google search-bar? As you type it guesses what question you’re trying to ask using their uber-secret algorithm. Look what happens when you type, “Why are Christian…”

That’s right. The first guess is, “Why are Christians so mean?” followed closely by “Why are Christian movies so bad?” That’s kind of depressing, but I get it. “Christianity has an image problem,” write the authors of UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why It Matters. The authors conclude that non-Christians don’t like Christians, especially evangelicals. Only 3% had a good impression of Evangelicals. People in their study viewed Christians as hypocritical, too evangelistic, antigay, gay, sheltered, political, and judgmental. Furthermore, attitudes toward Christians have become increasingly negative over the past decade. They write: “modern-day Christianity no longer seems Christian.”

This is hard to read. It seems that we do have an image problem. We have to deal with this problem. Tim Keller suggests that there are three things to deal with:

  • The issue of Christians’ glaring character flaws. If Christianity is true, why aren’t Christians living better than non-Christians?
  • The issue of war and violence. Why have so many Christians supported war, injustice, and violence over the years?
  • The issue of fanaticism. Why do there seem to be so many smug, self-righteous fanatics within Christianity?

There are many Scriptures that we could look at to answer these questions, but I want to look at one passage of Scripture as we try to answer them.

Zechariah gives us in interesting insight into these questions. For one thing, this passage shows us that this is not a new problem at all. Zechariah served after God’s people returned from exile in Babylon. Things were supposed to be looking up, but inner transformation hadn’t taken place.

Here’s the situation. A group of people arrived to inquire whether they should continue to fast in mourning for the destruction of the temple. When they had been taken captive to Babylon, they had started a number of annual fasts, two of which are mentioned in the text. But the people were now restored to their land, and the temple was partially rebuilt. Should they still celebrate the fasts?

In response, God asks a haunting question:

Say to all the people of the land and the priests, When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves? (Zechariah 7:5-6)

In other words, who were you fasting for? Were you fasting for yourself, or for God? Here’s another way to put it: what was your motivation? Self-interest, or true worship of the one living God?

C.H. Spurgeon, a famous preacher in London, once told a story:

Once upon a time there was a king who ruled over everything in a land. One day there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. He took it to his king and said, “My lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or ever will grow; therefore, I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as he turned to go, the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I want to give a plot of land to you freely as a gift, so you can garden it all.” The gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overheard all this, and he said, “My! If that is what you get for a carrot, what if you gave the king something better?” The next day the nobleman came before the king, and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses, and this is the greatest horse I’ve ever bred or ever will; therefore, I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said, “Thank you,” and took the horse and simply dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed, so the king said, “Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.”

That relates really closely to what God asks in this passage. When you practice your faith, are you giving God something, or are you giving yourself something? The question is left hanging, implying that a lot of people think they are worshiping God, when really they’re motivated by self-interest.

But Zechariah goes on after giving us this very challenging question. He tells us two things that we need to understand if we are going to talk intelligently about this question of why so many Christians are jerks. Here’s what he tells us:

First, God desires true transformation. Read verses 9 and 10:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart. (Zechariah 7:9-10)

This is so important. God wants us to be changed. He wants us to be characterized by lives of character and obedience and kindness. Notice that God goes even farther: he wants this to be internally driven. He mentions our hearts. That’s where the real change has to take place. Until our hearts are changed, nothing on the outside will change.

Second, God does this by his grace. Read the first few verses of chapter 8:

And the word of the LORD of hosts came, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath. Thus says the LORD: I have returned to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts, the holy mountain. (Zechariah 8:1-3)

What will change our hearts? We can’t. We need someone else to do it for us. In chapter 8, God gives his people a great promise. He will come among his messy, hypocritical, stubborn people and dwell among them. God’s transforming presence will change his people. That is the hope that we have. We can’t change ourselves, but God has promised to live and dwell among us.

So we see three points in this passage, then, as we ask why Christians fall short of where they should be. There are really three things we need to consider:

  • Not all of us are real
  • None of us are perfect
  • All of us are in process

First: Not all of us are real.

In answering the question of why Christians can be jerks, we have to begin with the presupposition that not all Christians are the real thing. That’s where Zechariah begins when he records God asking, “Was it for me that you fasted?” I think Zechariah would ask us: Are you coming to church for God, or for yourself? What’s your real motive?

Let me put it a different way. Why are so many Christians jerks? Because not everyone who says that they are a Christian is actually a Christian. This is where we have to begin: with our incredible tendency towards self-deception.

This is so much the case that Jesus’ greatest problem was religious people. Jesus was not a big fan of religion. In The Reason for God, Tim Keller writes:

His famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7) does not criticize irreligious people, but rather religious ones. In his famous discourse the people he criticizes pray, give to the poor, and seek to live according to the Bible, but they do so in order to get acclaim and power for themselves. They believe they will get leverage over others and even over God because of their spiritual performance (“ They think they will be heard for their many words”— Matthew 6: 7). This makes them judgmental and condemning, quick to give criticism, and unwilling to take it. They are fanatics.
In his teaching, Jesus continually says to the respectable and upright, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you” (Matthew 21: 31). He continuously condemns in white-hot language their legalism, self-righteousness, bigotry, and love of wealth and power (“ You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness…. You neglect justice and the love of God… You load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them…. [You] devour widows’ houses and for a show make long prayers”— Luke 11: 39-46; 20: 47). We should not be surprised to discover it was the Bible-believing religious establishment who put Jesus to death. As Swiss theologian Karl Barth put it, it was the church, not the world, who crucified Christ.

Think about this. Jesus says that religion is potentially damaging, so much so that the people that were looked down upon as immoral have an advantage over religious people when it comes to entering the kingdom. Jefferson Bethke wrote a spoken word piece called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” that unpacks this:

Now Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums
See, one’s the work of God, but one’s a man-made invention
See, one is the cure, but the other’s the infection
See, because religion says “do”; Jesus says “done”
Religion says “slave”; Jesus says “son”
Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus makes you see
And that’s why religion and Jesus are two different clans

Now let’s make this personal. One of my favorite preachers was a man named Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He was a Member of the Royal College of Physicians and headed for a prestigious medical career, but he couldn’t shake the conviction that God wanted him to become a preacher. After two years of wrestling, he gave up his medical career and became a pastor of a small church in Wales. It was only then that his wife, Bethan, experienced God’s grace in a profound way and became a follower of Jesus Christ.

You can be a pastor or a pastor’s wife, a churchgoer for all your life, and a teacher, and still not know Jesus. I wonder today if you’ve experienced God’s grace in a profound way? Not if you’re a religious person. I’m wondering if you have realized that your only hope is not how good you are, but about how good Jesus is. Have you encountered his grace? Is he your only hope in life and death?

One of the reason why Christians are such jerks is that not all faith is genuine. Not everyone who calls himself a Christian really is a Christian.

Second, none of us is perfect.

We’ve seen in Zechariah first that not all faith is genuine. But now we see that true faith calls for a response. Zechariah writes:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart. (Zechariah 7:9-10)

What this means is that if there is a problem with Christians acting like jerks, it’s not because they are too Christian. It’s that they are not Christian enough. The biggest rebuke of jerky Christians comes from the Bible itself, which calls us to something more. It calls us to genuine kindness and mercy, to treating others with love. Not only that, but it calls for all of this at the heart level. God is not interested in outward observance. He is interested in us changing from the inside out. As Keller writes:

The typical criticisms by secular people about the oppressiveness and injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity’s own resources for critique of itself. The shortcomings of the church can be understood historically as the imperfect adoption and practice of the principles of the Christian gospel … To give up Christian standards would be to leave us with no basis for the criticism.

What is the answer, then, to the very fair and devastating criticisms of the record of the Christian church? The answer is not to abandon the Christian faith, because that would leave us with neither the standards nor the resources to make correction. Instead, we should move to a fuller and deeper grasp of what Christianity is.

We only have to think of a few historical examples to get the difference that true Christianity makes. One of the deepest stains in history is the African slave trade. Historian Rodney Starke says that it was Christians who first came to the conclusion that it was wrong as they head their Bibles. It was Christians like William Wilberforce who led the charge to abolish it against all odds.

Another example is the Civil Rights movement. One historian argues that it wasn’t a political but a spiritual movement — that actually, the Civil Rights movement was really a revival, a reawakening of genuine faith in God. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the church back not to revoke Christianity, but to return to Christianity:

There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests…If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

We could go on and give more historical examples. The point is not that Christians actually aren’t that bad. In fact, many times they are. Many times Christians have totally blown it and made a huge mess of things. The reason they have been so wrong, though, is not because they have had too much Christianity, but because they haven’t had enough. What we need is more of Jesus, not less of Jesus, because true faith calls for genuine love for others.

Even today we need to stop talking about Christians out there who have failed, and instead think about our need to become holier. We need to be changed. What attitudes do we have that don’t reflect the heart of Christ? In which ways are we not loving God and our neighbor as ourself? “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” — that’s the fruit of real faith. We need more of that, not less.

Third, all of us are in process.

Let’s summarize so far. Why are Christians such jerks? That’s assuming that Christians are jerks, but let’s concede the point that there’s some truth to the question. So far we’ve looked at two reasons. One is that not all of us are real. Not everyone who says that they’re a Christian is a Christian. The second reason is that we none of us are perfect. We don’t measure up to biblical standards. Real Christianity stands up against mistreatment of others. Real Christianity loves. Real Christianity looks like Jesus. We need more of that, not less.

But there’s one final reason why Christians sometimes act like jerks. It’s because of the very nature of the Christian faith itself. It’s this: we’re in process. Christians aren’t people who have pulled themselves together and have reached a higher moral plane. Christians are people who are weak, messy, and imperfect, but have encountered God’s grace — something that all of us desperately need. In Zechariah 8, Zechariah shows us where real transformation takes place. It doesn’t take place as God’s people make themselves better by their own efforts. It takes place as God himself moves in.

Thus says the LORD: I have returned to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts, the holy mountain. (Zechariah 8:3)

That’s our only hope. Our hope is not that we are good people. Our hope is that God is among us as messy people changing us from the inside out. Again, Tim Keller says:

Christian theology also speaks of the seriously flawed character of real Christians. A central message of the Bible is that we can only have a relationship with God by sheer grace. Our moral efforts are too feeble and falsely motivated to ever merit salvation. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has provided salvation for us, which we receive as a gift. All churches believe this in one form or another. Growth in character and changes in behavior occur in a gradual process after a person becomes a Christian. The mistaken belief that a person must “clean up” his or her own life in order to merit God’s presence is not Christianity. This means, though, that the church will be filled with immature and broken people who still have a long way to go emotionally, morally, and spiritually. As the saying has it: “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”

Surprisingly, in this chapter we have the good news, the gospel, in a nutshell:

  • We have a tendency to deceive ourselves. This is a universal problem that strikes everyone, religious or not.
  • God’s standards are higher than we can ever achieve. He wants us to love in a radical way from the inside out.
  • Our only hope of overcoming our self-deception and having our hearts changed is for God to come and to radically change us.

That’s it. That’s the gospel. We — all of us —are self-deceived and can’t measure up, but Jesus has come, has taken our sins at the cross. Jesus has not lowered the standards for us. In fact, he said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). God wants to radically change us, and the way that he does this is by not only forgiving us but giving us new life. The only way we can live lives that please him is by encountering his grace and by being transformed by his Spirit.

So why are Christians such jerks? Because not all Christians are real Christians. Because nobody measures up to God’s perfect standards. And because we are all sinners, but Christians are in the process of being transformed by God’s grace. We’re still in process.

Why are Christians jerks? Because not all of us are real, none of us are perfect, and all of us are in process.

Let me conclude with some more of that spoken word piece by Jefferson Bethke:

Religion is man searching for God; Christianity is God searching for man
Which is why salvation is freely mine, and forgiveness is my own
Not based on my merits, but Jesus’ obedience alone
Because He took the crown of thorns, and the blood dripped down His face
He took what we all deserved—I guess that’s why you call it grace
And while being murdered, He yelled,
“Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”
Because when He was dangling on that cross, He was thinking of you
And He absorbed all your sin, and He buried it in the tomb
Which is why I’m kneeling at the cross, saying, “Come on, there’s room”
So for religion—no, I hate it; in fact I literally resent it
Because when Jesus said, “It is finished,” I believe He meant it
Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada