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Christians Behaving Badly

I was shocked and dismayed to hear actor Heath Ledger died last month. Shocked, because Ledger was only 28. Dismayed, because I learned of his passing through an MSNBC.com article titled " Church Plans to Protest Ledger's Memorial."

Apparently, Fred Phelps's family is at it again. Fred Phelps is the founder of Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), a group known for vigorously condemning homosexuality through protests, videos, and websites such as GodHatesFags.com. They believe the Iraq war is God's punishment for America's acceptance of homosexuality, and they became infamous for picketing funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. Ledger became WBC's target because he played a gay cowboy in the 2005 movie Brokeback Mountain. The most troubling part of the MSNBC article was that its author identified WBC as simply a "Baptist church." The article didn't mention WBC has no affiliation with or recognition from any known Baptist organizations, and Phelps's "church" primarily consists of his family members. Granted, this article ran in MSNBC's gossip section. Still, how many readers believed Baptists—or, more generally, Christians—sanctioned this bad behavior?

Stories such as this one embarrass me. They make me want to disassociate—Well, I'm not like "those Christians." But I've started to wonder: Do any of my actions make me seem like them? Do others ever perceive me as one of "them"?

"Those Christians" make me uncomfortable because their actions cause me to consider my own. To analyze my actions, I listed bad behaviors often associated with Christians:

Mistake #1: Thinking non-Christians are morally or ethically inferior to believers. I've made this mistake by not recognizing God can teach me through unbelieving friends. Some time ago, I offered to make photocopies of a booklet for one such friend. He replied, "No, I'll buy my own booklet. It's copyrighted, and I want the author to get his royalties." My friend's integrity amazed me, and my own lack of regard for the writer's livelihood shocked me. This conversation was a poignant reminder: Everyone I encounter has a lesson to teach.

Mistake #2: Believing some sins are worse than others. Probably no one would admit to this attitude. But again, I'm guilty of this mistake due to my dismissive attitude toward sinful thoughts. When someone cuts me off in traffic, I feel entitled to anger. Bitterness, jealousy, and envy seem like "no big deal" because I haven't done anything wrong. But then I remember coveting—forbidden in the Ten Commandments—is usually a thought, and many of the other nine can take the form of thoughts, too. Suddenly, those sinful thoughts don't seem so little anymore.

Mistake #3: Thinking Christians earn a "spiritual rank" through works—or lack thereof. Everyone's heard the terms: the ungodly, baby Christians, backsliders, legalists, heretics, those who talk the talk but don't walk the walk, and, of course, the spiritually mature. Since I've used only one or two of those terms in my entire life, surely I'm not guilty of this mistake. Yet, in some ways, I am. I gravitate toward the spiritually mature, believing only they can teach me. And I often overlook God's power evidenced in new Christians. Because they see God's Word with fresh eyes, new Christians astound me with their scriptural insights. Much like the remedy for Mistake #1, I need to remember God teaches me through many people, and he can definitely use a new Christian to reinvigorate my faith.

Mistake #4: Believing I've arrived spiritually. I sometimes zone out for the reading of familiar Scripture during my pastor's sermon, thinking, Yeah, yeah, I've heard this one before. I became aware of this when I asked my church's youth group to recite John 3:16 together. The teens rolled their eyes and practically yawned out the words. I wonder if I sometimes wear that bored facial expression in church. My poor pastor!

I'd previously pretty much dismissed a lot of my own unfortunate behavior. I wonder how many people have noticed my bad attitudes, bad facial expressions, and maybe even bad actions, and said, "That's how Christians behave? I don't want to be like them." I'm actually grateful to have read about the latest antics of the Phelps family; their bad behavior helped me recognize behavior I need to change. "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).

The next time I read a story or hear a conversation about "those Christian jerks," I'll try not to smugly nod in agreement. Instead, I'll listen carefully. After all, they just might be talking about me.

How do you respond when other Christians behave badly? Is recognizing bad behaviors in yourself difficult? What's helped you recognize and change these thoughts or behaviors?

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Holly Vicente Robaina
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