Mahatma Gandhi is credited with saying “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” It’s a sentiment commonly invoked by both believers and non-believers to suggest that the bad behavior of Christians is what presents people from accepting Christianity. Obviously, there’s some truth to this claim. St. Paul accuses those who proclaim the Law while not practicing it of causing the name of God to be disgraced amongst non-believers (Romans 2:21b-24),
While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
So, by all means, we should bear in mind that our entire lives witness (or contradict) the Gospel. But there’s also a risk of which we need to be aware. When we’ve tried everything we can think of to lead someone to Christianity and it doesn’t work, it’s so easy to blame ourselves: to think that if we had done everything just so, or found just the right combination of words, everything would have clicked, and they would have accepted Jesus Christ. If we were only a little more compassionate, or a little smarter, or a little more persuasive in our speech.
This reaction is discouraging, and what’s more, it’s often false. It gets three things wrong: grace, free will, and Jesus. I’ll treat the first two only very briefly. In acting as if conversion is something we can bring about on our own, as if it were a recipe or a computer program in need of tweaking, we manage to overlook both (a) that God is the one who always acts first in these things, and that conversion is a grace of the Holy Spirit; and (b) that the person in question remains totally free to reject the grace of God and our favorite arguments and Christian witness. There’s no formula guaranteed to get us the results we want, because we can’t force God’s hands, or our neighbor’s.
But the biggest thing that this gets wrong is Jesus Himself. At its heart, the objection might be put this way: if we were all like Christ, everyone would become Christians. That’s a beautiful-sounding sentiment, but it’s not true. At several points in the Gospel, people listened to Jesus Himself and still rejected Him to His Face. Jesus doesn’t say that, if everybody just had a chance to hear Him preach, everyone would become Christian and peace would reign. Rather, in Luke 12:49-53 (tomorrow’s Gospel), He says,
I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
His point isn’t that He loves division or hates peace: obviously, the opposite is true in each case. Rather, it’s that He’s preaching a message that not everybody is going to accept or appreciate. We can see this in at least three areas.
First, people often reject Jesus because they prefer sin. Jesus repeatedly calls people out for their sinful deeds, and calls them to conversion. He encourages us to go and sin no more, He calls out religious hypocrites, and He generally doesn’t let us sit comfortably in self-righteousness. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that many people respond simply by rejecting Him (John 3:19-21):
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.
It’s easy to imagine that this is a problem with the intellect, that these folks just didn’t understand enough details about the Gospel. And they might even present their objections to Christianity that way, that they would love to be Christian, but they just can’t resolve this-or-that intellectual issue. But that’s not the case. The problem is with the will: they don’t want the Gospel to be true, because they love the sinful lives that they’re living more than they love God or love the truth. It’s these people who St. Paul says perish “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10).
Second, people often reject Jesus because He preaches hard teachings. The clearest example of this is in John 6, in which Jesus teaches that the Eucharist is really His Body and His Blood. “Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it? […] After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” (John 6:60, 66). That is, it wasn’t just casual observers who rejected Christ after they learned about this, but Christian disciples.
There’s a notion that anyone who’s a true follower of Christ will never fall away (or will only fall away temporarily). Scripture paints another picture entirely, and this is one of those areas; Christ lost followers over His unwillingness to present the Eucharist as a mere symbol, over His insistence on saying things like (John 6:54-56):
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
Third, people reject Christ because of the Cross. The Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t the Gospel that many people are hoping for. In the strongest rebuke to the mentality that I’m describing, St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:22-24 that “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Christianity’s teachings are brilliant, and her miracles are well-documented. But in the midst of them stands the Cross, and we don’t get to look away.
Call it crutch-less Christianity. We don’t set the Cross aside to lean on miracles or theology, because we can’t get to those miracles or that theology without the Cross. And that’s too much for some people, who stumble over the scandal of the Cross.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is intensely attractive, but there’s no denying that He also repulsed a lot of people (let’s not forget that He was condemned by popular vote, Mark 15:6-15). Our task is to present the truth of that Gospel in a spirit of love (Ephesians 4:15; 1 John 3:18), and to do everything we can to bring our friends and loved ones to the fullness of the truth and to a saving relationship with Jesus. But we need to realize our serious limitations, and not to forget that it’s not about us, and that it’s not us that they’re ultimately rejecting when things don’t go as we’d like. This realization should lead us to greater humility (and certainly, greater prayer for the people that we’re trying to lead to Jesus), and away from the discouraging egocentrism of thinking that we could save the world if we just found the right combination of words.