This week, pop star Justin Bieber expressed in an interview that he desires to live life more like Jesus. Bieber has discussed his faith before, but in the most recent interview, he talked in detail about how he wants it to inform his lifestyle.
Talking to Complex magazine, he said,
I just wanna honestly live like Jesus. Not be Jesus—I could never—I don’t want that to come across weird. He created a pretty awesome template of how to love people and how to be gracious and kind. If you believe it, he died for our sins. Sometimes when I don’t feel like doing something, but I know it’s right, I remember, I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t feel like going to the cross and dying so that we don’t have to feel what we should have to feel.
Shortly after, we posted a link to the story with a few quotes to Facebook. The post received more than 800, surprisingly contentious, comments. For many readers, the reaction wasn’t praise, but skepticism. Some commenters even suggested that Bieber wasn’t referring to the “real” Jesus, but a sanitized version created by pop-culture. It’s a similar reaction many celebrities face when they publicly discuss faith, Christ or or their own religious outlooks.
Ironically, in the same interview, Bieber expressed his concern that he would be associated with the kind of Christians who are more known for their judgement than their compassion.
I think that with Christians, they’ve left such a bad taste in people’s mouths. Just like, overly pushy with the subject, overly churchy and religious … You ever flicked on a channel and a late-night church show is on? Sometimes it’s like, “You better do this or you gon’ die and you gon’ burn in hell!” And you’re like, I don’t want anything to do with this. I’m the same way. I’m not religious. I, personally, love Jesus and that was my salvation. I want to share what I’m going through and what I’m feeling and I think it shouldn’t be ostracized.
Thanks to his brand of pop music and occasional tabloid antics, Bieber’s been a polarizing cultural figure. There’s been times when he’s done things that are perceived by some as bratty or immature. He openly admits that he’s not been a perfect person. “I came into the music industry at 13. I was trying to trust people and they’d break my heart at 15 … I only saw people who are shi**y and were taking advantage of me. When you have that perspective, the way you act changes. I was basically like, F*** everybody. Then I started doing my own thing. I got into a little bit of trouble—nothing that other 20-year-olds don’t get into—just rebelling a little bit. Now, being 21, I’m coming into my own and around some pretty cool people who are not afraid to tell me what’s real.”
He’s being honest and transparent. Some Christians may take issue with his use of profanity or the choices he’s made in the past, but in light of a desire to live more like Christ and embrace faith, those things should be trivial. This is a person who isn’t afraid of how he’s perceived; he’s just trying to be honest.
And for some Christians, that’s a problem.
The Judgement Problem
Whenever a high-profile personality discusses faith, there’s a tendency for some Christians to scrutinize every decision they’ve made or pick apart every phrase they’ve uttered to make sure it matches our own ideas of what a real Christian should like. In doing so, we’ve created standards that no one could live up to. It’s no wonder someone like Justin Bieber would want to embrace Jesus, but be hesitant to get too close to the Church.
The modern mix of consumerism and an ever-present media cycle has infected some circles of Christian thought with the need to be skeptical of anything associated with their faith. So many Christians are used to being marketed to with things that are labeled “Christian,” that their theology filters are constantly locked on the highest setting.
The impulse is to protect ourselves and the Church from things that could possibly distract us into ways of thinking that aren’t true or biblical. At its core, that’s a noble goal. But in being so skeptical that we criticize every new convert who doesn’t look or act exactly like we think they should, we let judgement overtake grace.
That’s when we start deciding what and who is actually Christian. We start trying to determine who looks and sounds like one of us. And that’s not our job. Supporting someone’s genuine desire to emulate Christ, doesn’t have to be an endorsement of everything else they say or do.
God is the one who will separate the wheat from the chaff. Our job is to focus on bringing in the harvest.
There’s a reason why God says that judgement is His alone. It’s because we can’t handle it. We have a tendency to look at temporal circumstances, outward appearances and certain cultural taboos. God sees a different picture. He sees the heart. He judges on scales that are imbalanced by the weight of grace and mercy.
Who knows what’s going on the heart of Justin Bieber or any celebrity—or any non-famous person for that matter? It’s not our job to make that judgement. We’re called to extend grace, teach truth and speak life.
This was a concept even the early disciples had trouble with. Peter famously asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Seven times seems reasonable, right? How many screw-ups does one person need before we can confidently deem them unworthy of forgiveness?
“Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” For Jesus, grace should be the default. If someone wants forgiveness, it’s our job to give it to them—without strings attached. The reason Jesus said we shouldn’t say “‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye,” is because he understood the great irony of human nature: Even though we all demonstrate imperfection, we can’t help ourselves from pointing out flaws in others.
Discernment Vs. Skepticism
In Philippians, Paul says “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ.” We can pray for discernment and knowledge, but it so that love may abound.
There’s a difference between discernment and skepticism.
Yes, we are called to “approve of the things that are excellent.” But extending grace to imperfect people doesn’t prevent us from living our own lives to a standard we feel called to.
God called us to make disciples, not to try and determine who we think is worthy of becoming one.
Just like anyone who has encountered Christ, Justin Bieber is on a spiritual journey. It’s easy to think of faith in simple terms, making something Christian or non-Christian. But Paul paints a picture that makes spirituality seem more like a spectrum than a black and white image. We are told to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
No matter where Bieber—or anyone for that matter—is on their journey to work out their faith, we should be standing beside them in encouragement, not tearing them down from the sidelines.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.