It’s no secret that people today are questioning their faith and leaving the church because of religious hypocrisy—there’s even a recent study showing this to be the case.

The unbelieving world is paying more attention than ever to whether Christians’ beliefs and actions match up. If there’s anything we’ve learned in recent years, it’s that our simply knowing what is right doesn’t necessarily mean we will do it.

Of course, this kind of hypocrisy is not unique to religious people.

My sister, a nurse, once strolled by a couple of pulmonologists she knew as she was leaving the hospital. They were standing outside smoking cigarettes. She was struck by the irony: These doctors know all there is to know about lung disease and the toxic effects of smoking, and yet that did not prevent them from doing it anyway.

Similarly, there’s a world of difference between our intentions and our actions when it comes to doing the will of God. Yet many of us believe that if we think about the truth, theologize about it, and talk about it, we are doing God’s will. This is a mistake. Having a rational understanding of God’s will does not amount to true belief unless and until we act on that knowledge.

That’s because our being is shaped by our doing, rather than the other way around like many assume. We might know we should trust Jesus, for instance, but that’s different from actively putting our trust in him. Wanting to obey God is not obeying him. As Jesus puts it simply, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15, NASB).

Our kinship with others flows out of our relationship with God because God has made us the keepers of our brothers and sisters, and of the earth. That was his plan. And this is not a matter of knowledge, but of embodiment: actually putting one foot in front of the other.

That requires setting our sights on Christ—on doing, knowing, and being like him—and filtering all our thoughts, actions, and dispositions through his eyes and heart. By imitating Christ, we come to understand him, and our being is transformed in the process. As we become more like Christ, we get better at seeing and treating others the way he sees and treats them.

Our posture toward and treatment of others is a good indicator of our level of transformation and capacity to do God’s will. That’s especially true for those who are closest to us, with whom we live and work and play. It’s easier to treat well the people with whom we have little interaction than those with whom we regularly interact, who can get on our nerves or push our buttons.

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The real test of our love is how we treat people when there’s no chance to put on a pious show.

The opposite of this kind of selfless love is what I call Invictus-ing—taking the self-deifying stance described in William Ernest Henley’s famous poem “Invictus”:

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
… I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

This attitude of self-governance can lead us off-course from God’s will and entangle us with death (Ps. 18:4)—which can, in turn, leave destruction in our wake and make us run aground.

If we truly love God, and if Jesus is indeed within us, then we should be bothered when our neighbors are not flourishing. If we aren’t, we are self-deceived in believing we love God—for “whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar” (1 John 4:20).

But it is not enough to love our neighbors in our imaginations. If asked, would our neighbors attest to us tangibly caring for them?

Not long ago, I was teaching an undergraduate class, and the day’s topic was abortion. I was explaining the lay of the land, talking about the number of abortion clinics and the concept of viability. I also highlighted the cost of raising a child in different parts of the US.

What I’ve found profoundly interesting each time I’ve done this unit is that students across the value spectrum don’t argue about the humanity of the baby, although they may disagree on when life begins. And I always encourage my students to listen to those whose views on abortion are different from their own instead of demonizing each other.

As students registered their opinions, one student spoke up. “I had an abortion,” she said. “There’s no way I could have continued going to college if I’d had a baby. My boyfriend and I can’t afford to raise a child.” The class grew silent; some students stared down at their desks or phones, while others turned around to look at the student as she spoke. “My parents tried to talk me out of it,” she continued.

Then she laid it all out:

I asked if they were going to babysit the baby while I was at school and work. If they were going to purchase clothing and formula and help with whatever bills insurance did not cover. If they were going to help put money away for the baby’s college tuition and help with miscellaneous expenses. I also wanted to know if they would vote for laws that give mothers and children a stronger safety net after the child is born instead of just being pro-birth.

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Then—having established almost a semester’s worth of credibility and trust with the class—I asked, “Do you mind telling us what they said? Of course, you don’t have to answer this question if it makes you uncomfortable.” Students can always opt out of answering questions in my class, and I’ve had some elect not to answer specific questions or participate in certain discussions before.

After what seemed like an eternal pause, she then said, “They did not say much, except that they could not commit to all those things. Obviously, it was too much. So I had the abortion. Like I said, my boyfriend and I can’t afford a baby right now.” And then she added, “Pro-birth people talk a good game, but they don’t want to support mothers and children once the babies are born.”

I was stunned. All I could do was offer my deepest thanks for her entrusting us with such intimate details.

Really, I could not argue with her. She was 100 percent right. For our pro-life stance to be credible, Christians in the US need to vote differently to care for mothers, children, and families. We should hold the fathers responsible and our representatives accountable to crafting holistically pro-life policies. And with the price of housing, childcare, medical care, diapers, and formula, folks need more of a safety net in place.

But that would require a cost from us. Not only would we likely have to pay more taxes, but most of us would also have to simplify our lifestyles and pay more out-of-pocket expenses to support those who need it. Being truly pro-life may mean housing a single mother or helping her get back on her feet, or perhaps creating a special fund to support the struggling families in our churches.

Love is action-oriented—not merely talking about what we believe and support. If we continue to do Bible studies and memorize Scripture without applying it to our lives, then we will become the kind of people James speaks so strongly about in his epistle: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15–17).

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Christian activist and journalist Dorothy Day nailed it when she put it this way: “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.” That’s what my student was doing: judging her parents’ action (or rather, inaction).

Sometimes the simplest, most basic things in life—eating well, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, and not overscheduling our calendars—can be the most difficult for us to accomplish on a consistent basis. As a result, many of us content ourselves with ill health and dysfunction. Why? Because health requires exertion, sacrifice, and a change of habits.

Similarly, we often miss out on the wholeness and shalom of loving God with all we are and loving our neighbors as ourselves because doing so can be difficult to learn—at least at first, and without the help of the Holy Spirit and wise friends, or within a toxic church culture.

But it is possible. And it is necessary if we hope to restore the witness of the Body of Christ for this next generation.

My student felt that having an abortion was her only option, the only way to take responsibility for her behavior. She did not want to raise a child in poverty. What would we say if my student had put the question to us or to our churches? Do our actions vindicate our words?

Marlena Graves is assistant professor of spiritual formation at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York, and the author of Bearing God and The Way Up Is Down.

This excerpt has been adapted from Bearing God: Living a Christ-Formed Life in Uncharted Waters by Marlena Graves © 2023. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

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