Judging Justin

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 Justin Bieber used to talk a lot about his Christian faith. For some time now, however, the 20-year-old singer has been much more likely to end up in the tabloids for all manner of questionable behavior than at the top of the celebrity role model list.

Whether it’s allegations of racist comments, marijuana use, egging his neighbor’s house, illegally drag racing while intoxicated and/or high, assaulting paparazzi, exposing himself at strip clubs or visiting brothels, the once squeaky-clean boy from a small town in Canada has increasingly seemed determined to complete his transition to the Dark Side, so to speak.

And all that Jesus talk from early in his career? Well, that seemed gone for good. Except that, perhaps unexpectedly, Justin’s recently been talking about God again.

In early May, he put in a cameo appearance at the end a video for Christian rapper Brandon Burke’s song “The Pledge.” In it, Justin says, “God loved the world so much He gave up His own Son, right? Imagine, like, someone killing your son. Like a bunch of people killing your [son]. These are your people, right? It’s like, ‘How are you killing my son? That’s my son!’ It’s gonna be hard for you to forgive. God forgave everyone and they killed His son. That shows how much grace God has.”

Then on Wednesday, Justin posted an Instagram photo of text from Sarah Young’s devotional book Jesus Calling—which many cultural observers are interpreting as an apology of sorts for two old video clips that have recently surfaced that show Bieber using the n-word:

It’s encouraging to hear Justin talk about the core of the Gospel message: that God sacrificed His only Son so we might experience forgiveness, grace and relationship with Him. But that, of course, immediately raises a rather thorny question: How do we reconcile Bieber’s comments about grace and forgiveness with his rebellious and reckless choices?

I have to admit, my first response to Justin’s thoughts about God’s forgiveness was pure cynicism. It’s easy for me to assume he’s just using Brandon Burke for image rehabilitation. After all, positive news stories about Bieber in the last couple of years have been in very short supply. He needed some kind of positive boost. Why not take another stab at all that faith stuff?

But my cynical knee-jerk response, however natural it may feel, shouldn’t have the last word here. Because the fact of the matter is, I don’t know what’s in Justin Bieber’s heart. I don’t know whether there’s a flicker of genuine faith still burning inside. I don’t know whether the statement above is utterly sincere, utterly calculated, or somewhere in between.

Given that, the first appropriate response on my part isn’t cynicism, but rather hope … hope that perhaps what Justin’s talking about will begin to permeate his life once again in a way that’s more obvious than it has been recently.

And then there’s thorny issue No. 2: Though it’s not my job or yours to judge the condition of Justin Bieber’s soul, Scripture is equally clear that Christians do have a responsibility to consider whether someone’s stated beliefs are at odds with how they’re actually living.

In Matthew 7:18-20, Jesus said, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” Those words come just a few verses after another fairly famous instruction from our Lord: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”

It’s safe to say that our culture is much more apt to latch on to “judge not” than “you will recognize them by their fruits.” No one likes to be told that they’re doing something wrong or that that their choices might indicate something unflattering about the state of their souls—let alone the suggestion that they’re dancing on a hellish precipice not far above the flames.

None of us are perfect, of course. We all have inconsistencies. But if someone claims to embrace Jesus and yet doesn’t seem to be producing “fruit,” to use Jesus’ language, there’s reason to wonder how deeply that faith is really influencing that person, to wonder whether what’s inside is ultimately “diseased,” echoing Jesus once more. In another far less frequently quoted passage, Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). In other words, don’t be naive when it comes to someone saying one thing and doing another, but neither should you just read the tabloids for your information.

So where does all that leave us when it comes to pondering Mr. Bieber’s recent statements about faith and forgiveness?

I think it leaves us in a place of tension-filled theological paradox. I applaud Justin’s willingness to talk about Jesus again, even as I’m concerned that there’s not yet much evidence that he’s actively turning from his wild (godless) ways. I can’t know his heart—indeed, Scripture says we don’t even know our own heart, let alone someone else’s—therefore I cannot stand in judgment on his ultimate spiritual condition.

I can (and should), however, look to see whether the spiritual fruit of Justin’s confession is maturing and flourishing.