A little over a year ago, Adam Holz wrote a blog post (“Judging Justin“) that unfolded the paradox that is pop star Justin Bieber. Fresh off the heels of several run-ins with the law and tabloid-worthy forays into the public consciousness, Bieber made a cameo in a Christian rap song. Then he posted a page from Sarah Young’s devotional book Jesus Calling. It felt, to some, like the beginnings of an apology and a renewed interest in his Christian faith.
Adam did a great job of biblically unpacking what, perhaps, our reaction should be to Bieber’s sudden return to God. He wrote:
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.
That blog came to mind recently when I heard that Bieber has spent much of this week hanging out at the 2015 Hillsong Conference in Sydney, Australia. When queried about his attendance, Hillsong Church released a statement saying, “Justin is here, like tens of thousands of others, as a delegate who is seeking to build stronger foundations into his life.”
It’s one of the few headlines that Bieber’s starred in this year. After being called “2014’s most annoying celebrity” by the Ottowa Sun and becoming better known for his antics than his music, Bieber has been pretty quiet in 2015. The stories surrounding Bieber this year have been, almost without exception, apologetic. In January, he recorded an apology video to his fans. A week later, he appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ show Ellen, unpacking that apology further. “Like I said last time, I did a lot of things over the past few years that I’m not proud of.”
And this March, during his Comedy Central Roast, he apologized again.
“There was no preparing me for this life,” he said. “I was thrown into this at 12 years old and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. There’s been moments I’ve been proud of, then a lot of moments that I’m disappointed in myself for—things that I’ve done that really don’t define who I am. I’m a kindhearted person who loves people and through it all, I lost my best qualities. For that I’m sorry.”
He’s wrong, of course. For better or worse, what we do does define who we are—for other people, anyway. We can think all the good thoughts we want, but as Adam said, the fruit matters. Even if Bieber stays out of the courts for years, he’ll still be a punchline for a while. Just last week in Ted 2, a character lambasts the foul-mouthed teddy bear for his litany of bad decisions by saying, “You could’ve been a leader, a role model. Instead, you’re Justin Bieber.”
And even if Bieber has throttled down his bad-boy ways, his habits still feel a little inconsistent with what most of us would call a Christian walk. His apology video was sprinkled with profanity. Before his heartfelt mea culpa during his roast, he lobbed tawdry take-downs at some of his roasters (almost required behavior at these roasts, but still). Bieber’s behavior is under scrutiny at Hillsong, too: World Religion News reports that “Justin was busier ‘snapchatting’, photographing his shoes, and chatting with his seatmate than listening and participating to [sic] the program.”
The concept of forgiveness has always been a fascinating one for me. It’s a cornerstone of the Christian faith, and frankly, it’s one of the hardest things we’re asked to do. To forgive someone who has hurt us doesn’t feel natural sometimes. Even when we say the words, we can secretly wonder whether we’ve really offered that forgiveness.
And then you have to consider the forgivee, so to speak—the one apologizing. Truth is, saying sorry isn’t enough. Repentance is a big part of the process, really. It’s the key to rebuilding trust between parties.
And so I wonder where Justin Bieber falls on the forgiveness scale. Has society forgiven Bieber? Have shunted fans forgiven him? Should they? And how should Christians respond? Do we forgive now, overlook some of the inconsistencies and encourage him to get ever-closer to God? Or do we withhold forgiveness, waiting for him to act more like we think a Christian should act?
And then there’s this question: When we don’t know Bieber—when we’re not in a personal relationship with him—does it matter whether we forgive him or not? Perhaps the only thing that matters is Bieber’s apology to God, not to us.
I don’t know if I’ve “forgiven” Bieber. His bad behavior didn’t touch me personally (having never been a fan), so there’s nothing for me to forgive. But I root for him. I hope that he’s allowing God to tinker with his heart. Some of what I’ve heard about Bieber is discouraging, But I probably shouldn’t judge too harshly. I’ve never photographed my shoes in church, but I’ve doodled on the programs. I’ve never sworn—except for the times that I have. I call myself a Christian, but not everything I’ve done has always been consistent with my faith. And maybe the best Justin Bieber and I can hope for is that we take our baby steps closer, every day, to the person that God wants us to be.