I have waited a while to say much about Kanye West’s recent conversion and subsequent album release, Jesus Is King. I felt it was wise to let the dust settle a bit, to watch and reflect on the aftermath and how both West and the general public would act going forward. When I was first made aware of some of the news coming out, I was most interested in seeing how my own evangelical, gospel-centered “tribe” would respond.
But how did I respond? Perhaps in a way you might expect. Surprised. Confused. I remember driving around my college campus, leaving my last class ever and awaiting graduation, filling my car with Kanye’s opening track on Graduation, “Good Morning.” So you can imagine the strangeness of six years later, me serving as a pastor, playing a Kanye West song before our youth service, hearing different lyrics from that same voice: “My God Is / My All And All / God Is the joy and the strength of my life.”
But it was more than surprise and confusion. It was marvel. Encouragement. Optimism. Hope. By all indications, God had turned Kanye’s claim to deity into humble submission. He removed a heart of stone and gave him a heart of flesh. With every new interview, I grew more convinced that this was no false alarm, that this was nothing worth dismissing. This was God at work.
But not everyone agrees with that. There has been plenty of skepticism and dismissiveness surrounding Kanye’s claims of conversion. Some have given absolutely no benefit of the doubt to West, or to his supporters. In their view, the quotes, the album, the public appearances and interviews, are all a sham, all a contrived attempt to gain relevance, money, and maybe even a means to an end — a seat in the Oval Office.
There have been plenty of other Christians who, while not outright dismissing Kanye’s claims, have urged those excited at the prospect of a saved Kanye West to take an extreme measure of caution with what we have heard from him. They have emphasized the importance of waiting things out to see where the wind blows.
There is wisdom in discernment, of course. Our preservation in the faith is a key doctrine: God will finish what He has legitimately begun (Phil 1:6), and those who do not finish with us were never of us (1 Jn. 2:19). But I still find many Christians’ attitude toward Kanye’s conversion to be a sort of double standard.
Around this same time, a pastor I follow on Twitter, James Merritt, posted an encouraging tweet about a conversation he had with a woman named Lydia on an airplane:
“God answers prayer! Prayed this morning as I was getting ready to fly home for God to give me a seat mate to be open to the #gospel. Lydia sat down and I asked if she would mind talking spiritually. Thru tears 15 min later she prayed to receive #Christ! #WhosYourOneJames Merritt, Twitter, September 25, 2019
The tweet received (as of this writing) 37 retweets, and over 1,100 likes. But it was the 22 comments that resonated the most with me. Every one of them shared a similar enthusiasm and excitement about Lydia’s conversion:
Our God is an awesome God!
Beautiful! Thank you Jesus!
Welcome to the family, Lydia!
Thank you for sharing the Gospel another soul is heavenbound…Various responses to James Merritt tweet
Now, of course, I absolutely don’t intend to cast a shred of doubt on Merritt’s words or on Lydia’s conversion. Lydia is only a standing example of a real problem I see within the Church: the gap that stands between how the general Christian community has responded to conversions such as Lydia’s, and the conversion of a man like Kanye West.
Quite frankly, we know so much less about Lydia. I don’t know Lydia at all, and that is part of the point of all of this. We haven’t heard a word from her first-hand about her understanding of the gospel. Yet there has been no encouragement from pastors urging Christians to hold their horses and wait to see what comes of it. To my knowledge, there is zero doubt out there that what Dr. Merritt shared online is 100% credible and worthy of celebrating.
I prayed to receive Christ at a very young age. Girls still had cooties then, and the McDonald’s PlayPlace was still a treat to explore. Children are still professing faith in Christ at these young ages, and we are quick to baptize them and welcome them into our church family. No doubts. No calls for discernment. All celebration.
Why are we so motivated to welcome the young child raised in church or the “Lydias” into our spiritual family, but we hold the very publicly broken who express finding redemption at arms’ length?
Some people have acted as if Kanye West must follow Matt Chandler on Twitter or articulate penal substitutionary atonement before he’s given a seat at the table, and to that I say, such people have misunderstood what it means to have a childlike faith.
A Child On A Cross
Several years ago, I sat in a workshop with a pastor who was teaching us about sound doctrine. This was a man who consistently, week after week, preached and promoted the importance of sound doctrine from the pulpit. He was unapologetic about it. I would guess he disagrees with the idea of dumbing things down for the congregation, if that helps you understand his ministry philosophy. The pastor opened with a question to this effect: “What are the essential doctrines/beliefs one must hold in order to be an orthodox Christian?”
Some answers were given. “The Trinity.” “Inerrancy.” “Substitutionary Atonement.” I believe I chimed in with, “Original Sin.” All great answers.
But then the pastor took us to a familiar story in Scripture, a story that I apparently hadn’t fully understood until that morning. Because in Luke 23, hanging next to the innocently-crucified Son of God, was a man being executed, who was actually guilty of crimes, “receiving his due reward” in his own words (Lk 23:41). We know little about this man, other than that he was a criminal worthy of crucifixion in the eyes of the government. The moral and ethical scum of the earth if you will. I would venture a guess that this man was not a theologian.
But there, hanging beside the King of the Jews, the thief on the cross pleads: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42).
The thief on the cross and Kanye West share at least that verbal profession: Jesus is King.
There hangs the King. What went through his mind as he heard this thief call him a King, in a way that was not meant to mock, but to honor, even worship? We don’t know. But think of what Jesus must have felt in that moment. Humiliated. Covered in blood. Out of breath. Immersed in the agony of the cross. But a small reminder that what he was going through, in that very moment, was not in vain. That sin would not have the final word; that it had lost its power, and death its sting. That God and man would dwell together again.
And that is exactly what Jesus promised this man. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43).
The thief on the cross was very publicly a sinner.
All of his dirty laundry was paraded in front of the crowds.
There was no running from his past. It became his legacy in the history books.
But not in the Book of Life.
Jesus’s death makes even a childlike faith an occasion for rejoicing in heaven.
Small Faith ≠ No Faith
Childlike faith is not complete. It may not even know what the Apostles’ Creed is. It carries with it the residue of our broken past. It will not articulate who God is perfectly. It will be found lacking in some areas. And that is not disqualifying for Jesus, who says that “mustard-seed-sized” faith is more powerful and authentic than the religion of Pharisees.
Paul writes in every Calvinist’s favorite New Testament book (Romans) that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). I suppose my question is, do we really believe that is true? And if it is, then every indicator of childlike faith should be an opportunity for praise.
Even if he used to make secular rap music.
I believe in the preservation of the saints. I believe that if what Kanye has said is credible, then by God’s power, he will continue to the end. I believe that if it is not true, then by his own power, he will not. I also believe that God saved me from a life of sin and self-sovereignty, and that it was real. What reason, then, do I have to doubt or criticize this man?
What Kanye needs, in my view, more than our caution and our investigation is our prayers, our encouragement, and our support. This spiritual journey will have bumps along the way. I wish he hadn’t appeared at Lakewood Church, for example. But who am I to say that I see this from God’s view? If you had told me six years ago, driving around my college campus, that that man rapping through my stereo would be hosting Sunday services and sharing the gospel message through his music, I would have laughed.
I pray that Kanye stays in the Word, and finds some mature Christians to help him navigate his spiritual journey. And I pray that I and we will grow to not be so suspicious of God’s power at work in the lives of new believers, young or old, public or private, radical or mundane.
I pray that we will welcome him in like family.
The way we once were.