Living in the Spotlight and Living for Christ

Since the release of his notorious song, Baby, over a decade ago, Justin Bieber has been one of the most beloved and most despised celebrities. From air-brushed teenage pop idol, Bieber transitioned to disruptive, morally reprehensible bad-boy in his early twenties. But with the help of a self-effacing Comedy Central roast, and through finding Jesus with the assistance of celebrity pastor Judah Smith, Bieber made arguably one of the biggest reputation-recovering comebacks of pop history. Bieber wove a new redemptive narrative for himself, with his personal relationship with Jesus as the centerpiece of his turnaround. More recently, Bieber has opened up about his struggles and continues to talk about how important his faith is. Currently, despite his controversial reputation, Bieber is the number one music artist on Spotify and YouTube, with albums and singles all over the Billboard charts. In a nod to his faith, one week after the release of his most recent album, Justice, Bieber also released a gospel-inspired collection of songs entitled Freedom, featuring fellow pop stars and well-known Christians such as Judah Smith.


Hypocrite or Hero?
But who exactly is Justin Bieber? It’s hard to say. Bieber has a foot in both secular stardom and Christianity but does not quite fit into either world. He doesn’t fit the Christian mold for what a role model should be, but neither does he fit the stereotype of a godless, hedonistic pop star. What are Christians supposed to do with someone like Bieber?

When someone has a public reputation to maintain, many people are skeptical of personal redemption stories. Redemption through Christ is central to the Christian worldview, but in circumstances like Bieber’s, people will still ask: has he really changed or does he just want other people to think he’s changed? Should an apparently born-again pop icon be seen as a hypocrite or a hero?

Living in the Spotlight and Living for Christ
While only God can know what is in Bieber’s heart, Bieber’s music can give us an idea of whether or not his redemption is genuine. The picture of Bieber that we get from his music is complicated and seemingly contradictory. On his gospel-themed song collection, and even in some of the songs on his pop albums, Bieber speaks directly about his faith, singing things like:

On the third day, yeah, You rose up
And You beat death once and for all (once and for all)
There’s nobody like You
There’s nobody like You, Jesus1

On “Afraid to Say” Bieber cries out for the grace to make mistakes, grace that Christians know every person needs:

Afraid to say the wrong thing
I’m afraid to lay it all on the line
Criticized from every angle
Do we got the room to make mistakes?
Are we judged for everything we say?

Other songs that are not explicitly religious, such as the 2020 single “Holy” and his 2015 song “Purpose,” are still clearly inspired by his faith. Bieber also sings about his current struggles, being judged for his past actions, and his need for redemption. On “Lonely,” he deals with the difficulty of growing up in the spotlight:

Everybody knows my past now
Like my house was always made of glass
….And everybody saw me sick
And it felt like no one gave a sh-
They criticized the things I did as an idiot kid

On “As I Am,” a song that could be addressed towards God or his wife, Hailey, Bieber acknowledges his mistakes and his struggle to receive love he does not feel that he deserves:

Yeah, I know, yeah, I know that I made my fair share of mistakes
Sometimes, I don’t know why you love me
Sometimes, I don’t know why you care
Take me with the good and the ugly
Say, “I’m not goin’ nowhere”

The themes of redemption and grace run strong throughout Bieber’s music. On the other hand, not all of Bieber’s music reflects what might be expected from a redeemed Christian. Alongside religious themes and messages of redemption, in songs like “Holy” and “Peaches” Bieber sings about recreational marijuana use, frequently uses explicit language, and many songs that he has released since his conversion but before his marriage contain references to sex throughout. Are the references to sinful living in his songs indications of hypocrisy or of an imperfect person in a broken world, struggling to figure out how to follow Christ? Morally, Bieber is all over the place, but redemption is a messy process.

It is not easy to label Bieber clearly as either a hypocrite or a role model. To many, his conversion seems genuine, but his actions seem inconsistent. Jesus says that a tree is known by its fruit and genuine believers will also be recognized by their fruit (Matthew 7:17-20). However, the fruit of Bieber’s life is not clearly either good or bad. Although we cannot reach a definite answer from his public image alone as to whether or not Bieber is genuine, perhaps Bieber’s road to redemption can remind us of what true redemption and sanctification sometimes look like. We know that salvation does not immediately make a person perfect; they must go through the life-long process of sanctification. Sometimes the expectation we have for ourselves or for other Christians is that, once saved, we will immediately overcome all of our struggles. We know this is not so, but it is easy to forget. Justin Bieber can serve as an illustration for struggling Christians, not as a moral paradigm, but as a reminder that overcoming sin takes time and everyone needs grace.

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Jesse Childress

Jesse Childress has a deep appreciation for good food, philosophy, theology, and literature. He is the former Lead Content Editor and Writer for Summit Ministries' worldview blog Reflect, and spent a term studying at Francis Schaeffer's L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. Jesse has an MA in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University (now Houston Christian University), and began attending Denver Seminary in the fall of 2022 to study counseling, focusing particularly on the relationship between trauma and faith.