A Sinner God Calls a Saint

DMX and the God who Justifies the Ungodly

Sam Bush / 4.20.21

Everyone has people they look up to, models on whom they try to pattern their lives. I’m sure you have your own examples — a grandmother, a coach, Mister Rogers, Dolly Parton. These people emanate a sense of decency and excellence wherever they go, and we try to channel their character whenever we find ourselves to be lacking.

DMX, the famed rapper who died last week, was not that kind of person. I believe he should be. His life was riddled with addiction; much of his music was marked by anger and anxiety. Still, many people viewed him as the ultimate Christian witness. Last weekend, thousands of people offered heartfelt prayers and explicitly Christian condolences in the wake of his death. Q-Tip tweeted, “A Love filled praying child of God named Earl has been called on.” Missy Elliott tweeted, “Even though you had battles you touched so many through your music and when you would pray so many people felt that.”

I remember being twelve years old and seeing DMX — legal name Earl Simmons — on an album cover on which he was drenched in blood while kneeling in a bathtub. I immediately wrote him off as a bad influence. Little did I know that the man was a professing Christian and would later be ordained a deacon. Last year, in the middle of the pandemic, he hosted a Bible study on Instagram Live and encouraged people by saying, “We’re suffering, but as long as you got God, it’s gon’ be all right.” I couldn’t believe it. Was this the same blood-drenched guy in a bathtub?

Clover Hope’s recent article on Pitchfork, “How DMX Found God,” is a poignant portrait of an anti-saint. The man was in no sense an ideal person. Even his faith was riddled with doubt. His songs often depicted a split persona (“Why is it every move I make turns out to be a bad one / Where’s my guardian angel? Need one, wish I had one”). Hope describes the patterns of his life, writing, “He would learn and recover and then spiral into an almost rhythmic cycle of reparation that was frustrating for those who admired him to watch.” It is a story right out of Romans 7 or the life of anyone who is honest with themself.

Saints are usually the kind of people who do fantastical things in the name of God. They tame wolves, carry baby Jesus across a river, meet the devil himself and refuse his temptations. Their piety is almost superhuman, praying at all hours of the day while living on mere bread and water. They often die as martyrs in the most excruciating manner, as testimonies of faithfulness to the end. The lives of such sensational saints can trick us into believing we are saved by our piety. They tell us that life is a ladder to heaven and that we are loved by God for the good we do. The extraordinary devotion of the saints is an accusation against the ordinariness of our lives.

It is far better, however, to consider “anti-saints” like DMX as actual saints. The lives of anti-saints don’t provide a model for us to follow and fail by. Instead, they give us a clearer picture of ourselves and God’s grace. Simmons had a laundry list of arrests that spanned his whole life — before and after his call to ministry. Drugs, promiscuity, theft, animal cruelty … Simmons wasn’t climbing a ladder on his way to glory. In his own words, “Shit gets worse as I get older / Actions become bolder / Heart got colder.”

But God redeems the irredeemable. To God, his drug addiction could never invalidated his salvation. His anxiety could never lessened God’s hold on him. The devils that oppressed him in his life will not torment him in eternity. Where others might see hypocrisy, God sees only Christ’s righteousness. The life of Earl Simmons forces us to put our theological money where our theological mouths are. If we believe this to be true, that Christ died for the ungodly, then an anti-saint like DMX and a conventional saint like Mother Teresa are heavenly neighbors.

How does a person become a saint? By grace alone. To argue otherwise questions what the Bible has to say about people and about saints. A true saint is not someone we strive to imitate, but someone who shows us a clearer picture of what it means to be a sinner saved by God. In other words, if DMX is justified by faith, then we are too. The Bible has no faithful heroes (save one). Strange as it sounds, DMX is a kind of role model for us. Not in a moral way, but in a way that depicts the Christian life as it actually is. DMX as an icon of an everyman saint shows that grace is in itself pure gift. Faith, after all, is never identical with piety. It’s not something that points to our own virtue but instead to Christ crucified.

As for that bloody album cover, Clover Hope sheds light on a hidden meaning: “Sure, his artwork evoked death and the devil, but he was conveying something much more innocent in his imagery — he was surrendering. Photographer Jonathan Mannion, who shot the artwork [said], “‘Everybody instantly thinks violence and horror, but in my mind, why isn’t it a protection thing — covered in the blood of Christ?'”