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What is a Christian?

“If it weren’t for Christians, I would be a Christian”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi was drawn to Christianity; the person and teachings of Christ fascinated him. One day he approached a Christian church but was refused entry because the service was only for whites and higher caste Indians. Gandhi was neither, and he turned his back on Christianity for the rest of his life.

One criticism levelled at Christianity is that evil is done by those who identify as Christians. If one counters that such people are not really believers, the objection is then raised: “And who are you to decide who is and who is not a Christian?”.

And in one sense, they are right; only God knows the heart. But it is equally unfair for them to ascribe the evils to Christians. How do they know who is and who is not a Christian?

The New Testament insists real Christianity consists of the individual’s decision to trust Christ for justification. This makes it very personal: it is not belonging to an organization called The Church that makes a person a Christian, but the decision to trust the person and work of Jesus.

It follows that the lives of those who do so would sincerely live to please God by living unselfish, moral lives, and that they would make a point of finding out and then doing what that consists of; it is simply logical that those whose lives selfishly dishonour God are probably not Christians. Jesus Himself said there would be many false disciples, and that the test would be the lives of those who profess faith in Him: “By their fruit will you know them”.

The New Testament consistently stresses that the lives of Christians will be demonstrated by the actions – however imperfect – of individual believers. If someone is careless about how they live, it’s probably a good indication of where they’re actually at.


A Broken Heart

How can we really appreciate or even believe in what Jesus has done for us until our hearts have been broken by the sense of our own sin? Not just as an awareness of some doctrinal or logical fact, but a deep regret for the wound I have put on Him by my selfishness? Martin Luther said we all carry the nails of His crucifixion in our pockets: a truer thing has never been said.

I suspect it’s when we gain this awareness and sense of regret – that our hearts have really been broken – that the depth of His love becomes real. And perhaps even it’s not until then that Grace really starts to change us.

This is where the most profligate sinner may actually be further along the road of grace than a goodish person raised in a functional home. Their hearts are closer to this breaking point than others, who may have to learn to get over an unconscious self-sufficiency before God can really change their hearts. There’s a good reason why Christ is called the Friend of sinners; and until we realize we fall into that category too how can we really know Him?

Being Authentic

We are often told to be true to ourselves, to not deny who we are, to be “authentic”. I think this can be a very good thing, but we must be careful how we define it.

Jesus told us to love our enemies. This seems to run very much against our natural inclinations, and if we’re to be “authentic”, we tell ourselves we must just go with how we feel – and we don’t have loving feelings.

But what do we mean when we talk of love? We can’t manufacture feelings, nor do we want to try to convince ourselves our enemies are better than we think they are, especially if they have done real harm to ourselves or those we love.

The answer is that we must work and wish for their good, even if it goes against our feelings. And actions are something we can do – in spite of our feelings. 
This is not as odd as it seems. We do it every time we have to get up early for work, to study for an exam when we would rather visit with friends, or exercise when we are feeling lazy. It’s not being inauthentic. It’s called discipline.

Sometimes, being “authentic” is just an excuse for indulging behaviours that are destructive. A man who is married tires of his wife and decides he’s being authentic when he decides to break his wedding vows because he’s attracted to someone else. But there’s nothing authentic about that: breaking promises is just dishonest. 

We can’t always change our emotions, but we don’t have to obey them all the time. To do so is to state we are not free to choose, that we are just helpless victims of the urges that arise in us. And that is a step away from everything it means to be human.

Looking for God

I have had such incredible sense of resting in God’s reality and presence in my life, yet on a day to day basis He sometimes seems a distant concept. Why do I not have a more regular sense of personal dealing with Him? Failing that, it’s so easy to fall into patterns of legalism and religious effort for their own sake.

This sense of rest is an undeniable fact in my spiritual history; I have felt – known – His love for me, and know it was not a figment of my emotions, for this sense of His presence came from a place I wasn’t looking. The awareness of His otherness was striking: knowing He’s there, that He loves me, and that I am eternally safe and have a real hope. But this sense is also somehow fragile, and is not my constant experience. Occasionally the clouds part, and I am gloriously unmade; but my daily experience is more that of a something, a joy just barely out of reach; around the corner, just over the next hill. How I want to live there!

Without it it’s easy to act out of duty or legalistic obligation, going through the motions. I hate that, though I suppose if our actions only happened when we felt like it, that would be pretty bad too. But I want to channel God’s love as freely as I breathe, all the thoughts of self left behind.

There’s a difference between actually looking for God and desiring some sort of emotional religious buzz. It’s not as fine a distinction as one might think; do we love the feeling we have for our human lovers, or do we just love them for who they are? It’s just the same with God. The feelings are a byproduct of our focus on the one we love. As soon as we focus on how we’re feeling, the feeling goes. The significant difference is that our human lives are physically present, whereas God is known by faith; yet I am convinced the principle remains true. In the same way, I found Him because I was looking for Him in the Bible, prayer, etc. But the heart can go out of the looking, while the pattern remains; I keep dutifully reading and praying (not that so should ever stop doing these!), but I forget to actually look for Him.

What’s stopping me? (Not a rhetorical question!)

I need to know His love is real for me, and that I can trust it; that is, a knowledge that affects the feelings. For I know it and believe it intellectually; but to consistently feel it is so is where I falter. Though maybe it’s a test of the heart: how will I act when I feel ignored or abandoned by God? That is a good measurement of the true state of the heart. The faithful person sticks to his guns even when there seems to be no immediate reward.

Perhaps all this angst is a result of too much introspection; “a watched kettle never boils”. I’m always examining my emotional state: do I feel His Presence? Do I feel He’s there? I need to forget about myself and just look for Him.

Does God control everything? The Bible says things that at first blush seem contradictory. We are told God has chosen some, that “the elect” are eternally safe, yet the very fact that we are justified by our personal decision to trust in God’s grace seems to go against that idea. We can fall away. 

Free will must be real, and I think the state of the world is ample evidence this is so, since it accounts for most of the tragedy in human lives. 

But God used the free will of fallen man to bring grace to us when Jesus was crucified, and we are told in the Bible this – and the Resurrection three days later – was the plan from the very start. I think that’s a good illustration of how we can know our decisions matter, but that God really is sovereign. We can take rest and solace in that; all truly will be well. But in the mean time, we must do His work, not to justify ourselves, but because we follow where He leads.

I think the answer is that God’s will prevails in the totality, but we are nevertheless truly free. We mustn’t forget God is eternal; all of time is the present for Him. This confuses our ideas of cause and effect since our choices and what follows happen in time; for Him they are all part of an eternal now.

Mind and Body

What Am I?

We are told by the scientists that the different aspects of our personalities – things like addiction, temper, even our religiosity – are the exclusively the result of physical causes – we are just “born that way”.

But is that actually so? Can we always attribute our actions to just the physical structure and chemistry of our brains?

I think there’s more to the story. It has been observed that cognitive therapy actually imposes physical changes on brain. If I am irrationally anxious (certainly the structure of my brain will be involved), it has been found I can retrain my brain through therapy: and that this retraining physically changes its structure.

In which case, we must go further upstream to find the first cause. There must be something else at work beyond the basic facts of our brain’s physical characteristics, something that can manage and modify the brain – and therefore our lives.

A couple of things follow. First, and most importantly, it suggests that what we are as people is more than just the sum of our physical parts. What is “I”? We must have another aspect of selfhood that lies outside our brain chemistry, for that which imposes change on its structure can’t be part of the thing it modifies.

And this implies that if we allow ourselves to fall into certain habits of thought, addictive behaviours, or whatever, our brains will develop the physical characteristics that reinforce these behaviours.

But it also means that we can change, though it would be an uphill battle against the pathways our own habits have allowed our brains to develop. It’s better to develop the right habits from the start, to not allow ourselves to pick up destructive habits from the get-go. Bad habits happen by themselves; good habits must be cultivated. We must make a specific effort to impose positive changes on our brains.

Here we move beyond the mere physicality of our brains; we must consider what is prudent and just, and order our lives accordingly. How shall we choose to live? These are not scientific issues but are better addressed by philosophy and religion.


Imposing Values

The “Christian Right” is often accused of wanting to push their moral view on society. While there are some Christians who feel they should force Christian laws on those who don’t want them (I’m not one of them), I’m wondering if it has occurred to anyone that progressives are doing exactly the same thing. They have their own ideas and since the Enlightenment have been promoting them with an evangelistic passion.

“We’re not pushing our values on anyone” they may protest. “People just need to be free to choose”. But their supposedly value-neutral stance is a truth claim no more or less than any other, and the moral relativism it entails carries social consequences as real as those that flow from any other worldview. To insist are no absolutes is (ironically enough) itself an absolute statement, a truth claim that would please the most rigid fundamentalist.

Both sides are convinced they are right, and opponents to Christian belief are often as holier-than-thou as those they accuse; perhaps more so because at least informed Christian belief insists that believers are saved not by how good they are but by God’s naked grace. In fact, Christianity raises this issue to the point of doctrine, an understanding prerequisite to any meaningful conversion. I see no such corrective in liberal thought.

There is no truly neutral ground. No matter how you look at it, someone is trying to impose their values on someone else, and this affects everything from families to the law of the land. To accuse only Christians of this misses the true state of things.

Good News

People who are not familiar with the Bible tend to look at it as a book full of rules and statements that Christians accept as true. If they scratch the surface a little further, they see the rules of a seemingly wrathful God (mostly in the Old Testament), and the nicer, more gracious teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.

That understanding misses the meat of what the Bible is trying to teach us.

The Law tells us what we ought to do, and that’s great as far as it goes. God cares about humanity, and tells us to Do The Right Thing, both toward Him and in being fair to our fellow creatures. But our experience – held up against this righteous standard – tells us we don’t always do the right thing. Our selfishness affects our relations with people and separates us from God.

The Gospel (literally, “good news”) tells us what God has already done for us – that we have been forgiven since Jesus took our separation from God upon Himself. He broke down the wall. It’s not a rule: it’s an announcement. All we have to accept it.

Easier said than done. People often ask if Christianity is easy or hard, and the answer is… yes.

It’s easy because the justification we could not achieve has been done for us. Christ paid for our sin with His own life and the resurrection is the graphic demonstration that in defeating the sin that bound us, He defeated everything attached to it – even death.

It’s hard because to just accept that and live in the freedom it brings is completely against our inbred desire to justify ourselves. We have trouble feeling good about our lives unless we do the work. The task of the Christian is to unlearn this way of thinking; to let go, to rest, and to just thank God for what He’s done. And (I can’t stress this enough) Christianity is not just agreeing with what the Bible says about God: it’s about trusting the person, work and love of God Himself for us and in us.

And we need constant reminders. Our actions we see and live with every day; but trusting an unseen God doesn’t come as easy. That’s why even experienced, instructed Christians need to keep up the good habits of reading their Bible every day, prayer and getting together with other believers.

But what freedom as light gradually begins to dawn in our hearts! It’s like water to a person dying of thirst, and one senses purpose, love, and radical healing of the heart. And it is offered to all who will simply come, “just as I am”.

The Basis of Forgiveness

… is a recognition
1. of my own sin. These days it is unpopular to consider personal guilt; it is approached more like a neurosis than a moral fact. But all mankind displays this tendency to sin. No amount of education or social engineering can change that.
2. God really has forgiven me. This incredible gift is given not because I earned it, but because of His love for me.
3. Universal guilt also means we can’t brag about how much better we are, and none can judge. The Christian lives purely by God’s grace., and this is key if we are to avoid a holier-than-thou attitude.
4. As we live in this forgiveness, our hearts start to change for the better in practical fact. And that is just plain incredible.

The Great Contradiction

Present conventional wisdom holds to values of tolerance; all cultures are held to be equal. Live and let live.

But what about when one culture would deliberately prevent members of their society from participating in that society as equals?

If we don’t challenge such views, we are not standing up for the marginalized within those societies. Is this just? Yet we are told we must not criticize such cultures.

My point here is not to bash another culture but to point out a double standard inherent in “progressive” thought: deeming all cultures equal, they prohibit criticism of societies that enslave and marginalize their own members. In doing so the progressives are not demonstrating tolerance: they are actually accomplices to injustice.

What’s more, they are quite intolerant towards those who would shine a light on these issues, branding them bigots and cultural imperialists. But can any of them answer the contradiction instead of just name calling? I don’t think they can.

You can’t sit on the fence. At the end of the day, there has to be a set of values that are absolute and binding on humanity if ideas of justice are to have any meaning.