Not too long ago I attended an innocuous sounding event called Pray Singapore with a couple of my cell-group mates. The idea on the banner was to get an ambitious cross-denominational gathering of 50 thousand Christians into the National Stadium to pray for the well-being of Singapore. That sounded benign enough and I didn’t think much about it, but halfway through the proceedings up on the thronging stands of the stadium I found myself adrift in a wash of uncertainty. It is not my intention to talk specifics about that particular event here, rather I want to muse on the question that on that day loomed large in the horizons of my mind – what does/should being Christian really mean?
The great problem with the word “Christianity” of course is that it is a word, and like all words it is a constant symbol while the reality it is meant to reference tends to be amorphous. When society at large contemplates “Christianity”, it is unsurprising that it should seize on the most tangible and thus external appearances of it. A Christian is one who goes to church, or prays at meals, who states belief that Jesus was crucified and is risen, or who has undergone the ritual of Baptism and partakes in the Holy Communion. All very well, except that if Christianity is also a system of thought and a perspective on life, then all of these outer actions – being outer – are insufficient as determinants. The result is what we see often enough today – that two Christians may have drastically different de-facto understandings of life and how we ought to live it.
Now I’m not concerned about how society ought to deal with this problem of definitions – nor do I think it is its duty to. Rather, I would like to address the Christian. If I am a Christian, I have a stake in the question of whether my own Christian life (or at any rate what I consider as such) is properly and sufficiently aligned with what God and the Spirit wills for me. How can I find out if this is so?
If I am a Christian, I have a stake in the question of whether my own Christian life (or at any rate what I consider as such) is properly and sufficiently aligned with what God and the Spirit wills for me
Well certainly the first step is to actually ask the question. Passivity, even passivity in church, must surely be fertile material for the Enemy’s work. For just as the grace of Christ seeks to guide even the deepest sinner towards redemption, so do the temptations of the Enemy seep even into the sacred spaces of the house of God. It doesn’t take a bad church nor a malicious pastor to lead one astray – our own natural prejudices coupled with non-vigilance will do it. Asking the question turns us into introspective creatures – in order to begin answering the question of whether my life is as God wills, I must naturally first begin examining my life. The light of conscious scrutiny reduces the shadows in which the Enemy’s influences may hide. We must be individually wary, and never suppose that we are fine merely because we are part of a group. God’s purpose hangs upon each of us uniquely, and so paying attention to our own personal devotional life must certainly be critical to our ability to respond.
..positions claimed as being “Christian” have become quite alarmingly fragmented
The further danger of group mentality, particularly in today’s climate, is that of importing and uncritically adopting issues and positions ostensibly labeled “Christian” as our own. There may have been a kinder time when this was relatively harmless, but today it no longer is, as positions claimed as being “Christian” have become quite alarmingly fragmented. In some circles it has become intensely political, having become bundled with and gerrymandered alongside various unrelated – and sometimes toxic – issues, and in others it has become placidly thin: merely a veneer and wrapping over ordinary life with no true flavor. Vigilance on this front has, I think, become obligatory. We must take each issue and each social belief and each political position and scrutinize them individually, and ask of each “does this agree with my own understanding of Christianity?” Of course, for many issues this question will prove very difficult to answer, but the important thing here again is to begin to ask the question. We must seek to find – we cannot hope for answers except that we knock, and sometimes insistently.
That is certainly not to say that we don’t have help. And this is perhaps the most important part – the New Testament is required reading, and must be required reading (*). Not merely in quotes and excerpts, and not only in commentaries and sermons (though there are very good ones) – but in its original entirety. The Gospels are full accounts of events – stories, and the epistles are fully composed letters. While quotes and excerpts have their value, one cannot possibly think to know the contents of such things properly without reading each sequentially and wholly. The nature of our psychology tends us towards cherry-picking parts of Scripture – even verbatim verses – that fit most snugly into our worldview while unconsciously allowing the things in between to slowly thin out with the wash of time. In the long run, if we are not careful, we may mistake merely the collection of bits we remember for Scripture itself, and this would be a fatal mistake. We don’t often easily remember (and newer Christians may not even properly know) the sprawling complexity of Jesus’ voluminous and varied discourses hidden under the accessible language of the Gospels. We must vigilantly remind ourselves. What we must be on our guard against is taking the “Christian-ness” of our life and perspectives for granted when we have really only been basing it on scattered memories, common platitudes or “given” group ideas. We are the final gatekeeper of our own souls, and so we owe it to ourselves to reread the full books as we progress through stages in life, that we may compare anew the unique questions and challenges we face with the best known records of our Lord’s life and teachings.
In the long run, if we are not careful, we may mistake merely the collection of bits we remember for Scripture itself
Of course, like with most temptations, we must also guard against the opposite vice. While group mentality has its dangers, Scripture makes it clear that the Christian life is a communal life. The dangers of community is not to be combated with withdrawal. It may be tempting to some to become detached, to call the church hypocritical and its members misguided as we weave our own gleaming theories about what the right Christian life is about. However, apart from causing us to miss out on chances to serve in ways only possible with a community of believers, withdrawal also ultimately deprives us of the real test of our Christianity – the living, writhing, responding thing that is other people. It is easy to put hypothetical people into neat little boxes – real people have a tendency to step all over our existing ideas of them. But that is how we learn. That is how our own devotional lives can evolve. That is how our attempts at Godly obedience can be challenging and renewing. There are certainly good and bad churches and good and bad communities, and we do often have the privilege of choosing the community to which we will presently belong, but it is important to actually choose and then belong. The branch must live upon the vine.
..real people have a tendency to step all over our existing ideas of them. But that is how we learn
Of course, after all of that I have said very little about what sort of Christianity I myself consider as properly Christian – but if I had, I would have merely joined a chorus of dissonant voices already out there. Perhaps what’s more important is conscious seeking on the part of each individual Christian – we must find our own answers. In this endeavor, the greatest comfort is that some of the most basic doctrines of the faith are true. Obedience and sincere surrender really does bring us closer to the Eternal Father. Death to the self really does lead to rebirth in Truth, and God really does open Himself unto those who unreservedly and earnestly seek Him. And so we ought to seek with abandon! We lie to ourselves often enough, but God and creation isn’t seeking to deceive us. As C.S.Lewis says, the universe rings true whenever you fairly test it.
(*) Of course, I by no means mean to imply that the Old Testament is optional. However I would be ready to admit the complaint that the Old Testament is an exceedingly difficult text, and so the person who only reads it once then mostly waits for his pastor to draw insights from him is probably excusable. The New Testament, in my opinion, does not admit such an excuse.