Old habits die hard.
Or . . . ‘How the Christian Gospel continues to confound and amaze me, despite my best efforts to ignore and misrepresent it’.
Right, well, with a title like that one I guess some will have dismissed the remainder of the article. The eyes will have glazed over and restless attention will have moved on. Quite understandable really. I’ve spent my life doing similar things time and again.
Yes, this is another instalment of my take on a Christian worldview. It will be a personal account. I will try not to generalise! Still less to pontificate! If you’re still here strap yourself in for the ride.
A Christian worldview is just so hard to pin down, to clarify, or to reduce to bullet points. Not that people don’t try. There are so many Christian worldviews held by so many people, but I will side step that difficulty by focussing on my own. It happens also to be the one about which I am able to write with authority.
On the one hand the Gospel message is so simple and so clear. God, the creator and master of the universe, actually loves me. He thinks I am worth His time. (Insert your name in the appropriate places if you wish). What could be simpler? What could be clearer? What could be more liberating, inspiring and reassuring?
Why then, on the other hand, is it so obviously hard for me to live that truth in my life; to understand, let alone accept it? Why does this simple liberating and life giving truth elude me so often? Why do it’s insights amaze and surprise me, only to evaporate inevitably in the face of selfishness, irritation, anger, jealousy on so on. Why do I so frequently overlook the Gospel, undervaluing it, dismissing it, in preference to a range of other ‘truths’ that serve only to damage and enslave me? To quote an almost forgotten eccentric Physics professor from my formative years . . . ‘Why is it so’?
I know I said I would try not to generalise, but if my situation is in any way shared by others, my questions could quite possibly be right up there along with the most pressing ones for human kind. No, not delusions of grandeur. More likely I think, just a humble little stepping stone to understanding the reality in which I find myself.
I do know that other Christians (the apostle Paul among them) have realised this uncomfortable truth about themselves. That is why many of them practise daily disciplines of prayer and meditation on God’s word. They do this to draw near to God; to refresh themselves; and to live in an ever deeper and more intimate way the truth that God is there for them, despite who and what they are. It is for many of them, not a sign of their exclusive worthiness, or underlining the fact that they are set apart from the common herd; rather it is an acknowledgement of their neediness. I share their sense of neediness, even if my prayer schedule is a little erratic and eclectic at times.
This is where I have always distanced myself from some types of Christian fundamentalism. Yes, I know there are many kinds of fundamentalism. I am refering to the tradition that maintains the importance of upright living and outward signs of devotion and piety in the life of a Christian. According to this tradition, it is up to each of us to achieve salvation by and through our own righteousness and good works. Seemingly, it is possible to live a good life as long as we try hard enough. Once we make a ‘decision’ for Christ, and live accordingly, He is then obliged to save us . . . or so the narrative goes. I have about as much in common with such a worldview as I do with secular atheism; which is, not much at all.
Those who think in this way; that it is up to them to decide to follow Jesus and that if they do it sincerely and righteously enough, thereafter they are ‘saved’ and all will be well; do not think as I do.
You see, if that were to be the case, then it follows that Jesus has not already done everything that is necessary for my salvation. I would need, apparently, to ‘help’ him by my right decision and my good works. That kind of thinking puts me in the driver’s seat and puts God in a subservient position. I am not at all comfortable with a worldview like that and I will not trust my faith to it.
Judgement and condemnation are applied freely from within such a worldview. They can be applied without pity and without compassion. God’s approval is apparently something a person wins through his or her adherence to rules of behaviour and morals. Such thinking is, in my opinion, a perversion of the Gospel and is a dead weight around people’s necks.
The Gospel points in such a different direction I can hardly contain myself. Whenever I hear the words ‘should’, ‘ought’ or ‘must’ I reach for my revolver (to quote Josef Stalin, I think). These words are sneeky. They worm their way into all sorts of places they do not belong. They come readily to our lips and our keyboards, and they pervert the Christian Message whenever they appear.
When I hear words inducing guilt or compulsion in a Christian context I do not hear the Gospel’s message of release and redemption. I do not hear of what Jesus has done and continues to do for me. Instead I hear about what I need still to do. I do not hear good news. I hear an admonition to conform and to meet what may very well be impossible standards, all with the intent of pressuring God to favour me. Manipulative and narcissistic? Certainly! A valid response to the Christian Gospel? I think not.
The Christian Gospel is counter intuitive. It violates my ingrained sense of justice and order. It speaks love and acceptance to my screams of victimhood and vengeance. It encourages me to sit down and listen to my brothers and sisters; to offer them my shoulder instead of a bitter tongue of judgement.
I guess in writing this I have again been reminded of how powerful and transformational the Gospel has been and continues to be in my life. I’m not really surprised that I continue to struggle to live that Gospel. That is, in a perverse sort of way, exactly the reason it is good news for me. It seems I will forever continue to bounce off the walls constructed by my selfishness; my need to be in control; to call the shots. What the Gospel changes in my life is not the futile quests to make myself the centre of things, but instead it brings the revelation that I do not need to be at that centre for God to love me.
So, to return for a moment to why it is so hard for me to live this Gospel that is such good news for me. I think the reason the Gospel is good news for me is that I so obviously need to hear it and re-hear it. It doesn’t come naturally to me to believe that I am worth a great deal to my creator. If I didn’t need to hear and re-hear it, the Gospel would cease to be good news for me. In a way that sounds kind of irrational, the very fact that I need the Gospel message in my life is evidence that I can not live my life perfectly. Conversely the very fact that I can not live my life perfectly and without blemish is cast iron evidence that the Gospel is the good news I need desperately to hear and re-hear. If, as my secular friends, and some of my fundamentalist Christian friends believe, it is all up to me, then I don’t need this Gospel. It has no meaning for people who do not see the futility of their personal quest for righteousness.
I live in faith that without the Gospel my quest is futile. Even with the Gospel, life can not be straightforward. My nature is to reject it and be seduced elsewhere, only to return time and time again to it bruised and grazed, convicted by experience that it has the only answer that matters to me.
Free, forgiven, loved and reconciled. I could ask for more, and frequently do, but the Gospel is there to remind me of the ultimate reality. The reality that counts.