Our church recently had several small groups go through Unbinding the Gospel by Martha Grace Reese, a study on evangelism and the problems facing many mainline denominations. One of the fundamental questions of the book is what difference does being a Christian make in my life?
At first this question might sound kind of strange. The most common answers usually focus on church-related community. Children attend bible study together and may develop life-long friends. Adults could find meaningful relationships through the choir or Sunday school classes. Additionally, there may be an emotive rationale–going to church helps me feel good or at peace. The pastor could be an effective, down-to-earth communicator. Lots of these responses have definitely been true for me at various times in my life. Other responses I’ve heard have been somewhat functional or non-logical: well, I go to church and I’ve always been a Christian, simple enough…?
What difference does being a Christian make in your life? I think it is important to wrestle with this question, especially throughout this season. What is our focus for Christmastime? In Advent we prepare for, celebrate, remember, and/or enact Christ’s incarnation in our lives and world. As people like Stanley Hauerwas have continually asked, what makes something a distinctively Christian response or viewpoint? In other words, what makes Christians different?
For me, this difference has been two-fold. In some ways these two areas overlap.
- God in abundance. Being a Christian has made a profound difference in my life through experiencing God in dynamic ways. While this might sound a bit “out there” considering mainline norms, I think this is essential to bring up. My heart has become radically transformed through worship. God’s peace has flooded my life in some very specific and unforgettable moments. I’ve seen prayers answered after 15 years time. I’ve experienced the power of intercessory prayer both ways, too. I’ve had visions from God. And I’ve seen God heal. This Holy Spirit empowerment can really shake you up.
- Suffering Christ. Being a Christian has also made a difference in my life in that I have come to see a direct connection with Christ and all who suffer. In some ways, this directly contrasts with the “God in abundance” experiences I’ve had. Feeling alienated, abandoned, or abused is not exactly the most positive experience. But with that said, however, I’ve experienced Christ in darkness and pain–after all, Christ suffered. I think that Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book Lament for a Son summarizes this concept perfectly:
How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.
We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
In many ways, realizing difference leads to a revitalization of faith. If Christianity is simply about receiving a heartwarming message from the pastor, couldn’t we just podcast the most inspirational public speakers? If it is about gaining a network of friends, couldn’t this be done more effectively elsewhere? The list may go on, but in these models of faith, Christianity seems to be weak or without substance.
But if being a Christian is about experiencing the resurrected Jesus, then things start to look quite different. Christian faith then becomes life-changing, stirring our hearts to become empowered to live in grace and to intentionally love the least of these.