A few weeks ago I arrived at the startling age of 89. It seems unreal. My body is bent and twisted, and moving around much depends on the day. Yet, inside my head, I still feel as if I were fifty years younger. Looking back over the years there were times of growth and also times when I stayed static, and these were always times when I insisted on my own way. I also found that my times of greatest growth came out of the times of greatest struggle and difficulty. I think most Christians will recognize these patterns.
As I moved around and fellowshipped in various churches I came to know people whose families had been church members for generations and others whose families knew nothing of Christ, or who knew of Him but were totally indifferent. Yet there we all were together, from different backgrounds and at varying stages of belief, all searching together for more knowledge of the One Who had loved us all unto death. It was encouraging to see how God selects His Church from many sources.
I also saw how many believers said all the right things, but whose lives often didn’t reflect what they said they believed. There seemed to be a disconnect between belief and action. I saw it in myself as well as others. It troubled me. How could we all develop more authenticity in our faith and become the kind of Christian who would reflect Christ to those around them? My thinking raised many questions which I have spent the rest of my life trying to answer. The quest is always: how to be more authentic and transparent in my faith so that others may see beyond me to the Christ Who lives in me?
The early years of my marriage found me with changing ideas about what it means to be a Christian. I began to be very uneasy with unrelenting “victorious Christians” since my own Christian life seemed characterized by episodes of endless questions, ambivalence, and failure to live up to my ideals. I knew my human nature was a far different thing than the ideal of being like Christ, and as I looked at others I didn’t often see a lot of Christ-like people. There were exceptions, and I saw glimpses of Christ-likeness in others from time to time, but mostly I saw people struggling, just like me, to learn the kind of compassion and humility, and love to which Christ calls us.
I was acutely aware of the battle between my old and new natures. It seemed to me that I was constantly having to rely on the grace of God for forgiveness rather than being “victorious” through my own superior strength of will. I didn’t see how, if people were really honest with themselves, they could stand before God in self-examination and claim constant “victory”. I saw over and over again my own insensitivity to others, my selfishness, my pride, and lack of kindness. I wasn’t being very victorious at all and had to ask forgiveness every night when I would review my day and commit it to His mercy. I thought that either I was a very bad Christian, or that many of these “victorious Christians” weren’t very honest in their self-examination. I didn’t notice then that I was also judging others, or that I was feeling just a little pride in knowing that I had some awareness of the problem. I still had a lot to learn. I hope that as I have become older, I have also become wiser.
I also gradually realized that there was a difference between those who practice Christian culture as opposed to practicing Christian faith. They are distinct entities, but some Christians seem to believe that if they follow the culture they are successful Christians, without ever examining themselves regarding the substance of their faith. It is far easier to follow a familiar lifestyle than to face honest self-examination and recognition of your own spiritual failures. Their so-called victories seemed to be in following the rules rather than in the conquering of any internal fault. It was the culture that was troubling me, not the theology. There were so many man-made arbitrary rules, and so many judgmental and prideful attitudes in the culture as opposed to people simply living the ideals of forgiveness, humility, and being non-judgmental. I didn’t fully grasp all this at the time, but I would catch a little glimpse of these ideas in situations, and it all simmered away.
One eye-opening incident was at a special meeting of the Meds/Nurses branch of Inter-Varsity at the university where my husband was finishing up his medical training. It had been called as a specifically evangelical meeting to which we were all supposed to bring as many of our unsaved friends as we could persuade to come. It is important to remember that the students attending this meeting were young people who thought. They were serious students preparing for demanding professions, and in the course of their work would be dealing with life and death and difficult ethical situations. The speaker, instead of addressing the hard legitimate questions these students might have had, gave a simplistic message about the “Ships” of the Bible ~ Fellowship, Discipleship, etc. Intellectually it would have been great for about fourth grade. It was embarrassing for those who had brought questioning unsaved friends to hear the case for Christ in their lives. It was tone-deaf and condescending and demonstrated the subconscious spiritual elitism of many Christians toward the unsaved. As if that weren’t enough, on the way out I overheard one girl say to another, “How can SHE be a Christian? Why she goes to the ________Church!”
It forced an awareness that sitting around us in the pews may be spiritual infants as well as spiritual elders or anything in between. People may be saved, yet never progress toward any significant level of growth. It is easy just to go through the motions and do as all your friends do, or to use the buzz words and sound politically correct, without having much of a viable, growing relationship with the Lord. Everything depends on the degree of our desire to seek the will of God for our lives instead of being content just to be church-goers.
I had always naively assumed that those Christians who came from Christian homes would automatically be stronger in the faith than those who had come to the Lord from unbelieving backgrounds. My eyes were opened to the fact that some of my friends who had grown up in Christian families weren’t that strong in their personal faith; they had just grown up with the culture and the jargon and looked like the real thing. I also saw those from unbelieving backgrounds whose sense of gratitude for the grace of God in saving them was so strong that they were deeply committed right from the very beginning. As in everything else, it depends on the individual, and backgrounds have little to do with it.
You can’t get to heaven on your parents’ faith.
Over the years I have realized that I can’t compare myself to others in spiritual matters. Each of us has his/her own journey. I still see the same problems in the Church. I may comment on them and try to make others aware, but I no longer feel it is my job to judge the lives of other individual Christians… or, especially, the lives of unbelievers. I am to love as Christ has loved me, even in my sin. The Church has options for sin within congregations, but unless I am an elder or a deacon, etc., that kind of judgment is not in my job description. I am only responsible for myself, and while I can pray for situations, I can leave the judgment of individuals to the Lord. He deals with each of us in the way that is specifically best for us, and He may take us along different pathways toward the same truth. We can either respond or not, and that is an issue between ourselves and God, and not for the conjecture of anyone else.
Over the years the essential problem has defined itself as the difference between being conformed outwardly and being transformed from within. I don’t want to have the appearance of being kind or patient (but angry or resistant behind my smile); I want to be kind and patient and completely authentic in what I show to others. I struggle with that kind of transparency even yet, and probably will until the Lord takes me home.
Please pray for the Church. May all of us who know and love the Lord, no matter what denomination or background, strive for an active working relationship with Christ. May we be prepared to acknowledge our failures and see ourselves as He sees us, so that we can ask forgiveness and move on toward greater wisdom and effectiveness in our service for Him.