Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fads, Fictions and Faith

"A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it." - Oscar Wilde

Are you willing to die for what you believe?

That was the bold statement of a Christian of his personal committment to Christ in a local community forum while discussing Christianity with a professed forum atheist. It was a typical amateur religious debate. But the thread caught my attention. It dealt with how persecuted Christians are (or at least believe themselves to be) in the current liberal media culture, and how being a Christian is such a challenge with the current shift in world views in our society.

Now, religious debates can often be quite amusing, mostly because of the seriousness that each side takes in their positions, and the fun to be had in attacking the other's position. Local community forums are often the hot bed of such amateur joustings and forays into expressing beliefs and opinions on all things godly (and ungodly). But they usually devolve into parrroting the latest dispensational sermon they heard, of the most recent airing of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.

I must admit that in my younger days I relished such experiences, and felt as if I was defending not only the one and true faith, but also the one and true God. Such is the naivete of youth. Little did I realize that the true and living God got along quite nicely without my aid for many an eternity.

And, unlike the professional debates, like the recent one at Samford between John Lennox and Christopher Hitchens, the amateur debates tend to ultimately devolve into "God said. I believe. And that settles it." A kind of Madalyn Murray O'Hare vs. Bob "Chaplain of Bourbon Street" Harrington, round 34. Usually the Christians involved begin to talk about how they would willingly die for the cause of Christ, and strangely how they fear that America is turning so godless that martyrdom will be a real issue facing Christians in this country in the not too distant future if Christians don't act now.

Now mind you, I am all for hyperbole, and don't mind using it myself to make a point, but the analysis of current American culture, godless and liberal, does not even begin to suggest to me that Christians in the country will face a persecution that will end in death on any kind of noticeable scale. And, ultimately, would it be such a bad thing that our society would so despise Christians that death would be quick and sure for those who follow Christ?

But really, is dying for Christ really the test of one's Christian beliefs? And by making such grandiose claims do Christians really believe they will win the world for Christ?

I don't think so. Shall we ever forget that in the early morning hours of September 11, 2001, 19 men, armed only with their religious convictions and box cutters, hijacked four airplanes, killing 3,000 people and themselves? These men, like so many of their brethren, were willing not only to die for their convictions, but kill for them as well. Christian, Muslim, Hindu (!) and other world religions have all had their share of dying and killing for their convictions.

Ultimately, as a test of truth, death tells very little of the veracity of one's convictions. And how absurd it is to use it as a test in a society where the chance of martyrdom is so remote as to be nonexistent.

The other answer often promoted in such debates is a willingness to live for Christ. The "WWJD" mentality. That is most often translated into some moral life lessons on what a Christian should "look like". What positions Christians (or at least, white middle class Christians) should take on godless issues confronting society, how they should confront ungodliness and godless people, make daily devotions and prayer, and register church attendance and giving. It means learning the appropriate head wag at the sins of others, while whitewashing our own sins. It means Peter Pan outfits and plastic smiles. And "purposefully" learning this year's "Prayer of Jabez", whatever that might be, in the Basement.

It is attaining the a form of godliness, but denying its power.

But then, if martyrdom is not in my future, what is the test of my Christian faith? Is it defending God in the forums? Fighting for the political cause du jour? Learning the latest Christian fad? Gaining positions of power to make the face of Christianity less absurd and more accepted? Is it living, and dying, for Christ?

I think Christ had the answer to that question. In his parable of the sheep and the goats, Christ made clear at least a part of His answer to the question.

Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. Matthew 25:34-40.

Of note in the parable is the nonchalance of the sheep. They did their acts of charity not for the rewards of heaven, and not in their search for deeper Christian meaning, but because of who they were, where they found themselves, with whomever they came into contact, and because of who He had transformed them into.

So casual and unassuming were their loving deeds, that they did not even notice they were doing them, and thought nothing of doing them because they were simply the right thing to do, the loving thing to do. There were no "purposeful acts" or ulterior motives, nor seeking of enlarged borders. They were simply being sheep. His sheep.

Paul, I think, said it well. "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." (I Cor 13:13).

The older I grow, the more I truly realize there is nothing I can add to an already perfect God, or the work completed by His perfect Son, Christ. He needs no defense. And my death will complete none of His work. That doctrine becomes real, that head knowledge becomes real, and more and more becomes heart knowledge. I can add nothing to what He is doing in my life I must simply trust that He is, and He will do with me His purpose.

The older I grow, the more I realize that the real question, at least for me in this society, is not "Am I willing to live, and die, for Christ." It is, "Am I willing to love because of Christ?"

And that is a much harder question.

Happy Easter.