Over 80 percent of the people in this country claim to be Christian, but how many, in the end, will find out the hard way that their claims were false?
Our culture seems perfectly designed to lead us into this sort of false faith, primarily for two reasons:
First, it's dangerously easy to be considered "Christian" by popular standards because, according to those standards, the faith is nothing more than a collection of vague and friendly sentiments. And we know that a man is quite apt to believe that he is whatever the world considers him. If the world looks at the Jesus fish on his bumper, the Bible quote in his Twitter profile, the Christmas lights on his house in December, and says, "There's a Christian," then, as far as he's concerned, he must be one. The world is fooled. He is fooled. God is not.
Second, our culture is hostile to the authentic Christianity. Being superficially Christian in America can profit you immensely (see: Joel Osteen, etc.), but a true faith may cost you. Occasionally it may cost you severely, as is the case with business owners who've lost their livelihood for refusing to take part in gay weddings.
But the majority of us haven't faced such a circumstance yet. The most we have to endure for our faith are sarcastic remarks, snide comments, and frowny emojis. Our lives are not threatened. Our livelihoods are not (usually) threatened. Most of us aren't being spat on when we walk down the street. We aren't experiencing total social alienation. We go through life basically unmolested.
The danger comes when we lose sight of how luxurious our situation is, particularly compared to how Christians elsewhere in the world and throughout history have fared. If we delude ourselves on this point, we may think that our religious convictions have somehow been tested and proven when a guy we knew in high school unfriends us for posting spiritual memes on Facebook. I've more than once found myself in conversation with a Christian who recounts such a trauma as if it were her personal Passion. She hit the tiniest speed bump because of her religion and now she looks in the mirror and sees Joan of Arc.
I'm tempted by this trap myself. If I'm not careful, I may feel a stupid pride in the fact that hundreds of sad, lonely people send me vicious messages whenever I write something with a Christian theme. I may say to myself, "Oh, look at these slings and arrows I'm taking. How courageous I am to endure unpleasant emails for the sake of my faith!" Meanwhile, another group of Christians in Syria are marched into the desert and hacked to pieces or burned alive for theirs.
Besides, any profession of faith is sure to earn as much praise from one side as it will contemptuous attacks from the other. So, are we proclaiming our faith in spite of the attacks or because of the praise? Do we announce the good news in hopes of receiving hearty pats on the back, or do we announce it simply because it's our duty regardless? This question is not as easy to answer as it seems.
Who can say they've stood utterly alone in the wilderness, preached Christ, and endured assaults from all sides, with no one to come to their defense and tell them that they're so very brave and so very awesome for being so very Christian? Not many of us. The opportunity rarely presents itself. And if ever it does, we can always go on Facebook afterwards and brag of our persecution in hopes of being compensated with likes and shares.
Plainly, it doesn't require great sacrifice to carry the Christian label in America, as it does in Iraq or Libya or wherever else. But if it did require such sacrifice, would we still carry it? If there was no chance of gaining any temporal reward for our piety, would we bother? If proclaiming our faith meant embracing true suffering and persecution, would we still proclaim it?
If we wouldn't, then our faith is a fashion statement. Something we drape over ourselves for our own sake. Entirely artificial.
So, how exactly do we know whether our faith is so artificial? I can't look inside anyone's soul and answer that question for them -- it's enough of a challenge that I answer it for myself -- but I can suggest three major red flags. If our idea of Christianity falls into any of the following categories, there's a good chance that what we call "Christianity" is really a mask we wear to fool the world and ourselves:
1) It's easy.
We may not face the prospect of a torturous death in this country, but that doesn't mean it's easy to be authentically, actively Christian. It's never easy, certainly not in this godless land. But it's temptation that we face most of all, not persecution. Satan has had great success using the carrot rather than the stick in our case.
After all, from his perspective, why make martyrs of Christians when you can dangle materialism, worldliness, lust, perversion, apathy, ignorance, self-interest, and envy in front of their faces, and convince them that such a lifestyle can be lived in harmony with Biblical teaching? Why send them on the quick road to Heaven when you can put them on the slow and degrading road to Hell?
It's always difficult to resist the pull of sin, but in our culture it's made all the harder by the fact that sin and temptation are broadcast directly into our faces relentlessly, at all hours of the day, and each form has its own advocacy group, its own collection of heretics busily cutting and pasting the Bible together so that their favorite brand of evil can be excused. If we look, we can always find some "church" somewhere insisting that our pet sin is actually a blessing. Whatever temptation we fight, there will always be a sizable group of "Christians" erasing words from Scripture and filling them in again like Mad Libs so as to convince you that God wants you to succumb to it.
The moral obligations that accompany faith are hard enough to fulfill, but these "Christians" and these "churches" make it much harder by whispering in your ear exactly what you want to hear: "Don't worry about morality. Christ carried His cross all the way to the top of the hill, but you can drop yours here at the base and relax. Christ doesn't want you to suffer or sacrifice. He wants you to enjoy yourself! That's why He died!"
That's the easy faith. The tempting one. The faith that preaches a Christ who died so that we may be freed to sin, rather than freed from sin. A difference of only one word, but the gap between them is as wide as the gap between Heaven and Hell.
2) It's just a feeling.
Scripture tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God. But what does "loving God" mean? Is "loving God" just a matter of acknowledging His existence and feeling a particular way about Him?
Well, have I loved my wife merely by agreeing that she exists or by having nice feelings about her sometimes? Couldn't I do that and still disrespect her, abuse her, lie to her, betray her, and treat her with utter disregard and contempt. Couldn't I feel attached to her and yet not love her?
Clearly, a love that exists only in our feelings and our intellect is a worthless love. Love must be an act of will. Not a will that's subject to our feelings, which we act upon only when it makes us feel good, but a will that acts with love even when we don't feel emotionally rewarded by it. This is the only way I can know that my love for my wife is actually love for her, rather than a love for how she makes me feel.
If we can all agree that our love for another human must function this way -- or at least that it must function at all -- how can we think that our love for God need not even live up to this standard? How can we think that we're "saved" by acknowledging God's existence even as we ignore Him, dismiss Him, betray Him, hate Him, and never bother to repent of it because we think our mere affirmation of His cosmic presence entitles us to salvation?
We seem to be saying: "Don't bother me with your commandments, your exhortations, your guidance, your example, your teachings and admonitions, Lord. Your entire ministry on Earth was a silly waste of time. I've acknowledged you. Let that be enough. I've agreed that a Supreme King of the Universe has invited me into union with Him, but why must I actually bother doing anything about it? No, I'm too busy with my sin, Lord. Yes, yes, you exist, sure, whatever, but please get out of my life until I'm dead, at which point I'll be happy to join the eternal house party in Heaven. All of the fun, none of the work, I say! Just be satisfied that I've noticed You, and that from time to time I even deign to think some warm thoughts about you. I'll get around to loving you actively when I'm reaping the eternal rewards in Paradise. Cool? OK, now get lost."
That's not love. That's not belief. That's not faith. That's blasphemy.
3. It's not penitent.
It was decided at some point in the last 50 years that too many churches were preaching nothing but fire, brimstone, and repentance. Maybe they were. Surely, our faith lives shouldn't be consumed by guilt and fear. But in modern times we have, as is our habit, run all the way to other extreme. Now we imagine that our faith in God actually insulate us from guilt. The Christian is someone who "thinks positive," we like to say. And we happily apply this "positive thinking" to our own wickedness, especially.
We went from focusing too much on the prospect of damnation to pretending that we're not at risk of suffering it. I think, if we must err, we're better erring on the other end of the spectrum. Better to feel too much guilt for your sin than none. Better to be too afraid of Hell than not at all. I'm not really convinced that it's possible to feel too guilty for your sin or too afraid of the eternal fire, but I'm sure those who cross that line, wherever it is, are in far better shape than those who never approach it.
"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling," St. Paul tells the Philippians. To which the modern Christian says, "Dude, chill." I think we're safer adopting St. Paul's approach than that of the super chill psuedo-Christian. What reaction can we have but fear and trembling when we honestly confront the vileness of our sin? How many of us have even attempted such a confrontation?
Anyone who has not felt revulsion and fear at himself has either never sinned or never faced the fact that he does. We can be sure we do not belong to the first category, which leaves only the second. And if we haven't faced our sin, how can we say we've repented of it? It's not enough to casually yawn, roll our eyes, and mutter to God dismissively, "Sorry for the bad stuff I'm doing, whatever it is." We wouldn't accept that sort of apology from our own kids, why should God accept it from His? How could He? He can't force us to be sincerely penitent anymore than He can force us to sincerely love Him. He can give us the grace, and He has, but we have to do our part.
I said that many of us mistakenly believe that faith is only a feeling, but that's giving us too much credit. It's not just that we think of faith as only a feeling, but that we think of it as an exclusively happy feeling. Even our emotional experience of faith is incomplete. A sinner who truly feels the presence of a living God would feel great joy in His company and unfathomable shame for his sin. If he feels no shame, then he doesn't feel God. Most likely, he doesn't believe in Him. Not really, anyway. Not meaningfully.
Let's all pray that we do not meet Him at the Judgment only to make such a discovery about ourselves.
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