I was listening to an intriguing video presentation from Focus on the Family last week in which the presenter made the challenging suggestion that too often the church has been guilty of creating prodigals. The speaker, Rob Parsons, went on to suggest that many of us as Christians will have to answer to God for the judgmental attitudes, ungracious behaviors, rigid perfectionism, demanding expectations and shame-inducing pronouncements that have literally driven all sorts of folk, young and old, out of the church.
His words struck home. I began to wonder how many things we do within the life of the church often prove profoundly counter-productive to our intention to draw people into a loving, life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ.
One of my first thoughts was how our language often ends up dividing and demeaning. For example, within evangelical circles, we often use the terms believers and non-believers, or else we might speak of some people being Christians while saying others are not. Most often, what we really mean is that Fred does some overtly Christian things and perhaps employs some distinctly Christian verbiage, while Sam does not go to church and doesn’t use or isn’t comfortable with our “Christianese” and therefore we conclude Fred is a Christian or a believer and Sam is not.
Scripture clearly tells us that only God knows the heart, yet we blithely (and dare I say, arrogantly) make judgments about the quality of each person’s inner heart commitment, trust and love. Worse, such language tends to segregate people into our neat, nice, comforting little categories of who’s in and who’s out, and often our attitudes and behavior towards Fred and Sam in terms of acceptance, respect, patience, and so on, follows.
What I find more tragic is that our too-easy use of such discriminatory terms gives no respect to the truth that every last one of us is but a pilgrim on a journey. None of us have arrived, or ever will this side of heaven, at the point of perfect trust, love and obedience. And in truth, if we have any degree of honesty, most of us would need to confess that ours has not been an ever-deepening, ever-growing and straight forward journey into becoming spiritual giants. One friend defined his spiritual pilgrimage as a lifetime of “moving two steps forward and falling three steps backward, with lots of getting drawn away down dead-end diversions and ending up stuck in the potholes of inertia.” Further, most of the truly great spiritual teachers in the history of the church readily acknowledge the times of doubt and struggle, of being confused and feeling lost in the spiritual deserts and wastelands, during which it was only the grace of God and the prayerful care of others that led them through.
In the same way, I’ve come to be deeply troubled by the self-description of being a mature Christian. The truth is we are all just kindergarteners in the school of becoming disciples of Christ. Chapter 13 in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians astutely warns how easily we can be nothing but noisy gongs and clanging cymbals and how worthless can be our best works and sacrifices if we have not love, to which we might add humility. I know how much my faith in, love for, and reliance upon Christ has grown and deepened over the years of my following him. But I certainly have not “graduated.” In the school of faith, I’m still a learner, a discoverer, an adventurer, who continually needs to learn to fall even more fully in love with Jesus, and learn to trust him so much more completely and learn to rest and rejoice in him with my whole heart. And even if I were to do so perfectly today, tomorrow is a whole new story!
Which is to suggest that we need to be much more sensitive, humble and encouraging in our language as we talk about our spiritual journeying. Personally, I’ve been trying to think of people using different terms, such as Christians and yet-to-become Christians, or believers and yet-to-be-believers. On one hand, such phrases, I hope, have a more inclusive aspect, recognizing two dynamics. One is that while some of us have been on the journey of faith for many years, others may have only begun to take the first step, or even to turn in the right direction to seek after God. But I don’t believe God is half as interested in how close we are to the finish line, as if discipleship were all about our success and achievement, as he is that we have at least begun to seek him. The angels of heaven break out the party hats, remember, not over the ninety-nine righteous but over the one who was lost and begins to understand he has been found. But secondly, such language may also recognize the deeper reality that God may be nurturing and growing faith in hearts long before they are able to give voice to that faith. Just because Sam hasn’t measured up to our markers of what makes a believer doesn’t mean that God is not very much at work. We ought not to be so eager to decide who’s a lost cause and who isn’t!
But on the other hand, I’m coming more and more to believe that any such distinctions are ever to be used, rare indeed would be the times when they are appropriate. C. S. Lewis once suggested that the most basic sin is pride, which is always competitive and self-promoting and grasping after a sense of one’s worth, not by resting in God’s amazing grace, but by vaunting ourselves over others. Pride basks in being smarter, richer, faster, stronger, better looking or otherwise farther ahead than someone else. The essence of witness, so our church’s confession of faith suggests, is recognizing that we are but beggars who, having found food, point others to life in Christ.
Rather than worrying about who’s in and who’s out, who’s a believer and who’s not, I suspect that a much better use of our time, effort, prayer and energy would be in helping ensure none are starving for want of knowing where food for the soul is to be found.
In the Second World War, convoys of boats travelled together across the Atlantic bearing much needed supplies and soldiers one way, immigrants and wounded men the other. The point of the convoy was not a race, in which the fast ships steamed ahead as quickly as possible. Rather the convoy stayed together for mutual encouragement, assistance and protection, and the goal was to get everyone to safe haven.
I don’t remember reading anywhere in scripture that God is impressed with our busy, back-patting judgments about who’s in or not. I do remember more than a few verses, however, that tell us to go the laneways and beyond with the holy happy invitation to a banquet and to be rather incessant and insistent in the process, because the Master just wants his banquet hall to be full.