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The new Christian sits across from me, brow wrinkled in confusion. “I don’t understand. It makes me ask, what difference does it make to be a Christian?”
She’s just been detailing to me some of the difficulties she’s been through since joining the church, like her search for a Christian social circle to support her in her new faith. But also her confusion—her confusion over the drinking and partying ‘like you see in the movies’ that she’d assumed would never happen in the church—her confusion at the disconnect between the people who’d been introduced to her as ‘good Christians’ who she’d seen dating non-Christians, getting sloppy-drunk in bars, and playing very suggestive games. Her question hit me hard. After observing this, can she still believe Christian faith makes a difference in believers’ lives?
I don’t know how to respond. I know all the excuses for the behavior. I know young people often ‘let loose’ before they settle down and follow their faith more seriously. I know some of them are sincere Christians who just fold under peer pressure. Or Christians who didn’t fully think every action through.
I really don’t know how to respond. I know there’s a particular kind of temptation in some of these areas that those who’ve been Christian for a long time can give in to. There is an extra thrill for us in going as close as possible to something we know is wrong, or even going over the line—because it feels rebellious. Nothing really bad, of course, just a little suggestive, a little titillating, a little daring.
But it’s a shock to someone who’s just committed to ridding sin in her entire life. And it should be.
We lose perspective when we’ve been ‘good’ our life. We become blinded to the unbreakable divide between living for Christ and living for anything else. We get really good at finding acceptable ways to let a little ‘bad’ in, because then we can be a little more comfortable—we can’t be on our best behavior all the time anyway. It’s fun to relax a little, and relax on some of our standards too.
And if everyone agrees some standards are just expected to be crossed, well, why should we protest? It’s just easier if we can let our guard down in certain areas of our lives. Sometimes it takes the fresh eyes of a new believer to help us see what we’ve gotten used to.
This all goes through my mind as I listen to my friend talk. Then this young new Christian goes on to tell me how she’d rightly gone to more mature Christians in her church for advice. She tells me of the shrugs—“Oh, they’re young.” She expresses the feeling that no one else seemed to think it was a problem. The feeling that, in fact, it was her that had to loosen up, and that it was her whose thinking had to change.
And I feel even less confident about how to answer her. These other believers might have a better perspective than me—they have seen many Christians sow their wild oats and return to the warm embrace of the church. Maybe I am not the right one to be counselling my friend on this situation. I want to shout that this behaviour is incorrect, that my friend is right to think there is a problem when belief does not make a visible difference, but maybe I am the judgmental one.
For a brief moment I wonder if I am there to soften the blow for her, to teach her that she can’t expect to see everybody living up to their Christian ideals and that she will often see many in the church who don’t follow them, to explain that people can be saved even though from time to time they fall very short. Maybe it is my role to help her follow her faith in a church that is full of imperfect people. But then I think—no, she should be able to see the difference it makes to be a Christian.
Our faith should make an objective, observable difference that others can see. She should be able to live out her faith in a church full of imperfect people, but she should be able to find encouragement in seeing these imperfect people strive to live differently.
I realize suddenly that there are two issues at play here. First, that long-time Christians can lose perspective on the vast difference between the old life and the new, and start to enjoy the thrill of small rebellions instead of running from them. This is where someone who recently committed to renewing their whole life can cause us all to re-evaluate—where new believers help us reawaken our joy. And second, many of us can be reluctant to be the one to stand out and be the person to call others to aim for higher standards. Here, too, the enthusiasm of new believers can open our eyes to what we’ve been tolerating.
A Divided Life
First, when we search for agreed-upon areas to relax our standards a little, we take a big step, not a negligible one. What we are really doing is saying we are living for Christ, but ever so subtly separating our lives into areas for Christ and areas for ourselves. Areas where we can ‘actually have fun’, and areas we can point to, to reassure ourselves that we’re still good Christians. But once we do that, we’ve lost our battle.
We’ve redefined fun as something transgressive, a thrill we get from rebelling. And by doing this, we turn our faith into the motions we go through, instead of something that matters so much to us it runs through every thought and action in our lives—including what we find enjoyment in in our lives. Worse, we have become hypocrites. Our actions contradict what we say we believe.
This is not to say that everyone who has gotten a transgressive thrill out of a small rebellion is not saved—of course not. Our salvation does not require our perfection. We will likely all be proven to have been hypocrites in some are of our life, and we will need others to call us back. But too often we use this reality of forgiveness as a reason to quite striving. It can be a reason to be lazy about reevaluating what we’ve gotten used to.
The path of Christian living is an idealized one—not a path of ‘close enough’, but a path that reaches for perfection. “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect,” as Paul says in Philippians 3:12-14, “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own… one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Christians in fact strive for an ideal, not a loophole. We do not allow our inability to be totally perfect to tear down the standard God sets out for us, but we help each other reach it, bearing with one another’s’ weaknesses.
Too often we use our lack of perfection as a reason to quite striving. We admit we’ll always struggle against some little sin or another, and we feel our admission of this is enough. It’s more comfortable to laugh about these than fight them. It’s more comfortable to set aside certain environments where we can indulge. And we start to edge uncomfortably away from anyone who takes these things too seriously.
Sometimes someone with fresh eyes and new enthusiasm can see what we’ve become too accustomed to see. Being a Christian is supposed to make a difference in you.
Turning from Toleration
What can we do? Well, we can first of all redirect our own lives. We can examine if we truly do find joy in our life with Christ. We can think about the not-good-but-somehow-acceptable activities we find ourselves drawn towards, and think about why. Have we lost our first love? Goodness may look insipid and tame to those who don’t truly understand it, and “wholesome” might sound boring, but to those who have experienced it there is a depth to such experiences that cannot be matched—it is a thrill that doesn’t fade. If we’ve forgotten what this feel like, is that why semi-illegitimate thrills are so attractive?
But I suggested there were two issues at play. The first issue is that believers can lose their perspective on Christian living, growing desensitized to the joys of Christian living because it is so “normal” to us. Then we become drawn to the thrill of transgressing boundaries, or at least relaxing standards once in a while. But the reason we need to freshen our perspective and remember our first love is that there is a second issue: the issue of being reluctant to call others to aim for higher standards.
I cannot look away from the struggle my newly-believing friend has in defining the contents of a Christian life as a result of what she sees. And I know I must be there for those with worries or frustrations about the real or perceived hypocrisies they see. I need to have a deeper response than, ‘don’t worry about it, they’ll probably grow out of it.’ And so my response is—yes, we are called to do better.
We must learn to care about the spiritual well-being of our own brothers and sisters in the church. We must genuinely want to see them grow. If we truly care, not just about whether they’re objectively ‘in’ the church or ‘out’ of the church, but about whether they are truly finding more and more joy in Christ, then we will better be able to stand the potential scorn of speaking up. We will find more courage to call out behavior because we know it’s hurting our brothers and sisters. And we will be more willing to be called judgmental, puritanical, and uptight. We’ll allow ourselves to be pushed to the fringes of social circles, because we are driven by deep caring for our brothers and sisters.
And yes, I myself have frequently failed to live out of this level of caring for those around me.
Believers may come to us with struggles over how apparent Christians can act in certain ways, and we must be there for those with worries or frustrations about the real or perceived hypocrisies they see. We must have a deeper response than, ‘don’t worry about it, they’re part of the church.’ Many do struggle with how apparent Christians can act in certain ways, and if we care about their spiritual life as well we’ll teach them how to use this to grow in their faith, not how to better turn a blind eye. We can encourage them that they are not alone, and demonstrate this by urging others around us into a closer walk with Christ. We can help assure struggling new believers that they do walk beside many brothers and sisters who do have a deep desire to live out their faith.