On Good and Noble

Lately I have been noticing something more and more in my web surfing and Facebook News Feed scrolling.

It is something I have had a sense about for many years now, but only recently began to pay more attention to it as the kernels of truth in the matter rise to the surface. Today, it is much more obvious and ‘out-there’ than it was some 5-10 years ago.

The late Christopher Hitchens, whom I greatly disagree with but deeply respect, articulated one particular frustration I have had for many years. Towards the end of many of his debates with Christians, or more generally ‘theists’ of multiple faiths, he posed a challenge: “Find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion.”

Barring that “Because It’s True” developed a fairly good argument for the invalidity of such a challenge, it is a challenge that I have wrestled with for most of my life. After all, it seems that non-Christians are well capable of performing good and noble acts without the need of being “born again” and filled with the Holy Spirit. And, the subsequent thought it what has kept me awake during many night: if that is true, then what practical message is there to be found exclusively in Scripture that doesn’t result in selfish ‘escapism.’ In other words, if faith in Christ has no practical use in this life except in attaining peace for what happens on the other side of the grave, then what use is Holiness to us?

Do a quick scroll through your Facebook, or glance at the headlines on the “News” tab of Google. It won’t take you long at all to see that people of all walks of life are performing good and noble acts. However, there is something altogether different about the acts of a non-believer and the acts of a believer (at least, there should be).

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Now, I cannot account for other faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. They will have to stand on their own in defense of this topic. However, almost every time I read a story of someone who acted altruistically and gave up something of themselves for the sake of someone else, there is a common theme that lies underneath it all. This undercurrent is what I have been sensing for many years, and unfortunately it seeps into many streams of Christianity. It is this: “I do good things because it makes me feel good.” In other words, most of the stories we hear about are of people who do good and noble things to achieve a therapeutic outcome.

When these stories of do-gooders first started to creep into the mainstream, this message was very subtle and nearly impossible to distinguish. Nowadays, it is overt in almost every story of someone who helps another: “I did this and that, and I learned how great it makes me feel.” Or some variety of that sentiment.

This may not seem that terrible on the surface, but when you really think about it, this perspective is horrendously selfish. It is actually exploitation for the sake of personal fulfillment. I do X so that I can obtain Y. I help Larry so that I can feel good about myself.

We hear this all the time in the stories given by people who go on mission trips. What a great time they have! Doing all these good works, helping out these poor and destitute people. And what is the ultimate response to doing such work? “I have learned to appreciate what I have more.” Or, “It really changed the way I live.” These are not bad messages in and of themselves, but it furthers the notion that we do what we do for the sake of ourselves and our own betterment.

However, this is a point at which Christianity diverges from popular culture. Popular culture teaches, “Give and give so that you may receive.” On the contrary, Christ teaches, “Give and give because you already have.” We give our lives away for the sake of others, not for the sake of ourselves. Actually, let me correct that: We give our lives away for the sake of Christ, not for the sake of ourselves.

Mother Theresa is known for responding, when questioned why she was hugging a leper, with “Because this is my Lord.” When we see people in need we respond not out of a sense to help ‘the lesser person’ but out of a sense to help because in the face of the helpless we see the face of Christ himself. The passage in Matthew 25, around verse 40 should clarify what I mean here.

In a more practical sense, Christians ought not seek to go to other parts of the world (or indeed our own neighbor) out of a sense to feel good about ourselves or somehow attain a sense of inherent value in our personal existence. We should go and help because that is what we do.

And, in this way, I feel I have a response to the challenge: Without religion one can certainly do good and noble things, but they become something entirely different when Christ is at the center of it all.

On Bait and Switch

Can I confess something with you? This might be a small thing, but it is something that has started to irritate me a little bit, and I feel the need to get it off of my chest. I am starting to get annoyed with certain Facebook posts. Now, I know we all have our own preferences on what types of Facebook posts we like or don’t like, and I’ve made mention of Facebook posts before, but this particular type of post is quite aggravating. I’m talking, of course, about what I call the ‘bait and switch’ posts.

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You all know what I’m talking about. The posts that have the eye-catching titles that seem to be communicating a summary of an article but it turns out the article says something completely different. For example, the post titled, “This Man Is Dating Someone Even Though He’s Married. Sounds Disgusting, But I’m On His Side.” [SPOILER ALERT] After reading the article, I found out that the man in question is actually ‘dating’ his wife and the article is about how married people need to be constantly pursuing their spouse. But, the title of the article draws you to conclude something entirely different than what the content of the article is. [end of spoiler alert]

There are other articles similar to this, but you know what I’m talking about. I’ve stopped clicking on them simply because I hate being tricked. I don’t trust those provocative links anymore; the one’s that shout out, “This is a different view on something and should spark controversial conversation, click on me!” I’m beginning to wonder, however, if we tend to do the same thing in our Christian lives.

I’ve been to several different churches, and I’ve read about several more. It is always amusing to me to listen to a pastor talk about how ‘hip,’ ‘different,’ or ‘loving’ his/her church is, and then when I step in the door I’m confronted with an entirely different story. The ‘hip’ church just plays a different genre of music while the people are stoic and wear jeans, the ‘different’ church is unorganized and doesn’t really communicate a coherent message, and the ‘loving’ church has a lot of hand-shakers but no one will sit next to you in the sanctuary. I will admit that this is a gross generalization, but it has happened enough that I have given up trusting what pastors have to say about their churches. Let the actions of the people in the church speak for themselves.

On a more personal note, I have come to realize that we tend to do this in our own lives. The way we act, the way we talk, and the way we treat others all communicate a message of who we are. But, do we really communicate the reality of who we are? Or are we performing our own bait and switch on people?

“I love people! (except those who think differently than I do.)”
“I’m not judgmental (unless I see you drinking alcohol)”
“Anyone is welcome into my home (but you have to nice to me first)”
“Of course I don’t look down on you (until you start talking about abortion)”

We carry around this notion of a God who loves all people and has his arms open wide to even the most vile of persons. We shout this message as loud as we can, but when someone starts to respond to this we turn the tables and assimilate them into a mindset that looks down on everyone that looks different, thinks different, and acts different than ‘we’ do. We talk about how Jesus offers forgiveness, and yet we don’t forgive. We talk about a God who hates gossip and yet we spread rumors all the time. And we talk about a church that welcomes any and all, but will shun someone if we see them in a bar.

I’ve said this before to people, and I believe it is true. If I were not born into the Christian faith, I would most likely outright reject Christianity. I look at how we talk about ‘the world’ and I see the ‘Christian’ movies we tout as being life-changing, and I honestly don’t see much that is very warm or welcoming in those.

If we’re critical of ourselves, then I think we would see that we often pull a bait-and-switch on people. The way I see it, we need to either look at ourselves objectively and realize that we are messed up people who don’t have it all together and stop trying to make ourselves seem perfect, or we need to start taking our faith more seriously and start living out what we believe (which is not intolerance, hate, and judgment as many would claim). To be fair, I think we need a little bot of both; We ought to be real with who we are and recognize that God is still working in our lives, and we should also see that we are called to live a life that we cannot live on our own.

If the Gospel is manifesting itself in our lives, then there is no need to perform some elaborate marketing campaign. Our lives becomes testimonies in themselves of who God is, and our God is a God who accepts us where we are in spite of our flaws. But, do we accept others in spite of their flaws or do we only say that?

On Facebook and Obama

About a year ago I was approached by a middle-aged woman after one of my sermons.  A very unexpected conversation took place:

Woman: “So, did I hear you right in your sermon when you said you were gay?”

Me: [confused look on my face] “Uhh.. I don’t believe I said that, ma’am.”

Woman: “You mentioned in your sermon that you live with your boyfriend.”

Me: “Oh!  No, I was referencing a paper one of my students had written.”

Woman: “I see.  Are you married, then?”

Me: “No ma’am, I’m single.”

Woman: “Okay.  I looked over during the service and saw that a nicely-dressed young man was visiting and I thought, ‘well, he’s either married or he’s gay.”

Me: “Well, I can honestly say that I’m not gay even though I’m not married.”

I’ve found a profound truth through my time at Olivet:  problems don’t occur because of what you say; problems occur because of what people hear.  In this instance, even though I was trying to be clear in my message, the woman heard something completely different than what I was saying.

During the last few weeks I’ve begun to pay more attention to what we, as Christians, say, and I’ve noticed that there is often a large gap between what we are saying and what others are actually hearing.  In our attempts to promote Christian ideas, including the Gospel, we inadvertently push people away and draw lines in the sand.  Where social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Youtube could serve as effective vessels to communicate God’s love to others, we have used them as battle trenches from which to launch our missiles toward our opponents – as if doing so will force them to surrender, and walk – defeated and humiliated – to our side.

It should not take long to notice what I am talking about.  Posts about popular topics such as Duck Dynasty, Obama’s policies, same-sex marriage, and gun laws are rarely inviting.  Typically, you can fill in the blanks with such posts:  “____ is/are being fools!  Why are they doing _____?  _____ is going to ruin our country! We need to stop _____ because _____  is going directly against scripture!”  While some of these statements may be true in some cases, I can’t help but think of what people are hearing when they read such posts:  “They think I’m being a fool?  They don’t know why I support ___?  They think I’m going to ruin the country?  They want to stop people like me, and say I am going directly against scripture?”  – We should not be surprised when people stop attending our churches when they hear such messages.

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I understand that the reason we tend to be so strong and direct in our words is because of our passion.  I do get that.  But we gather on Sundays to talk about how much God loves people. and yet we regularly go out of our way to find creative ways of telling people how much we despise them.  We try to beat down others for thinking differently than we do as we drag them kicking and screaming to the altar, hoping to secure yet another prisoner for Christ.  At least, I’m assuming that’s what our purpose is by treating others the way we do; it’s either some perverted form of evangelism or we’re trying to hold people underwater as we drown them in Hell, instead of extending a loving hand.

I am perplexed by all this, to say the least.  Do we really think we have it all together, that we are so pure, that we can claim to have the power to not just judge others, but to abuse them for not being on the same side of some arbitrary man-made line in the sand as we are?  Or maybe we like to stick to our version of the Great Commission: “Go, and make disciples of all nations… bashing their heads in with traditional American values instead of scriptural truths, and show them how wrong they are so that they feel that I don’t like them.  After all, I only died for the good Christian republican/democrat people.  I didn’t die for all humanity.”  –  That’s what Jesus was getting at, right?

Not only am I perplexed, but I am disappointed.  It makes me feel disappointed to see Christians I once looked up to lobbing grenades at ‘those liberals,’ ‘those homosexuals,’ ‘those God-haters,’ ‘those religious fanatics,’ ‘those baby-killers,’ ‘those bigots,’ ‘those sexists.’ Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that we should engage in conversations about current topics.  But, can we not approach such topics with even a little grace?  Does not the world already draw enough lines as it is – why should we be trying to draw even more?  Do we even listen to those who disagree with us, or do we stay barricaded within our trenches looking at the opposition through rifle scopes and satellites?

Sometimes the greatest method of evangelism is offering our ears.  It’s a dangerous thing to get out of the trenches to walk to the other side and get to know ‘those people.’  Once you enter that ‘no man’s land’ you’re likely to get shot by your own side, if not the ‘opposition’.  But how else are we going to know what our listeners hear?

We ought to take seriously the words we say, and the impact they have on others, because what we are trying to say may not be what they are hearing.