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).
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.