This post dabbles in controversy, and that can lead to defensiveness and trench-digging. Best to kick things off with a lighthearted illustration:
Here’s the thing. It can be tricky to determine what it means to be a Christian. What is the point – the essential, defining characteristic? What is the crux of the Christian life?…
… Pun most definitely intended.
The If/Then Statement at the Heart of Christianity (that few people heed)
From everything I have read, in the Bible and outside of it, it seems the cross (the English translation of the Latin, crux) is the crux of the issue. And the thing about the Gospels – those four hagiographic stories that describe and methodically theologize the life, death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth – is that they attribute a whole lot more meaning to the cross beyond it being merely an instrument for execution upon which Roman centurions impaled a young, upstart rabbi at the start of the first century.
It turns out, the cross is less of an instrument and more of a lifestyle.
Three of the four Gospels quote Jesus saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” See for yourself in Matthew 16, Mark 8 and Luke 9; the latter even adds the word “daily,” a temporal qualifier that reminds followers of Jesus that this selfless and sacrificial lifestyle should not be seen as a one-time commitment but a perpetual choice.
Yet even as we turn to these particular statements, we’re aware that we hold in our hands a very large book. It’s got some weight, the print is small and the text is organized into two columns per page. For crying out loud, it’s big enough to make Melville’s Moby Dick, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or Stephen King’s The Stand feel no longer than a limerick. It’s hard not to want to add a bunch of other laws and statements and sayings and theological expositions to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”
So let’s break down what Jesus said a bit more, shall we? Let’s be pragmatic about this. The first thing one might notice about his statement is that it is structured as an if/then declaration.
If a person is seeking practical answers, if/then statements are the most helpful because they set up a very clear, very simple cause-and-effect. (Or, perhaps in this case, the better phrase would be a call-and-response.) Jesus acknowledges a person’s desire to become one of his followers and then supplies the conditions by which this desire becomes reality. You want to be my follower? he (essentially) asks. Here’s what you do: deny yourself, take up your cross (daily), and follow me. He ends with the same word with which he starts – “follow.”
If/then statements are helpful to modern readers, and they weren’t foreign to the people of Jesus’ day either. Even a cursory reading of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy or the majority of the Old Testament Prophets reveal that God’s covenant with his chosen people – the Israelites – was structured by an if/then understanding. As one example of many, take Deuteronomy 28:1:
“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth.”
Now, before we start reducing in our minds God’s commands or Jesus’ call to a kind of business deal or contractual obligation, we need to remember the fundamental difference between the two. A business deal or contract is an agreement by two parties to meet one another’s needs.
The if/then statement of Jesus does not describe a co-dependent relationship. We do our part not to meet Jesus’ needs, but rather to transform our own life experience. If we reject the conditions of the call, the world goes on a-spinnin’ and, according to a bunch of other statements scattered across those faux-gilded pages of this massive book, Jesus goes on a-lovin’ us anyway.
Reveling in Persecution
So, back to the point. In this day and age, there are a lot of people who view Christians as intolerant and judgmental. We’re believed to be superstitious, regressive and close-minded. We’re seen as morality police. We’re called hypocrites (a word that originally meant “actors” but has come to mean insincere and deceitful). And despite such negative press, there are a lot of Christians who seem to almost revel in the name-calling.
I know some people who sneer at the criticism and, in a kind of high-minded self-righteousness, will point to passages about how “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted” (2nd Tim. 3:12) and “if the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18).
Not only have some Christians chosen to interpret “persecution” as mere name-calling or political opposition, but we seem to think such criticism solidifies our affiliation with Jesus. The verses I hear quoted the most as a means of shoring up this identity-via-enmity is Matthew 5:11-12:
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
You see! It’s okay to be intolerant. It’s okay to pull back from fellowship and friendship with people who behave in ways contrary to what I believe. It’s okay to treat other people as the sinners that they are, and it’s certainly okay when they respond with denunciations and slanderous vitriol. They know not what they’re saying, and Jesus himself said that this is proof we are blessed.
Except, as far as I can tell, that’s not what Jesus was saying at all. The passage in Matthew makes it clear that the criticism directed at Jesus’ followers is false. However, there are a lot of so-called “Christians” who are hypocrites. They’re narrow-minded, inhospitable and just downright mean. They claim to be standing up for “truth,” but what is that truth anyway? When Jesus stood up for the truth, he had already been chained, spit upon and beaten, and there were still rods, whips and nails to come. And yet, he had not one unkind or judgmental word to utter against his criticizers and denouncers (John 18:33-38).
Oh, how much has changed since the first century! Strange, since his definitive if/then statement seems to describe imitation. Odd, considering that, at another time when he was asked what was the single greatest command, those same three Gospels record this reply:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, Matthew 22:37, Luke 10:27).
as well as his quick addition, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And when he was asked who exactly made the cut as “neighbor,” he went on to tell a story of your sworn enemy selflessly saving your life.
Holding On to Our Intolerance
So, what? Is it wrong to be intolerant? Is it wrong to speak out against behaviors that seem contrary to what is written in this heavy book with its faux-gilded pages? I mean, c’mon! Are we just supposed to roll over and play dead? Are we just supposed to stand idly by while marijuana is legalized, the government attempts to take away our guns, homosexuals receive the right to marry and vegans are treated as real people? Didn’t God call us to love what he loves and hate what he hates?
In response, I can only point us back to what seems to be the essential call of a follower of Jesus: to relinquish any urge toward self-interest, to adopt a lifestyle of humble self-sacrifice, and to keep our hearts, souls, minds and strength focused on the guy who perfectly modeled this for us. Furthermore, nowhere within that if/then statement can I find justification for taking a stand against naughtiness over loving the naughty.
Some will no doubt argue the old “love the sinner, hate the sin” adage. Others might even claim that not pointing out a person’s sin is, ultimately, unloving, because it leaves the person to wallow in their wrongness. Maybe. But until you can make practical application of unconditional love a true priority in your life, I’d encourage you to zip your lips and step down off the soapbox. You may think you’ve been representing the truth, but I guarantee no one has been learning anything about self-denial and self-sacrifice from you. No one has gleaned from you an uninhibited, unbridled love of the heart, soul, mind and strength for God. And if they haven’t seen it, it’s because you haven’t really been living it.
Go home. Work on that part for a while. The essential part. The what it all means part. And when you’re ready to speak again, maybe we’ll be ready to listen.