I write to have an impact. I write to bring about change. I write to try to help people know Jesus better, specifically to know that they are loved more than they yet believe. I also write to challenge people’s thinking. I write to exhort and encourage. And sometimes I write to keep myself from going insane.
My best friend from high school, who is not a Jesus follower, asked me this question. I took a long time to think it through and respond. I wrote this several years ago and have been fine-tuning it since then. With his permission, I’ve decided I should share it here.
Do I think most “Christians” are actually Christians? Okay, you’ve asked for my thoughts on this a couple times. I haven’t exactly been putting it off, just taking my time thinking about it.
This is very hard to answer for several reasons. I’m going to try to address those.
But of course, on another level it’s very simple to answer, because it’s a “yes” or “no” question.
No, I don’t.
Having said that, here’s why I think it’s complicated beyond such a glib answer.
What IS a Christian?
What you’re really asking, in a sense, is “what is a Christian?” or “What makes someone a Christian?” People have developed many different answers for that. Some of them are ridiculous. Many of them try to base their answers on what Jesus said, and some of those are still ridiculous. The trouble is that Jesus didn’t just say, “If you want to be my follower–” oh, wait, yes he did.
“If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” This is where it gets hard. Because if it were, “If any want to be my followers, give $1000 to the charity of your choice,” then we could tell objectively who is in and who is out. But how do I look at your life and decide whether you have denied yourself, taken up your cross, and followed Jesus? He said many other things that could be taken as definitive litmus tests for people choosing to be his followers—all equally unquantifiable. “A new commandment I leave you: love one another as I have loved you.” “There is no greater love than this: to lay down your life for your friend. If you do this, you are my disciple.”
Now in reality, I think this is cool, not awful, because all these commandments point to God’s desire for people to have a relationship with him, not to jump through hoops. Because another sketchy little secret of the Christian life is that all these things turn out to be impossible for me to do by myself. I can’t love people as Jesus loved them when I’m just trying my hardest to do that. When I try, I quickly come to the end of my strength and ability, and then have to choose whether to cry out to God for help, or decide that this is “good enough.” I mean, our best has to be good enough, right?
Pothole One: People who suck at being Christians
Ah, here’s one of the first potholes. People who claim to be followers of Jesus and do their best to love their neighbors, love their enemies, et al, but in fact, they suck at it. But they’re doing their best. It’s entirely possible that [fill in person you don’t like here] is a Christian and is doing his very best, but he is, in fact, a narrow-minded, egotistical, megalomaniac. I mean, that’s how he seems to me. Or take my friend Jared. [Name changed here.] Jared is, in our old lingo, a loser. He’s a recovering alcoholic who either fried his brains with too much substance abuse or else, to use Dad’s lingo, he didn’t start out with much gray matter. He lives a kind of small and shallow life, plays lots of video games, works occasionally, and spouts off on FB a lot. Not long ago, he was offering Christianity lessons, I kid you not, for $50 a session. And he wasn’t doing this out of greed or as a scam; he had recently felt a powerful encounter with God and, in his utter lack of self-awareness and appropriate behavior, thought this was a good way to share what he’s experienced.
The thing is, I do believe Jared is a Christian. I believe that God loves him and is in the process of rescuing him from a horrible existence. But we can’t measure Jared by anyone else’s standards. The second we start doing that, we become legalists, i.e. people who set arbitrary standards (based on their own preferences) for who qualifies as “holy” or “righteous” or (gulp) “Christian.” The Pharisees who hated Jesus were legalists, and proud of it, because they believed that strict adherence to God’s laws made them righteous with God. Over time, people had decided that the best way to keep from breaking God’s laws was to add a whole range of laws in addition to those laws, figuring if we don’t break the man-made laws, which are stricter, we won’t even come close to breaking the God-given laws. This was known as “The Fence around the Law.” You can see the visual.
Pothole two: Setting legalistic standards for being a Christian puts us at odds with Jesus
If we set any “reasonable” standard for minimum behavior of a Christian, I doubt Jared would presently qualify. He might try. He might grow into it and eventually become a more Godly-looking man. I’m believing this will happen. But the problem with setting that standard is it makes us the people who decide who qualifies. Now, part of me desperately wants to set that standard, according to my own best understanding of Scripture, so that I can answer your question with a resounding, “NO! These jackasses are NOT Christians!” The reality is, they might not be. But I don’t get to decide.
People with different definitions of “Christian” and my definition of “Christian”
What about people who claim to be Christians but have a completely different definition of what that means? This is a bit easier, but still presents some problems. My view is that our non-negotiables for being a Christian should be very few, based on what Jesus said and what the rest of the Bible says, and that disagreements over theology, standards, practices, etc, must be discussed and worked through, preferably with some of that love of Jesus that’s supposed to define us. For me, the sinner’s prayer that everyone talks about in some form is really the entry point—and almost the whole deal. Some version of “God help me, I’m a miserable sonofabitch.” I don’t think the wording is the key. But it comes down to asking for God’s help, specifically asking for God to forgive me and be part of my life. But here’s the rub: I have to mean it. There’s no double-reverse psychology to fooling God.
Here’s the bigger rub: God doesn’t actually settle for “be part of my life.” Because remember what Jesus said about “If anyone wants to follow me…” So the prayer is really, “God, forgive me, a miserable sinner, and take my life.” I believe that’s salvation. But here’s the Biggest rub: it’s Forever. Capital F. It’s not “God, get me through this rough patch and I’ll pay you back with a ‘good life.’” It’s not “I had some time in my younger years when I was on that Christian kick. I’m still a Christian, I’m just more focused on my job and family now.” It’s all or nothing. God either gets your life or he doesn’t.
Going back to Jared, God knows whether he’s a Christian or not. I believe he is, because I have seen substantial changes in him—and that’s the only way I can tell from the outside whether it’s happened or not. Is Jared committing his life to following God? It doesn’t look impressive, but C.S. Lewis makes the point that we can’t compare a godly-looking non-Christian to an evil-looking Christian. That proves nothing, because you have to take into account the vast differences between individuals. The only fair comparison is between the same person, pre- and post-becoming-a-Christian. Jared is a profoundly screwed up recovering alcoholic, but before he was a profoundly screwed up alcoholic. It’s a dramatic change. He doesn’t have it as together as our friend Murdock, lawyer, Gigi’s Playhouse board member, still in the same shape he was when he played football in high school and all-around great guy (how do we stand him?) and probably never will. But Jared is changed because of God’s life in him.
Now that we know what we mean by “Christian”
Okay, I’m finally going to hone in on your explicit question, which is “How can they be Christians if they act like that?” or the rhetorical version, “They can’t be Christians when they act like that, right?” I have screamed and anguished and lamented in prayer over how people can seem to believe and live the opposite of what I understand to be Christianity and still be Christians. The reality is I never know whether they are or not. Never. I simply can’t judge their hearts, I can’t see their lives, I can’t tell whether they prayed for God to rescue them from their own self-destruction and are seeking to live in obedience to Him.
When I look at people who rape the environment—God’s Creation, which He designed to bring Him Glory through His extravagance to us—enslave children (in practice, with their financial and legislative decisions), spread hate about other people (homosexuals, refugees, progressives, “anyone who disagrees with us and our propaganda”), gather vast amounts of wealth and share nothing with the poor and needy (they might give to their churches, but tragically that is often another version of spending it on themselves), and do all this in the name of Jesus Christ, I strain the limits of my faith to believe that these people know the same God of love and forgiveness and justice and compassion and mercy who saved me.
Our lives following Jesus will increasingly reveal the Spirit of God who lives in us. Our actions should increasingly reflect God’s love for one another and for the least. Jesus said, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Matthew 25 is in some ways the most challenging of all Jesus’ teachings in regard to what following him and not following him means. You might know it, but if not, do me a favor and read the whole thing:
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
Doesn’t sound like he’s kidding, does he? People sometimes like to refer to this as “The parable of the sheep and the goats,” but it isn’t a parable. This is Jesus describing what will happen in the future, and he uses the simile of a shepherd with sheep and goats. That’s all. I see no reason in the text to take anything else here less than one hundred percent literally. BUT, I still can’t make this my litmus test, because I don’t know how God judges people. If Jared manages to share a glass of water with a thirsty person, that might be enough. If a millionaire shares $50K with some people but turns away from the starving kids in Africa, the second half might be his answer.
The Real Question
But even describing it this way feels misleading. Because again, this is what I can see from the outside. The real question is what happens on the inside. I really believe this. Jesus says, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”
When I became a Christian, I experienced a change in me. I went from sometimes thinking that God is real and remembering to pray (maybe every few weeks, sometimes less) to having a conscious experience of God’s presence. It’s not like I walk around with this tangible cloud of Spirit hanging out with me (picture old Sunday night Wonderful World of Disney movies; the cloud is probably green), but internally, the connection is more or less constant. God is real to me. I don’t know how to say it better than that. Before, he was a thought among many, now he’s real to me like Claire and Ashly are to you—you don’t forget them, they don’t slip your mind and come back next week; they are your waking, ongoing reality.
But the awareness is just the beginning, just like meeting Ashly and getting to know her was just the beginning. Your life changed through your relationship with her. My relationship with God has shaped my life. I make my decisions, big and small, based on my connection with God. Now it’s not some freaky, wake-up-in-the-morning-and-pray-about-whether-to-put-on-underwear-or-not deal. God gives us brains and reason and expects us to use them. He made you and me smart for a reason, and it’s not to live like idiots (which also connects back to your question). My study of the Bible has also shaped my life. To me, Jesus is concerned about 1)whether we know God’s reality and love for us, and 2)whether we are communicating that love to others.
But the way Jesus describes and models doing that is not handing out tracts or shouting on street corners or building political parties that can make everyone be more loving (much less make everyone drink poisoned water and breathe poisoned air while we get rich!!). Jesus spends time with children, he touches lepers and sick women, he feeds people, he goes to parties, he speaks hard truth to rich and powerful people, he gets in the faces of self-righteous religious folks, he forgives people who need forgiveness, he says, “A physician does not come for the healthy, but for the sick; I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” But the Bible makes clear that THERE ARE NO RIGHTEOUS PEOPLE. And Jesus tells this about the physician to the Pharisees when they’re complaining that he hangs out with the dirty sinners. Thus, the people who believe they are righteous have cut themselves off from Jesus. The people who know they are sinners have put themselves in the position to receive him—and he makes a beeline to them (e.g. Zacchaeus).
So I look at these people’s lives who to you don’t look like Christians and I ask myself, “Do they seek God’s direction for their decisions? Are they growing in their awareness of His love for them and their own sinfulness and need for Him? Do they take seriously what Jesus commands? Are they trying to live this stuff? Can they have misunderstood Matthew 25 and all the other 2,000 [not exaggerating] verses about the poor and needy in the Bible?”
And that’s how I can come to my answer: “No, I don’t believe they are Christians.”
BUT! HUGE “BUT!!!”
But I still don’t know. Because God’s grace is always bigger than I think it is. Since becoming a Christian, I have fallen off the deep end at least two times. The first was in my senior year of college, the second was the period after Isaac and Dad died, especially the year we moved to Wenatchee (2000). I had massive crises of faith, and in the latter case, full on decided to reject God and screw this whole thing because of Isaac’s death and how miserable I had become. If this was how well it went following Jesus, I thought I’d try not and see how that went. But God never abandoned me nor let me shove him away, though I couldn’t feel his presence for about 3 years (which sucked). [I should note here that not everyone does feel God’s presence, even people who have been Christians all their lives. I can’t explain that one. People are just different.] It’s a much longer story to tell, and I’d rather do it over some really good beer or wine. I realized that telling God “fuck off” was still being in relationship with God, because I was still talking with him—I just wasn’t using nice language. God eventually helped me get back again, but I had to reach a point where I wanted to come back and asked for his help—and that took a long time, because I’m stubborn as hell. So I’m convinced that God has mercy and grace on people who look like they should be toast, because He is more loving than we can imagine. Had I been hit by a car 1 ½ years into my prodigal wanderings, I don’t believe God would have said, “Sorry, I meant to get you straightened out but you didn’t try hard enough and then you died too soon. The goats go that way.”
If I take that grace for myself, I have to extend it to everyone else, as well. This is one of the core truths of Christianity: It’s not whether you’re good enough, because you’re never good enough. It’s always grace, and sometimes we just see it more clearly than other times. I’m as much saved by God’s grace today, living in Nicaragua as a missionary, as I was in Wenatchee, getting myself addicted to destructive things because I had stopped caring whether I was obeying God or not. I’m still an addict and I have to live in recovery to keep away from it. It’s probably not as intense as Dan Koenigs’s recovery, but it’s serious.
Phillip Yancey writes that “Grace has the whiff of scandal about it.” He means, in part, that grace looks scandalous because it offends us when it applies to people whom we feel deserve judgment. The thief on the cross who asked Jesus to remember him got the response, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Now I have to believe Jesus didn’t mean “And I’ll be sending you to hell from there.” The guy acknowledged to Jesus that he was a bad man who deserved punishment and then asked Jesus for help (“Remember me”). Again, no formula. If the man meant it, I believe that’s what counts. So what happens if one of these guys who looks so horrible to us asks God–sincerely–to forgive him for his outrages against humanity? I believe God does forgive. Scandalous, but true.
But honestly, that’s not our hard question. Our hard question is, “What happens if they ask but then don’t change?” Saul was out chasing down Christians, dragging them away in chains, getting them killed. Then he saw a flash of light, fell to the ground, and a voice spoke to him. When he got up, he couldn’t see. He went around blind for three days, and when it was over, he changed. Radically. One of our seminary profs said “The proof of Jesus’ Resurrection is that Paul ate pork.” As in, there’s no other rational explanation for a guy utterly committed to his Jewish laws of behavior to do a 180. He would have died for those beliefs, but he had an encounter with God. Encounters with God should change people. Maybe dramatically and instantly or maybe quietly and over the long term, but they should. Jesus talks about this as “bearing fruit.” Paul talks about it as “being transformed into the image of Christ.” There is no following Jesus without this happening.
I don’t think I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth when I say:
Grace means that God takes us exactly as we are and “Nothing we do can make God love us any more, and nothing we can do can make God love us any less.” (Phillip Yancey’s definition of “grace.”)
“He will be infinitely merciful to our repeated failures; I know no promise that He will accept a deliberate compromise.” (C.S. Lewis.)
Because when we say “God takes us exactly as we are,” we mean he receives us in whatever wretched condition as our starting point with him. We don’t mean God is blasé and says, “Eh, if you want to push cocaine or molest little girls or oppress the poor and cause children to starve, that’s fine, because I accept you.” There is no sin so awful we can’t repent of it, but we do have to repent!
And I don’t know, for the life of me I cannot figure out, what is going on in the minds and hearts of these people who pray every day to the same God I know and who read their Bibles and go to church and read books by Christians and do not see their behavior as sin. But I know I have blind spots, and I know God is merciful to me while I slowly come to recognize them and even more slowly come to repent of them.
Now all this is based on the assumption that these people are Christians the way I mean it. In reality, I am guessing that a whole slew of them don’t have any actual direct connection or relationship with God, don’t understand it to mean what I described, and believe that if they go to church on Sunday and thank God for their food at mealtimes, they are Christians. I think that’s wrong, and you’d be hard-pressed to get that to match up to any one of Jesus’ definitive statements about his followers. e.g. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Hard to get “Dress up for church and vote a certain way” out of that. To me, anyway.
I don’t think that everyone who truly abides in Jesus will end up living in Nicaragua, or some comparably impoverished nation. (Hoo-boy, does that sound self-righteous! I don’t mean it that way. I just mean this has been our response, or at least a big part of it.) I DO think that their lives will change. Jesus also told the Pharisees that “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of Heaven before you,” which couldn’t have gone over well. He meant, “they are repenting and seeking life in God and following me, while you are clinging to your laws and rejecting me.” I expect to be surprised when I die, both at who has chosen to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and who has rejected the Kingdom of Heaven. Passages like this make me wonder: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” ‘
I have to believe, because I know God is faithful and I know what happened to me, that God is “speaking” to these people and calling them to repentance all the time. These things that horrify us certainly offend God much more. I don’t know how it works in their lives, whether they are taking tiny steps toward obedience or whether they are hardening their hearts against having to change when they like their lives just the way they are.
I dare not try to pass final judgment on an individual, because that would only put my heart in a bad place, and what do I know? On my good days, on the days I’m praying and feeling strongly connected with God (because all relationships have ups and downs), I am so intensely aware of how sick my heart is that it would be overwhelming, except that I can see how far I’ve come already and I know God is patient with me. Having said that, I still believe I can safely say that a whole lot of people who are blind to the truth (what you and I call “caught in the Matrix”), who believe they are Christians and their behaviors and actions are just fine are in for a harsh wake up. God is certainly calling to them. I hope they will hear that call while still on this side