I was talking with a friend recently, and she asked me about my convictions as a Christian. “If someone were to ask you what you think about the way they live,” she said, “what would you say?”
This is a question I’ve thought about a lot since moving to NYC, and I believe it is one of the areas in my life where there has been profound growth over the past several years. After growing up as a Christian, going to a Christian college, and then moving back home for a few years, living in NYC has been the first time in my life where most of my friends are not Christians. So naturally, for my first six months of living here, this question weighed on my heart.
I think this is a question that people who grow up as Christians all struggle with, and, quite honestly, often come up with the wrong answers to. As a culture, Christianity in the US very often errs on the side of legalistically telling the greater population how they should be living, instead of telling them the reasons why.
It’s almost impossible to avoid this, when growing up in a Christian home. For a large percentage of Christian kids, their faith doesn’t get truly thought through until high school or college, and until then the values their parents impress on them come across as things that are done just because that’s the way it should be. This is often not the fault of the parents (though sometimes it is, if they are more concerned with keeping their kids from doing bad things than encouraging them to make the faith their own.) My parents, and many parents I knew, constantly preached the gospel to their children. I remember my mother saying, once, “Someday, I hope you love Jesus more than you love me.” Yet until the Spirit works in a child’s heart, even those with the most proactive parents often see the faith through nothing but legalistic eyes. Even once the faith takes root and becomes knit deep into the bones, it’s hard to shake this sense of cultural morality.
As a child, when friends asked me why I did or didn’t do the things I did, my understanding of my own depravity and the depths of the gospel was not extensive enough to truly explain the choices, so more often than not I would spout a platitude or cite a rule. Combined with the directive to be missionary-minded and bear witness for the gospel, I and Christian kids like me often began to see our role in the world as a kind of Christian rule-minders, beginning first with our Christian friends and inevitably crossing over into our interactions with non-Christians. Even into my young twenties there was an anxiety that followed me, as I was never quite sure how outspoken I should be about actions and words that were in direct opposition to Christianity.
For children, this is hugely difficult to avoid, and something that has to be worked through individually. Yet the problem is not that Christian children have to work through this, but that it is something that continues into Christian adulthood, and has embedded itself into the fabric of many Christian cultures across the US. I am beginning to see how destructive this mindset is.
The answer to my friend’s question, for me, is to first ascertain whether the person I’m speaking with is a Christian or not, because my answer will be different depending on that crucial distinction. I can imagine this statement being misunderstood, or plainly disagreed with, because one of the tenets of the Christian culture in the West seems to have become an expectation that everyone—whether their hearts are in it or not—should abide by the Christian laws (which are different from the civic laws. We're not talking about murder here.) And I want to be very careful, because I don’t want to be misunderstood to the extent that someone would think I am advocating a moral relativity, or saying that I don’t believe the way Christians live is the right path. What I am saying is this: You cannot ask someone to live in accordance with morals they do not profess.
As a Christian, I believe I have chosen the path that is not only true, but also best. So it makes sense that I want to share my beliefs and the benefit of living the way I do. As my sister Hannah would say, “If I have the cure to a deadly illness, of course I want to share it with others.” But we cannot force others to take the cure, and we cannot put the cart before the horse. The way Christians are called to live is impossible without the work of the Spirit in their hearts. So how can we expect a society who does not know the Spirit to live in accordance with its radical work? It’s difficult enough for Christians to walk this road. The first step, therefore, is not to condemn a person for actions that are not in accordance with a doctrine she doesn’t believe. The first step is to extend an invitation of the love that knows, sees, and heals. The first step is to introduce a person to the grace of Jesus, and only once she has seen with new eyes can she be expected to make decisions about how her life should be changed and shaped by her new faith.
It is within the Body of Christ that the hard work of living in accordance with God’s desires begins. The letters of the New Testament are riddled with commands, warnings, and examples of how we should live, but what Christians often overlook is that these letters are directed not to the unbeliever, but to the Church. Within the Church, by the grace of the Spirit, we begin the process of transformation, which means prayerfully making changes and struggling through complicated decisions. To the unbeliever, the message is simple: come as you are—exactly as you are—and bathe in love beyond all measure. We should tell others why we live as we do, lending advice to those who need it and encouraging them to choose the best path. But we must be careful, with both our children and our unbelieving friends, to point first to the good news that is the root of this change.
The freedom of this new understanding overwhelmed me, when I first realized it. I am not the keeper of my friend’s morality. I do not have a required standard for the way my friends act. I can drink with and eat with and speak with my friends who are not Christians and not fear that their choices are somehow my responsibility. Within the church, we have a responsibility to hold one another accountable; outside of the church, our responsibility is only to be honest about our convictions and to extend the reckless love of Jesus. It is not that Christianity has nothing to say to the secular world—in fact it has very much to say, and we should be endlessly extending the gospel of grace to our friends, pleading with them to listen. But only once God’s love is made manifest in a Christian’s heart and the transformation begins can we start to discuss the deep changes that must be made, for it is only then that the lifestyle presented in the gospel will begin to make radical sense.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene H. Peterson
The Devil in the White City
Peter A. Pitzele