I recently felt I should offer summary of what it is to be a Christian on the blog, in written and in video form. This is my first attempt at a script for this; observations and suggestions welcome in the comments.
In online debate, in media discussion and even in casual conversation, there is quite a lot of confusion about what exactly is a Christian. The term is often taken as code for a particular political position, or as someone having a particular view on a controversial topic of the day. But none of these actually explains what a Christian is, or what Christians believe.
Christians come in all shapes and sizes—and the vast majority of Christians today can be found in non-Western countries. But through history, and across cultures, Christians have by and large shared a belief in four things.
The first is that the world is good. We live in a world full of wonder—a world of extraordinary variety and complexity. And the wonder that we see in the world does not come to us simply as a material fact—we often sense it as pointing to something beyond the material. Many people experience what we might call these moments of ‘transcendence’ in all sorts of different ways. Perhaps standing on a mountain top and catching their breath at the majesty of what is lain out before them. Perhaps in the extraordinary complexity of the systems we find in the physical world. Perhaps a painting speaks of a profound reality of life. Perhaps it is in a moment of intimacy in relationship—or the absolute wonder of a new life entering the world. Whatever gives rise to it, these moments come to us like the sun breaking through dark clouds and causing a sudden shaft of light to pierce the gloom. Although all we see is material, it sometimes seems to speak to us of something beyond the material.
The Bible describes such things as the revelation of God through his creation. The reason why Christians belief that the world is good is that they believe it is a a good gift to us from a good creator, one who delights to give good things to us. None of us asked to be born—we receive our very lives as a gift that has come from another. Because the world has been made by God, it reflects something of this God—his power, beauty, and generosity—makes the sun shine and the rain fall on the good and the bad alike! And as the world reveals something about the truth of God to us, it calls us to wonder and worship—and even in a sense offers worship itself. This is not something in contradiction to the natural process we see around us—but something that happens through aspects of nature. And it answers the kinds of questions that scientific observation can never answer—why do we have this sense of wonder and transcendence? why do we seek to find order and meaning in the world? And why is there a world at all—why is there something rather than nothing? This is a world not only gifted to us, but one which we are invited to enjoy and protect, to be blessed by (in what it provides) and to bless, as we care for it like a precious gift.
But alongside this, Christians believe a second truth—something has gone very wrong with the world—and not only with the world, but also with us. We see wonder in the world around us—but we also see pain and suffering. We see this in the natural world—but we feel the force of it mostly sharply in the suffering of fellow humans. You will know this if you have been close to someone who has died before their time, or been tragically injured in an accident—our grief and anger is often accompanied by our bafflement as to how this darkness cuts across all the good in the world. Suffering is caused by natural disasters—but by far the most suffering is caused by humans themselves—by humans’ inhumanity to their fellow humans. We see it on our news—we watch, with an eery fascination, on our soaps—we see it in families and relationships all around us. And it is shocking. People are capable of extraordinary feats of heroism—of selfless endeavour, even self-sacrifice, on behalf of others. And yet the same humanity is capable of the utmost cruelty, of cowardice, selfishness and indifference on a global scale.
And we don’t just see it ‘out there’, in the lives of others. We also see it ‘in here’, in our own lives. How is it that we can be moved by the suffering of those many miles away—and yet often don’t even know what is happening in the lives of our neighbours? How can we be moved to acts of kindness one minute—yet in the next moment a flash of anger produces words that wound? Why are we so easily drawn in to the conversation that is destroying someone’s character behind their back? Why are we so often gnawed at by anger and resentment at the way others have treated us?
Of course, most of us haven’t committed great crimes—but that’s probably because most of us have not been greatly tested—and if we are honest we strongly suspect that the straw house of our moral integrity would be quickly blown away by the tempests of testing that others have had to face.
The Bible describes this reality of the human condition in a range of vivid ways—you can find all these faults and more in its pages! But one of the key words it uses is ‘sin’—not meaning doing something a bit naughty when no-one is looking—but constant tendency to do the wrong thing when we have the chance. Sin is the turning away from the person in need when we are just a little too tired. Sin is the lack of courage to swim against the tide when we know things are wrong. Sin is that instinct for self-protection rather than taking the risk of standing up for what is right. Sin is the way we put ourselves at the centre of our lives—as one Christian leader put it—the heart turned in on itself. And the Bible says that the root cause of all these things stems from our turning from God himself—turning from the one who has given us the gift of life and this good world, and using what God has given us for our own ends.
And very often we might find ourselves as much sinned against as sinning. We are wounded by the selfishness of others just as we wound them with our selfishness. Sin finds it way into whole patterns of relationships, creating dishonesty, unfaithfulness, corruption, inequality and exploitation. And very often we are left feeling hurt and insecure, lost and alone. Even the world around us groans from our greed and exploitation.
But Christians believe in a third truth—some remarkably good news. Even though we have, in so many ways, turned from God and spoiled the good things he has given us, God has not turned from us—quite the opposite. The Bible depicts God as constantly seeking out estranged humanity. God is like a shepherd who has lost a sheep—a woman who has lost a precious piece of jewellery—a parent who has lost a child. God is constantly seeking out you and me. The story of the Bible is the story of God seeking out a people who would know and love him—to whom he stayed faithful even when they were not faithful to him. And the climax of that story was the coming of Jesus.
John’s gospel describes the coming of Jesus in a remarkable way—‘he pitched his tent amongst us.’ Despite all our achievements, we know that life is fragile, vulnerable and finite. Human mortality rates are remarkably consistent: 100% of us will one day die! But Christians belief that, in the person of Jesus, God came and shared in our fragile lives. He was hungry and thirsty, just as we are—tired and lonely, just as we can be. He experienced the joy of life and the disappointment of broken friendships. He knew the faithfulness of friends and the bitterness of betrayal.
But he did more. He didn’t just experience the fragility of human life—he also brought his transforming power to it. He healed the wounded—he welcomed the outcast—he forgave the sinful—he embraced the lonely. And the accounts of his life in the New Testament (the ‘gospels’, meaning ‘good news stories’) spend more time describing the events around his death and resurrection than anything else. They claim that, in Jesus’ death on the cross and rising again, God has dealt with sin and all its consequences. Jesus took on the consequences of sin and offers us forgiveness. Jesus took on the pain of sin and offers us healing. And Jesus took on the power of sin, and is able to set us free.
So he gives us an invitation. Just as he called his first follows, so he calls us: come, follow me. Come and receive the life that I offer you. He invites us to turn again—just as we have turned away from God and what is right, he now invites us to turn back to him—to receive forgiveness for what is wrong—to receive healing for what is broken—to receive freedom from the things that hold us in their grip. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus offers this invitation:
Come, all you who are burden and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls. For I am gentle and humble in spirit.
In the Book of Revelation, Jesus puts it this way:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, and I will come in and will eat with them.
Jesus is ready to come and meet with you, enter your world and offer you a new life to live. God has pronounced his ‘yes’ over you, and waits to hear your ‘yes’ in return. God has made a decision to love you and seek you out and (this is the fourth thing Christians believe) he waits for you to make a decision for him.
And when we do decide to turn back, to welcome him and discover his welcome of us, then God gives us three gifts to sustain us. First, he promises to give us his Holy Spirit—his own presence in our lives, speaking to us, equipping us and helping us to live this new life. Secondly, he gives us the Scriptures, the Bible, which teaches us about God and guides us in our daily living. Thirdly, God gives us his people (the church), as fellow pilgrims in the life of faith. As we meet together week by week, we encourage each other, learn together, and encounter God’s renewing presence in worship.
Christians also believe that, one day, Jesus will return again, and will complete the work that he has begun. All the wrong in the world will finally be put right; all the sources of evil will be destroyed; every pain and grief will be ended. The final chapters of the Book of Revelation put it like this:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’a or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
And this hope sustains us through all the joys and challenges of living our new life in God.
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