Like you, I am trying to figure out how to do this thing called life. As one who claims to be a Christian who is struggling with Christianity, I am trying to do the right things and have the right thoughts and believe the right ideas. And, like you, I really don’t want it to be too difficult or too mysterious. Below are some (probably dubious) thoughts on this struggle.
There is nothing easier and more warm and fuzzy for one’s spiritual ego than to say things like, “We just need to follow Jesus and the rest will take care of itself,” or “Just let go and give it to God,” or “You know what we need to do, we just need to pray more,” or “True Christianity is community, so let’s be community,” or “Trust God and be the change you want.” I like these kinds of sayings. They make great blog posts and bumper stickers. But they are essentially meaningless, and maybe even point us in wrong directions.
Christianity is full of pithy spiritual sayings (usually based on equally pithy dogma). They get created and continue to thrive because we want to hear them. We use them like compass headings, guiding us through the hectic world of mass culture, consumerism, and the constant meh of life. But the Christianity of such sayings is not really true. That kind of Christianity is often just a cheap Tao, an easy hand hold, a path of the ethical maybe (to borrow from Kierkegaard), but not genuine spirituality.
There is no other phrase I can think of that captures this swamp as the common “do something for God.” Replace “something” with just about anything you want, it doesn’t matter. Or replace God with Jesus, because that doesn’t matter here either. Doing something for God is an impossibility, yet we long to give our lives meaning and garner the sanctifying halo of a feel-good Christianity. Wouldn’t it be great to know that God really needed you to do something for Him and you did it? But God does not need anything done by us. Instead God requires our obedience, which is another way of saying that our lives should be about loving others as Christ loved us. In this way we are doing for others, not for God. More profoundly is the way our obedience to God is really God doing something for us. Our relationship is not about us doing anything for God, rather it is all about what God does for us, which takes a lifetime to fathom and is ultimately impossible to capture, define, or sum up. To pithily sum up one’s spirituality with a bumper sticker may feel like something solid, but it is merely wind.
Christian history is full of bumper sticker sayings, even ones that are covered in the patina of historicity. Sola fide is one such saying. And there are popular modern one’s that appear as challenging questions, but end up being merely ways of solidifying already established dogma rather than truly challenging one to question. What would Jesus do? is one of those sayings. The underlying radicality of that saying, a radicality lost on many Christians, is that it’s implication could be something like, “Stop living like a Christian and start living like a Christ follower.” Instead it is used merely to conjure up emotions, if at all, and to wear on oneself or on one’s car as a kind of tribal membership badge.
Of course, what I am saying is nothing new. Many pastors preach the sermon of “authentic” Christianity. Being authentic has been a popular mantra at least since the beginning of modernity. And church goers like to hear such messages as they get their “batteries charged” for another week. But what is that authentic Christianity?
The last thing I want to do here is dive into some lengthy and debatable definition of the gospel. I doubt that I could if I wanted to at this point. Countless others have already done that anyway, and they are correct or incorrect, and I don’t want to deal with that here. But I can say that authentic Christianity emerges over the course of one’s life, through the difficulties and trials of living, which includes struggles, doubts, fears, and joy. A conversion experience is like a wedding. Compare that eye opening “conversion” moment to a long life lived in faith and one sees something like the comparison of the wedding day to a marriage of many years. One does not really know if there is a marriage, a true marriage, on the wedding day. I used to be a professional wedding photographer, I’ve seen a lot of beginnings. Many of those marriages became disillusioned in rather short order. But some are still going, and working, and hanging in there. Faith and marriage are not easy things. A true conversion becomes evident, offers its evidence, over the long haul. One is continually being converted. But one does not really know that at first. The difference may be that with faith, at least, we have God’s promises that if we are in God’s hands nothing can pull us out. We don’t have the same kinds of guarantees with marriage.
I think of authentic faith as being something like an internal compass that points one in the right direction, but not as the crow flies, nor by the easiest route. Life is a journey. We are trying to make it to the end, or the next new beginning, the best we can. Along the way we can easily be confused with what we need to the do and all that is unrequired. We see that the Bible speaks of working out our salvation with fear and trembling, and then follows that with a promise that it is God who is bringing us to salvation. On the the other hand we hear countless messages from other professing Christians that the life of faith can be summed up quite easily. We get lists and sayings from those Christians. We get formulas that range anywhere from “get yourself into community,” to “make sure you have a morning quiet time.” We are told to “live intentionally” and to “just give our troubles to God.” We may hear that we must work at a local soup kitchen or halfway house, or get “plugged in” to a local church, or dress a certain way, and to put away alcohol and cigarettes. We may also be told that having tattoos show our freedom in Christ, and drinking fair trade coffee shows our commitment to justice.
We all know this Christianity. It surrounds us. This is false Christianity and it is a trap. Authentic Christianity is not, and cannot be, a formula. For the individual, at the personal and existential level, any one of the above formulas may be part of faith, of God’s working faith into and through that particular believer. God might lead me into an intentional community, or to unplug from the grid, or to live on an island, or to start a company, or get a tattoo (which I want anyway, so that’s good). It could go any which way. And God might have any of those formulas go awry in my life, which they often do. I read a fair amount of young Christians clinging enthusiastically to formulas. Intentional community is a popular one. I like the idea. But I also know that no intentional community is a substitute for authentic faith. However, as we navigate through life, an intentional community experience may be a powerful tool that God uses in a person’s life to bring about a deeper and richer faith. We just need to not confuse the two.
So back to navigating. As my internal compass keeps me on course, sometimes wildly swinging in different directions, sometimes purposely getting me lost, I still know that compass as the hand of God working faith into me because I can’t do it on my own. What I can do is the “fear and trembling” part, but even that is just another gift from God.