Life in Christ…
It’s not just about being good.
Ironically, both believers and non-believers often fail to grasp that.
Some Christians claim you can’t be truly good without believing in Christ. Non-Christians, respond that they are at least as good as Christians, without any religious belief.
History is filled with accounts of people who were convinced of their own goodness, and who went on to commit monstrous atrocities. People who professed to be Christians, participated in horrors like the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust, in the name of “Christian civilization.” People who professed to be non-believers engaged in horrors like the Stalinist purges, the Cultural Revolution of Mao, and the ongoing crimes against humanity in North Korea in the name of “enlightened” atheism.
Belief in one’s own goodness is not proof of one’s own goodness. Indeed, it can be evidence of toxic self-righteousness.
Self-righteousness is actually a lack of goodness.
But, the mistake both non-believers and many believers make is in reducing life in Christ to merely being good.
It goes much deeper than that.
Morality is important, but it doesn’t meet our deepest need. When we are afraid, alone, in despair, we really don’t need someone to tell us, “Be good!”
We need hope and purpose. We often need to be forgiven. We need love.
In truth, we need and desire a measure of love which we cannot earn, and which we need most desperately precisely when we deserve it least. This is what gives us the strength to face both our living and our dying with hope and courage.
In the Christian faith, this love is called, “Grace.”
We all stand in need of it, because we are all in the grip of something else that has become widely and deeply misunderstood, by believers and non-believers, alike. Sadly the word for it has been cheapened and misused to the point of becoming a joke for some, and a too-easy source of self-righteous judgment for others.
It’s sin. And it’s probably not what you think it is…
People tend to trivialize the concept of sin by reducing it to bad acts and thoughts. But those are symptoms of a deeper condition. And once again, it’s about more than morality.
Sin is ultimately about self-centeredness and alienation.
We are born innocent, and utterly self-centered. A baby considers him/herself the center of the universe. In an infant, that self-centeredness is tolerated, and even considered cute, because they don’t really know any better and don’t mean any harm. But, if it persists, it comes to be seen as sociopathic.
A person who is totally self-involved also becomes profoundly miserable. Others will come to avoid, distrust and dislike such people. And, their emotional world implodes. People who suffer from profound depression have essentially emotionally collapsed in on themselves. Their whole world becomes their pain and loneliness. They make themselves the center of their own personal universe, and it is a crushingly lonely place.
This is the power of sin. It can lead you to act in ways that are selfish and/or self-righteous, because life is only about what you want, and others be damned. But, that also leads to alienation and loneliness. Or you can become so focused on your own pain, that you sink into a black hole of depression and despair.
A good name for that condition is, “hell.”
Now that’s a word that’s gotten a lot of abuse from believers and non-believers alike!
Far from being a place to which an angry God is eager to consign sinners for eternity, it is a state of loneliness and hopelessness, born of profound disconnection from grace. And God is determined to save us from it.
But we can defuse the power of love. We have the power to choose to do that. We can ignore and deny God’s love, which inhibits its power. Love cannot be forced on anyone, otherwise it is not love. But, if our rejection of it lands us in hell, it’s because we have insisted on it, because we insist on our own self-centered way, even when it takes us into the lonely abyss.
What can counter the awful power of sin? What power can get us out of hell?
Grace is a selfless love. Grace is the opposite of sin. Grace saves us from the power of sin.
For Christians, the very embodiment of grace is Jesus of Nazareth.
Time after time, Jesus showed compassion and kindness to people whom the piously self-righteous had condemned and rejected, and told to go to hell. In a time when “sinners” were supposed to be shunned and isolated, Jesus made a point of socializing with them, “When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16)
Tax collectors were collaborators with the hated Roman occupation force, and were essentially professional extortionists. But, Jesus not only ate with them, he invited one to be a disciple! “Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.” (Luke 5: 27-28)
Tax collectors were so despised that Levi had a life changing experience when Jesus graciously invited him. But, it’s likely that others were horrified and turned on Jesus for not rejecting this hated figure. Interestingly, Jesus also had a disciple who had been a Zealot, an anti-Roman guerilla fighter. They frequently killed tax collectors!
Another tax collector, Zaccheus, was astonished when Jesus said he would come to his house for dinner. Again, the crowd was probably scandalized, but Zaccheus was so moved, he offered to pay back what he had squeezed out of the people, “Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19: 8) The grace he experienced from Jesus was vastly more valuable to him than the money and power with which he had tried to fill the emptiness of his life.
Jesus was also willing to face down a lynch mob for the sake of a “sinful” woman who had been caught committing adultery. He said,“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8: 2-11)
Jesus’ radical grace (grace is always radical) led various political and religious forces to conspire to destroy him. They could not have people whom they had long suppressed and oppressed being told that they were beloved as much by God as those who claimed divine right to dominate them. So they decided to put him down, because he challenged their self-centered hold on power and their self-righteous assumptions of superiority.
But, not even death could stop him. Even his closest friends and allies did not expect or imagine that, by God’s grace, he could defy both the power of sin and death! Yet, despite their doubts and fears, he rose to new life as an affirmation of the relentless nature of God’s grace. Neither High Priests nor Emperors could contain his astonishing message and power!
That is the source of Christian hope…relentless grace.
Pop psychology likes to preach that the answer to virtually every human problem is “self-esteem.” If only we love ourselves enough, everything else will somehow fall into its proper place.
Actually, you can have too much self-esteem. Tyrants and cult leaders often have loads of it.
But it’s not possible to just conjure up self-love when you don’t know what love is.
In order to love ourselves, or anyone else, we must first experience being loved.
We find the proof of God’s gracious love for us in Jesus.
Jesus chose to go to the cross and even forgive those who nailed him to it, rather than renounce his message. As he noted, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (John 15:13)
Actually, he showed a greater love than that. He gave his life for people who were not his friends…for people who were indifferent and even hostile toward him. He gave his life for people who did not love him, and often could not even love themselves. But, when they take seriously, his astonishingly selfless love for them, they begin to learn what it is. As the First Letter of John says, “We love because he first loved us.” (4:19)
When we allow ourselves to be fully grasped and transformed by this astounding grace, then our deepest loneliness is relieved, and our morality is inspired by a love which is extended to all people and which calls us to humility instead of self-righteousness. It also inspires us to active love which strives to transform the world. As the prophet Micah wrote… “(God) has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, love mercy , and walk humbly with your God.” (6:8)
In Jesus, we find that kind of life made real. And, when we choose to have faith in the power of God’s grace as we experience it in the message, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we find new life in Christ.
By the way...That kind of life is NOT lived in isolation. It propels us into community. Jesus calls upon us to love one another, and he knew that we cannot do a good job of that alone.
People today like to claim they are "spiritual but not religious" which usually means they have some kind of belief, but they are not part of a community of believers. "Organized religion" has become a term that people often utter with disdain. But the alternative is "disorganized religion." God knows, churches are not perfect and have all sorts of problems, because they are filled with all sorts of people...none of whom are perfect. But, it is also true that all around the world, there are hospitals, school, children's homes, shelters for the abused and homeless, and countless other efforts to relieve suffering that are run by churches. They are possible precisely because they are organized to do such things.
Yes, churches are full of hypocrites...there's always room for one more. And if you stay away because you are presuming to judge the people in them...then maybe you are in need of some work, yourself! It's not something you can really do by yourself.
As Christians we aren’t trying to be good in order to get God to forgive and love us. We are inspired to be better because we have experienced forgiveness and love from God in Jesus, whose grace lifts up the downtrodden and humbles the self-righteous.
When we feel ourselves embraced by this relentless grace, we also experience the deathless love which brings us into eternal life. We share in the life of God, whose love knows no end. That becomes our purpose, our peace and our joy.