I am surprised that, as a young man, I had any friends.
I was sociable – enjoyed going out for a drink and conversation (still do), but I was also opinionated and, well, intolerant of other views. So, when I became a Christian 30 years ago, I became more convinced than ever that whatever I read in the Bible was the only possible interpretation. Everyone else was on the highway to perpetual torment unless they sorted themselves out.
All this was heightened by the overtly evangelical reading and teaching I sought out to confirm my opinions (yes, we had ‘echo chambers’ before social media).
So here are five things I wish someone had sat down and explained to me when I first became a Christian.
1. “My church is Bible based” is not something to go around declaring
I was always told that my church was the Bible-based one, the event I was attending was the Bible-based event and that we were the Bible-believing people. Everybody else out there needed correcting. Being a bit slow, it took me years to work that “everybody else out there” was saying exactly the same thing as me. Except they were all going to very different churches than me, and attending different events to me. This was inconvenient. It forced me to look again at what I thought was “clearly biblical” – and even occasionally to stop correcting other Christians!
Pretty much everybody says their church is Bible based. Everybody says their view is the biblically correct one. And, if they don’t, well something odd is going on there.
2. Sometimes I will feel disappointed by God
This is tough. There are more politically correct, churchy ways of saying this, like: “God’s ways are higher than our ways”. But, while that is true, it surfs over the harder truth. We can feel bitterly disappointed by God.
Maybe you have had personal life struggles, serious illness of family members that after much prayer doesn’t get better – maybe it gets worse; or praying for a family member to know the Lord – for decades. It’s disappointing. It hurts.
But the problem here is that our ‘deal’ with God is not what we often think it is. You know that deal that some churches offer? The one where, of course, we know some bad stuff might happen to us as Christians, but the really bad stuff, the life events that traumatise? They won’t happen as long as we stick to God.
But there is no deal like that.
We have already decided what our God should and shouldn’t do
There actually is a deal but that is not it. The deal we have is about God keeping his promises even if we can’t see that today. A God who shares our disappointments with us – and even chooses suffering for himself. The problem is that we have already decided what our God should and shouldn’t do. As Gerard Hughes says, in his book God of Surprises, we have “domesticated God”:
“We create a God who favours us, our groups, our Church and who overthrows our enemies. But God is…a God who breaks down our comforting prejudices, false securities, religious and secular. This is painful but it is the pain of rebirth…God is the God of surprises who, in the darkness and tears of things breaks down our false images and securities. This in-breaking can feel to us like dis-integration but it is the disintegration of the ear of wheat. If it does not die to bring new life, it shrivels away on its own”.
3. God is good!
Learning to be grateful is life transforming.
I am regularly, sometimes daily, struck with gratitude to God for so many good things. For example, I am frequently gobsmacked at these winter skies – I didn’t even know that colours like that existed. And grateful too for the many bad things that don’t happen – illnesses I don’t have, accidents that should have happened when I was driving but didn’t, situations at work and church that could have been much worse but weren’t…
Being grateful, and expressing that gratitude, is key to our well-being. In the past few years there have been many secular studies, books and news on ‘gratitude’. Lots of clever people will now tell you that an attitude of gratitude is good for your health!
Being grateful is an ancient Christian custom. But it’s also a discipline, a mind-set we must practice, especially for those us who live in wealthy countries where we forget the blessings of food, or simply making it to another day.
4. We underestimate both original sin and original goodness
We make two mistakes – at least I do.
Sin is more pervasive, has a greater hold on us, than we think. I am convinced, for example, that the way Christians sometimes treat each other in church, between churches and especially online, is sin, pure and simple. We imagine that we are somehow the defenders of the faith, our job is to put others right, until, as theologian Marguerite Bennett said: “being right becomes more important than being Christ like”. We underestimate sin in our lives – sadly we can even dress it up as something fine.
But we also underestimate the goodness of God in our lives. Our Christian worldview teaches us that, although on the surface we appear decent, polite and virtuous, beneath that we are sinful, selfish and we hurt one another. And, too often, the story ends there. But that isn’t the end! Beneath that we were all created in God’s image. Imago Dei, the image of God, within us is good. It does not rub off; it sticks. It’s the reason we see goodness in people from all walks of life, of all beliefs and no belief.
I am not trying to pick a fight with Calvinists on the doctrine of “total depravity” of mankind. But I am saying as Christians we can fixate on our sin and fallen nature, and completely lose the familiarity of Christ in us – “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27)!
5. In the end it is about hearts, not minds
I was recently privileged to officiate at Joan’s funeral – a remarkable elderly lady. No, really, she was astonishing. At 94 she lit up any room just by walking in. One example: on a recent hospital admission, she was such an outstanding, cheering influence that the ward sister asked her if she would consider volunteering as a hospital visitor – she was in her nineties for goodness sake!
Joan attended the church I used to minister at, but I recall her understanding of the gospel was limited. The concept of sin was foreign to her, so the idea that someone died for her sin was strange. I know this because Joan attended the baptism classes I held, but stopped coming after the first week. Joan didn’t get it.
And yet here is a comment from another member of the church, which sums up Joan’s faith:
“She often asked us to pray with her and was undoubtedly following the Lord Jesus. Joan really wanted to please Jesus. Her gracious humility and simple faith shone out. And her smile was such a joy to behold even when she was at a difficult point in life.”
But she couldn’t recite the four points of the gospel: God’s nature – man’s condition – God’s solution – man’s response.
I also cannot articulate the gospel in ways that people much smarter than me can. The Bible talks about calling on the name of Jesus. It talks about confessing with our mouths and believing in our hearts that Jesus is Lord. That is enough.
This gives me hope! It means I can enter a theological argument, be completely wrong (according to some) and it’s OK! And I’m still an evangelical by the way.
Isn’t God good!