(This post was edited June 26, 2011) It has been my observation that, deep down, a lot of American Christians - regardless of the language we use or the bumper stickers we affix to our vehicle's rear ends - believe ourselves to be perfectly decent, reasonably moral human beings. I say this with some authority because I, deep down, believe myself to be a perfectly decent, reasonably moral human being, so I figure everyone else must be just like me - always an awesomely valid assumption.
This is a problem because it leads to complacent, unchanged lives, arrogant judgmentalism, and tepid, purposeless evangelism, as I explain in minimal detail in my previous installment. These problems persist in spite of the language favored by us conservative evangelicals, which I would like to rip open and dissect for you now, because I just love you that much.
A lot of us Christians are perfectly happy to admit we're sinners. After all, we say, "Nobody's perfect!" We hope people will think we mean it like this:
When we actually mean it like this:
Us evangelicals are perfectly good at confessing that we're sinners in some broad, abstract, metaphysical sense. Sure, we're generally good people, but we've had some understandable slight foul-ups and maybe had a few technical difficulties along the way. The upshot is, among other things, that this makes the gospel narrative we claim to prize so highly seem faintly ridiculous:
Secular-type people have been quick to pick up on this. There's a certain hostile question I get from non-believers on a fairly regular basis:
It's an irritating question, and in the past, I would have just said, "Look. You have to accept that God is God and you're not," and that's true enough. But their question hits at a real problem - the nonsense at the core of a faith that's based on "saving us" from being slightly-less-than-perfect human beings.
So I'd like to argue that Christianity makes little sense unless we understand the following 2 major points:
(1) My behavior is extraordinarily, awesomely immoral - I chase after what God hates, and want what God wants very little, if at all. (2) God values me, loves me and forgives me in spite of Point 1 - even to the point of dying for me.
Accepting Point 1 forces me to admit my life has to change. Accepting Point 2 prevents me from peeling my face off with a fork in despair at Point 1. Not only is it hard to change my life when I think I'm fine the way I am, but Point 2 is really only meaningful if I understand Point 1 (otherwise God's love is a nice thing that I'm entitled to). Point 2 is easy for many of us (not all), but plenty of folks have trouble understanding Point 1, in spite of the fact that the Bible - especially the New Testament - is full of extremely horrifying passages vaporizing the foundations of our pride and self-justification.
One of the most horrifying is Jesus's famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Growing up, teachers often focused on the peace-and-love aspects of the Sermon on the Mount to the exclusion of everything else. The resulting image in my head was not unlike this:
Later, when I read the Sermon on the Mount for myself, I had a rather different reaction:
My next installment will go into excruciating detail on how the Sermon on the Mount accomplishes this flesh-eradicating feat. In the midst of the mercy, there's some scary, scary stuff. To actually take Jesus at his word requires looking at your own real guilt square in the face and owning up to it. I can tell you're already excited!